As described in the essay The Active Dark Night of the Senses, the first stage of active purification that John of the Cross describes in his book The Ascent of Mt. Carmel concerns the body. The second stage of active purification described by John concerns the non-material parts of a human. This is the Active Dark Night of the Spirit. He uses the word “active” to refer to the idea that the people wishing to make this journey have to use their will and be actively engaged in making choices that contribute to their own progress. He uses the phrase “dark night” because these choices help extinguish forms of previously cherished and relied upon thought and behavior and thus puts the travelers on a path that seems to them to be “dark”.
The non-material parts of a human that John identifies by the word “spirit” include, of course, the part of a human that interacts with God. He teaches though that our spirit is closely tied to 3 other non-material parts of us: Mind, Memory and Will. The mind, memory and will have been “disordered” by sin and must be purified.
The “mind” refers to all functions identified by terms such as intellect, reason, thought, logic, abstraction, understanding, etc. The “memory” included actual memories of past events as well as mental states composed of rearranged memories such as imagination, fantasy, dreams and hopes. The “will” includes all concepts related to choice, plans, intentions, determination, direction, goals and priorities. Furthermore, in all 3 of these main categories he describes related emotional states such as fear, anger, joy, sadness, etc without separating them out into their own non-material category. Lastly, it is important to realize that John lived in the 16th century and so his book does not contain the extensive psychological vocabulary so familiar to us today. So, for example, if he is describing a person who is overly concerned with their reputation and who is striving for status he would say they have a disordered will and he would not say they have poor self esteem and are insecure. He says instead that their will is polluted by pride and they need to renounce envy. Likewise if someone is resentful and dwelling on past offenses he would say they must actively purify their memory; they should practice “forgetfulness” and darken their memory in order to be able to move away from the past to the present moment; where God dwells.
One of the main goals of the active dark night of the spirit is to prepare the person to experience God directly. That is, by moving away from anything less than God the person opens themselves to see and hear God. So, for example, in the realm of the “mind” a person no longer spends all their time studying about God and gaining a mental understanding of God (or in modern terms a “head knowledge” of God) but instead gently moves the attention to God Himself. They no longer choose only God in the mind, they want to experience God directly. By quieting the mind of concepts and thoughts they open their spirit to His touch and voice. John uses phrases like moving the mind back from thought to “a loving gaze” or “a quiet reception of love”. See recollection. The idea is that any thought we can have of God is less than God Himself. So, for example, we move from the truth that the Holy Spirit is the comforter to actually feeling the comfort of God. (Please note that, as discussed in other essays such as doctrinal truth this “knowing by unknowing” described by John does not subvert orthodoxy or justify heresy based on “secret knowledge”).
When the above truths are applied to prayer the active dark night of the spirit is used as part of the movement from meditation to contemplation. That is, prayer focuses less on asking and understanding and more on hearing and communing. The object of prayer cannot be merely a representation of God as can be found in the mind or the memory. Instead the object of prayer must be found by faith only. So, for example, to sit quietly in silence and solitude and choose persistently to want only to love God will “darken” the mind, the imagination and the will. These faculties will rebel at such emptiness, and only faith tells the person praying that God is present and touching them. God may grant a strong sense of His presence and He may not. Usually the person in the active dark night of the spirit must persevere through dryness and trust that God is present. With time the faculties are silenced and perceptions of love and presence grow. “Particular knowledge” is silenced to allow “diffuse knowledge” to infuse the spirit. This diffuse knowledge is marked by beauty and peace and rest and consists of direct communion with God. God is at work accomplishing His will in the spirit as self will, compulsion, restlessness and unbelief are extinguished. Diffuse knowledge or direct experience with God has been variously described at times as consolations (comfort), a sense of timelessness referred to as the eternal now, as well as a sense transporting beauty and ecstasy.
For more on the move from meditation to contemplation see the essay entitled Meditation vs. Contemplation.
Even the progress accomplished by the active dark night of the spirit must in itself be purified by later stages in the journey. As described in the essay on the passive dark night of the spirit eventually a person is moved from “seeking the consolation of God to seeking the God of consolation”.
Finally, since the time that John wrote his books the historical moves of God found in the Protestant reformation and the subsequent Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic and Renewal movements requires a revision of John’s teaching. Sufficient for now is to point out that the “presence of God” refers to very similar experiences as John is describing.
For further discussion of similarities between Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic experiences and advanced monastic prayer experiences see The Pentecostal/Charismatic Teachings on the Holy Spirit and Fire.