The Dark Night

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The phrase “The Dark Night” originates with a poem (see mystic poetry), written in the mid-16th century, by a monk named John of the Cross. John wrote 2 instructional texts for the monks in his charge based on this poem, and this pair of books has become a classic in contemplative and mystic literature. The 2 texts form a unit and are described by John as “An explanation of how to reach divine union quickly. It presents instruction and doctrine valuable for beginners and proficients alike that they may learn how to unburden themselves of all earthly things, avoid spiritual obstacles, and live in that complete nakedness and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union.”


The first text is entitled “The Ascent of Mount Carmel.” The second text is called “The Dark Night.” The Ascent of Mount Carmel covers part I of John’s teaching, and The Dark Night covers Part II. Both use the metaphor of a dark night to explain that the majority of a Christian’s journey is similar to traveling at night. John explains that walking in faith is similar to walking in the dark. For example, there are many things that cannot be understood by a person who is following God, and that in fact, God does not lead us by sight but by faith. Therefore, we learn to trust God even when we don’t understand Him or understand the way He is leading us.


For study purposes, John has divided this dark night into 4 components. First, he teaches that a person is changed on the journey with God in both active ways and passive ways. The active way is the way of choice. That is, a person chooses to follow God and uses the will to obey. The passive way is beyond the will and refers to the transformation that occurs in a person by the power of God. Second, John teaches that the “senses” and the “spirit” are both changed by both active and passive means. He uses the word “sense” to refer to the parts of a human that sense stimuli. Thus, sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch compose the “sensory” part of a person. The “spirit” refers to the inner non-sensory part of a person such as thought, will and emotions. It also refers to the inner part of a person that can “see” and “hear” God by His Spirit.


John ends up then defining 4 Dark nights which are covered in this encyclopedia by 4 separate entries: 1) The Active Dark Night of the Senses, 2) The Passive Dark Night of the Senses, 3The Active Dark Night of the Spiritand The Passive Dark Night of the Spirit