THE ACTIVE DARK NIGHT OF THE SENSES
The active dark night of the senses is the term that John of The Cross uses to describe the first stage of purification that a person must take to reach union with God. The passive dark night of the senses is the second stage. The “sensory” part of a human is the concept John used to describe the more exterior parts of a person. That is, that part of us that directly encounters the material world around us. The first 2 stages of monastic growth then deals with the body. The “active” night of the senses and a “passive” night of the senses. The active night is the part that the person does through making choices, and the passive night is the part that God does in the person which goes beyond mere will power. So, we do our part in our search, and then God does His part. That is, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” It is called the dark night of the senses because in this early stage, it is sensory stimuli that are being “darkened.” The active dark night is the renunciation and mortification of the desire for sensory stimuli. Thus the aspirant who wants to find God must stop seeking pleasant experiences of the senses: vision, sound, taste, smell and touch (remember, John lived in the sixteenth century, so if you want to update the neuroscience here, please feel free). So, the journey begins with a surrender of desire for earthly things and a seeking of heavenly things. The person renounces sensory pleasure in order to gain God. So, for example, the person sits in silence and solitude of prayer and does not seek distracting sensory experiences. He eats simple foods, fasts as needed, seeks less conversation with people, pulls away from noise and crowds, and in general “looks” for God in a place of diminished activity. He seeks God and waits for Him to come to him in a place of solitude. It is important to realize that John’s active dark night of the senses is not the same thing as radical asceticism. That is, the person is told to renounce desire, not to avoid all pleasure. The difference is that asceticism teaches that enjoying sensory pleasure is evil, whereas John is teaching that the attachment to pleasure is the problem. With progress in this practice (and by using this new simplicity and freeing up of time) praying a person can learn to hear from God. Eventually a person will know if a given desire can ever be in accordance with God’s will or not. Sometimes just being willing to give something up is all that is needed. The test becomes this: does the person desire this particular thing more than he desires to do God’s will? Only when a person wants God’s will and approval more than he wants the competing desire will God allow the desire to be fulfilled. Only then is it safe to be granted that particular desire. For this reason John points out that even the most trivial and morally neutral desires can impede progress if they are not sincerely surrendered to the judgment of God. Consequently, the mere experience of pleasant sensory experience will not disqualify the person and they don’t have to avoid all pleasure for the rest of their life. They do, however, need to renounce any desire that competes with God or demands fulfillment, and they must want God more than they want anything else. They must believe that God wills any sensory pleasure they enjoy and that it is not just something they want on their own, apart from God’s permission.
So, the first stage is a transfer of time and effort away from the world and the body and towards a seeking of God and spiritual experience. This type of mortification of the senses has a protestant counterpart. Many pastors and missionaries end up living in relative poverty and deprivation as a result of their calling. They gladly exchange physical comfort for kingdom fruitfulness. The active dark night of the senses was likewise a calling to the dedicated Christian. In medieval times, a person who wanted to progress beyond the normal carnality, corruption and luke warmness of the state church almost always was drawn to the monastery and a life dedicated to seeking God. The idea that normal Christians today can benefit from such disciplines, without joining a monastery or becoming a missionary, is one of the main benefits that ancient ways bring to protestant theology and practice.
One issue needs to be clarified at this point. Many people who are initially exposed to teaching such as John’s active dark night of the senses mistakenly believe that he was teaching a works-oriented method of finding God. Many people believe that he had no idea of the new birth, or conversion, and that he was teaching that by works a person can find God. Actually, he starts his teaching with a long discussion of God seeking out a person, revealing Himself through Christ, and then drawing the person into monastic disciplines in order to advance the person in His kingdom. That is, a person has to find Jesus, be found by Jesus, prior to starting the dark night. Mere self-denial in a person who does not believe, or who does not yet have a relationship with Jesus, is not what John is teaching. John assumes that the people he is teaching already know God and love God. In fact, it is only those Christians who want to draw near to God, because they love Him that John is addressing. See John of the Cross on Faith.
In fact, the entire theological system that John calls “The Dark Night” rests on the fact that a person cannot progress far in monastic purification without drawing power from God; and both of the “passive” dark nights rely on God’s gifts and work.
Next we will concentrate on The Passive Dark Night of the Senses.