Everybody's Got One
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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The three nights  

Today is the feast of Juan de la Cruz, the most subtle, profound, and accurate guide to the path of spiritual development that I know. And so, in homage, I'm going to explain why I think he's wrong (or at least in need of some updating).

The anthropology of Juan's time described a creature of two parts, body and soul, corpus et spiritus; sarx and pneuma. And so he spoke of a dark night of the senses, and of the soul, as stages on the way. But we think of ourselves as tripartite beings: body, mind, and spirit. And so we are likely to experience three nights, along our path (if we follow it to the end).

First comes the Dark Night of the Senses, when the things that give us physical pleasure are taken away, that we might learn simpler enjoyments. Food loses its taste, flowers their beauty, sunlight its warmth. Joy departs from our bodily life. We sleep too much. We gain weight, or lose it. Nothing holds our interest. The dawn comes with learning to value simple things, simply for themselves: water on a hot day, the soreness of muscles after physical exertion, wind rustling through the trees, the soft touch of a gentle hand. Morning comes, and day follows. The first night.

Then comes the Dark Night of the Sensibilities, when all your consolations are taken away, so that you can learn different ones. Every accomplishment turns to dust, every ideal seems hollow, every plan becomes pointless, every context seems too complex to unravel and too meaningless to bother. Justice, truth, beauty, love become wisps of smoke, nothing but words, devoid of substance or succor. Dawn is near when you find yourself doing the right thing anyway, knowing it won't make the slightest difference; when you help someone do a thing you know is meaningless. Morning comes, and day follows. The second night.

Finally comes the Dark Night of the Soul, when God removes himself from you, in all the ways you have learned to experience his presence, that you may learn other ways. Whatever participation in the divine you had, goes away. You don't hear his voice, or sense his presence, or see his hand in events, or understand his plans, or purposes. It feels as if you have been utterly abandoned. This isn't bad things happening to you or those you love, but it might be turning for solace or comfort or understanding of those bad things, and finding emptiness. You cry out in the darkness, and the only answer back is the echo of your own voice. You are completely, absolutely, totally, alone, transfixed to a cross not of your making.

I won't try to tell you what happens next.

Unfortunately, in our days, most spiritual direction is done by therapists, whose medical model is based on fixing dis-ease, regarding pain as a problem, not a signal or even a means. And so the night of the senses is often diagnosed as a form of depression, which it very much resembles, and treated with drugs that ease the symptoms, providing short-term relief at great long-term cost. The night of the sensibilities often resembles a mid-life crisis. The night of the soul – well, no one mistakes that. There might be a foreshadowing, a coming attraction, but when the real night comes, it blocks out the stars.

The problem is, if you never pass completely through the night, the light never comes. And if you don't have the right map, the journey is harder – assuming you ever venture to take it.
When a fresh log is first placed into a flame, all the poisons and impurities within come quickly to the surface, to be noisily consumed in hissing and sparks. Only when these are burnt away can the log begin to burn evenly and smoothly.
Exactly so. As Abba Joseph says, You can become completely fire, but it takes time, and extraordinary effort.

posted by Kelly | 3:25 PM link