By way of review it is important here to summarize the earlier essays.
First, John of the Cross presents a summary of what he observed both in himself and in the monks under his directorship. As such he gives a model for the normal course of progress in the monastic tradition. He is quick to point out that even though he is presenting this journey as stages following a sequence that in fact there is a great deal of variation and overlap in the 4 “dark nights” he describes.
Second, he says that to help us in our understanding a person can be thought of as being purified in both the “senses” and the “spirit”. By senses he means the more exterior parts of a person and by spirit he means the more interior parts of a person. Here too though there is really a great deal of overlap. For example, in order to purify the sensory part it is necessary for the person to restrict sensory input, such as appetite for food, desire for luxurious and visually pleasing surroundings, frequent conversations with other people as an unnecessary distraction, etc. That is, people must simplify their life and transfer time from normal sensory input in order to spend time seeking God. However, the monastic must also learn to transfer inward time from thinking, imagination, understanding, and planning to the direct experience of God in prayer as a way of purifying the spirit. That is, moving from meditation to contemplation contributes to the purification of the spirit. So then, for example, if a person avoids frequent superficial conversation with people in order to purify the senses he/she must also, in order to purify the spirit, avoid using the memory and the mind to dwell internally on actual previous conversations or on subsequent imaginary conversations.
Third, even after the monastic has done his/her best to actively purify the outward and inward parts he/she will still need the work of God to finish the job. This work of God is done by Him directly and under His will, so as far as the person is concerned this is a passive work. Thus John identifies 2 passive dark nights, one of the senses and one of the spirit.
Thus there are 4 dark nights, the active dark night of the senses, the active dark night of the spirit, the passive dark night of the senses and the topic of this essay: the passive dark night of the spirit.
Fourth, these stages are all called “dark nights” but there is some difference between the darkness of the active nights and the darkness of the passive nights. The active nights are called dark nights because when a person denies natural desires, whether sensory or spiritual then these parts of the person are “darkened”. Thus, people will miss certain sights, sounds, tastes, activities, bodily comforts, etc, when they simplify their lives and spend time in relative sensory deprivation. Likewise the mind and will initially rebel when a person actively moves the attention away from thought, imagination and planning and turns the attention to God directly. In each case the person initially feels a certain dryness, pain and discomfort as they exercise the will against their normal outward and inward activities. Nevertheless, with time and practice people who engage in these disciplines eventually begin to feel a pleasure, approval, joy and peace through their efforts. For example, they may feel stronger, more spiritual and more in touch with God. They may sense His approval and pleasure in their spiritual progress. The may have visitations, consolations, locutions, touches, infusions of light, etc. Thus the active nights are not all pain and dryness, and not all “dark” in the sense of being a trial. In the passive nights the person experiences a more intense and consistent sense of trial and adversity. Even here though John teaches that there is a cycle between negative painful times and positive pleasant times. In general though there is more positive sense of progress, victory, success and approval in the active nights than in the passive nights. The reason for this is that in the passive nights (and least for the majority of the time) God withdraws pleasant feelings and a sense of approval and lets the person see their inability, weaknesses, impurities, mixed motives, smallness and helplessness. He does this to purify them. For example, in the active dark night of the senses people may eventually feel very good about themselves, their progress and God’s approval. When, subsequently God thwarts their efforts and makes it difficult to practice the disciplines they feel like a failure and suffer the realization that they are not really as strong and pure as they thought. Thus in the passive dark night of the senses God removes his grace and consolations to show people how weak they are in themselves. This causes, among other things, humility and a realization that they have been acting proud and feeling superior to others.
The last stage in the purification process is the passive dark night of the spirit. John teaches that this stage is the most difficult and painful of all the stages. He also says that in his experience only a few people will go through this process. He explains that not all people get to this point or are willing to endure this sort of testing. Many are called, but few are chosen. The path is narrow.
This passive dark night of the spirit is characterized by a sense of uncleanness, wretchedness, disqualification, hopelessness, rejection, affliction, being hated, God’s indignation, misery and poverty. These experiences carry with them a sense of permanence. That is, the feeling is that the case is infinitely hopeless, beyond remedy and impossible to change. Furthermore, unlike the passive dark night of the senses, where the person feels a sense of guilt and comes to see where they have failed and been deceived, in the passive dark night of the spirit the feeling is one of inherent hopeless disqualification, not caused by neglect, the deceitfulness of sin or blindness but instead is caused merely by being human.
John explains that this feeling results from contact with God. He says that as a bright light can hurt the eyes so the transcendent glory and infinite purity and power of God, when impressed in the person, causes the opposite feeling to arise from within. He also uses the analogy of a log on a fire. At first it becomes blackened, but as the fire penetrates the log it looses its impurity (everything contrary to fire) and becomes light and fire itself. Likewise, the person being purified by the fire of contemplation must go through a purification of everything contrary to God in order to gain union with the divine.
John gives many examples from the Bible to illustrate this process. Here is one example from Jeremiah (Lamentations Chapter 3): “I am the man who sees my poverty in the rod of His indignation. He has led me and brought me into darkness and not into light. He has turned and turned again His hand against me all the day. He has made my skin and my flesh old; He has broken my bones. He has built a fence around me; and He has surrounded me with gall and labor. He has set me in darkness, as those who are dead forever. He has made a fence around me and against me that I might not go out; He has made my fetters heavy. And also when I might have cried out and entreated, He has shut out my prayer. He has closed up my exits and ways with square stones; He has destroyed my paths. He is become to me like a bear lying in wait, as a lion in hiding. He has turned aside my paths, and broken me in pieces; He has made me desolate. He has bent His bow and set me as a mark for His arrows. He has shot into my reins the daughters of his quiver. I have become derision to all the people and laughter and scorn for them all the day. He has filled me with bitterness; He has inebriated me with absinthe. One by one He has broken my teeth; He has fed me with ashes. My soul is far removed from peace. I have forgotten good things. And I said: My end, my aim and my hope from the Lord is frustrated and finished. Remember my poverty and my distress, the absinthe and the gall. I shall be mindful and remember, and my soul will languish within me in afflictions”.
It is important to realize that even though the person feels these dark feelings he/she still knows deep in the heart of faith that they are not true. The person perseveres in faith and endures these experiences because they know already that God loves them and approves of them in Christ. Their mind knows one thing, but their spirit feels another. It is also important to realize that these dark experiences are temporary. This is not a permanent state, but merely a purification to remove all self will and desire for less than God. The same process that causes the dark feelings also bring the person eventually to union. As John says: “Insofar as infused contemplation is loving wisdom of God, it produces two principal effects in the soul: it prepares the soul for the union with God through love by both purging and illuminating it. Hence the same loving wisdom that purges and illuminates the blessed spirits purges and illumines the soul here on earth”. It is also important to realize that these feelings, as terrible they seem at the time, are actually carefully measured out and limited by God. He does not test us beyond which we can endure. As John says: “How amazing and pitiful it is that the soul be so utterly weak and impure that the hand of God, though light and gentle, should feel so heavy and contrary. For the hand of God does not press down or weigh upon the soul, but only touches it; and this mercifully, for God’s aim is to grant it favors and not chastise it”. Lastly it is important to realize that this passive dark night is not one long episode of darkness. There is a cycle of relief, where God brings back His presence to encourage the soul and strengthen faith and persistence. The process is not over in one event but is a stepwise progress into union. Eventually though the darkness ends and the person can now abide in light and closeness to God. The person can see God, can experience the transcendent glory and purity of God and not feel pain. As it says in Corinthians Chapter 13: “Love suffers long, does not envy, does not seek its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in evil but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails”. This describes the state of union, the goal of the dark night journey.
Further writings of John of the Cross can be found in the series beginning with Hidden Sins in Religious Persons.