The “passive dark night of the senses” is one of the 4 stages of monastic growth discussed by John of the Cross (a 16th century Spanish Mystic) in his books.
When a person starts a monastic search for God they usually understand the importance of simplifying their life style. See The Active Dark Night of the Senses.
Now, after becoming proficient in simplifying their life they often face a new problem; one that they did not expect or choose. This second problem comes to them to show them faults they were unaware of, and hence is called a “passive night” since they did not actively choose it.
The “active” dark nights are voluntary, and the person makes choices that “darken” the senses or the spirit. The “passive” dark nights are internal events that occur by God’s choice.
In the monastic system that John lived in a person who had already come to faith in Christ would join the monastery out of a desire to advance in serving God. This person would begin with a desire to serve God in prayer and in the practice of spiritual disciplines. Such a person would take a vow of poverty, celibacy and obedience. These steps reflected the belief that to in order to avoid the influence of the world a person must renounce an attachment to wealth (and power), lust and spiritual independence. This are active steps, chosen by the person.
The beginner then began by trading normal life activities for a life of simplicity, prayer and service. John called this early stage the active dark night of the senses because the person actively chose to limit bodily (sensory) stimuli in favor of study, meditation, reflection and prayer for the world and the church. As a rule these beginners experienced energy and a joy in their choice. This pleasure stemmed from 3 main factors: 1)novelty, 2)a sense of accomplishment and of God’s approval and 3)a relief from guilt. They believed they were doing what God wanted and they felt His pleasure and enjoyed the work and the sacrifice. At the beginning the novelty of learning and growing predominated their feelings. The beginner felt they were making progress and that God was pleased with their effort. In fact they were making progress and God was pleased with their effort and rewarded their decision.
Eventually though things began to change. The path seemed to get more difficult and dryness, boredom, tedium, apathy and a withdrawing of the sense of God’s pleasure ensued. Often a person would double up on effort, greatly alarmed by these changes. They usually believed that they had done something wrong or in some way had left the path. John says that this is actually though the hand of God moving them forward. He calls this stage the passive dark night of the senses because the person is not really causing the change, God is. The person is actually passive with respect to this action of God. God is causing the change, teaches John, because He wants to advance them in the path; therefore He withdraws the pleasures in these activities that previously were felt.
John of the Cross teaches that there are two main reasons why God does this:
The first reason is the purification of imperfections found in nearly all beginners. He uses the classic “7 deadly sins” to outline these imperfections. These are: Pride, Greed, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. These 7 imperfections, John says, followed the beginner into the monastery and were not removed by the active choices of the person. Instead they became transformed into a spiritual variety of sin. For example, the beginner often felt proud of their progress and dedication. They usually became greedy for feeling God’s pleasure and lusted after further spiritual advancement. Commonly a beginner would feel superior to other people and crave recognition for their advancement. Often the practitioner resented recognition of others and resisted obscurity, preferring praise over humble hidden service. The test then becomes whether or not a person will persevere in dedication even if a sense of God’s pleasure is removed.
The second reason why God removes the reward and pleasure of study and prayer is that He wants to give them something better: Himself. John teaches that in order to have communion with God internally a person has to be made empty, spiritually naked, internally quiet and still. Thus the normal activities of learning, prayer and service have to give way to an inner experience of God’s presence. God withdraws Himself and removes the rewarding of activity in order present Himself internally in the person’s spirit.