The Dark Night of the Soul

You may have heard of St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul,” but do you know how to endure it? Using the writings of St. John of the Cross, Dr. Edward Sri explains how to turn to God when you don’t feel his presence.

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“Be content with just a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God”

St. John of the Cross

What Is the Dark Night of the Soul?

The Dark Night of the Soul, an experience described by St. John of the Cross, seems daunting and scary—certainly something to try and avoid. However, the Dark Night isn’t an absence of God, but a unification with him. It’s an experience of God drawing so close to your heart that it’s uncomfortable. 

God is a self-giving God who created us for the sole purpose of sharing his love with us. He desires to be close to us and to give us his heart, which St. John describes as the “loving inflow of God.” He wants to fill our hearts with pure love. What’s the problem, then? Why is it so uncomfortable? It’s uncomfortable because we often don’t have room in our hearts for that much love. We fill our hearts with so many other things that when God comes to pour his heart into ours, it’s too full. 

How Do We Empty Our Hearts for God?

When God enters our hearts, what will he see? Money, power, success, material items, social status? How can we prepare our hearts for his self-giving love? 

The truth is, as much as we may try, we cannot be purified on our own.

“There are so many wounds, weaknesses, and attachments we have that are so deep in us. Only God can break those down. No matter how much individuals do through their own efforts, they cannot actively purify themselves enough to be disposed for the least degree, divine union of perfect love. God has to take over and purge them in a fire that’s dark for them.”

St. John of the Cross

The Dark Night of the Soul allows God to enter our hearts and purify them, so that we are able to receive his love. It allows us to learn how to rely on a deeper level of prayer, and a deeper level of love. We are stripped of the surface emotions and comforts of our faith, revealing its true foundations.

“They are through pure dryness and interior darkness, God weens them from the breast of these gratifications and delights. And he takes away all these childish ways… eventually God is going to have to take over… God weens the soul from the sweet breast, that it might be strengthened. And God puts the child down from his arms, that it may grow accustomed to walking by itself. This change is a surprise to them, because everything seems to be functioning in reverse.” 

St. John of the Cross

3 Signs of the Dark Night of the Soul

While it’s normal to go through periods of trial and dryness in prayer from time to time, the experience of a Dark Night of the Soul is much more serious. St. John lists three signs of someone entering the Dark Night of the Soul. 

  1. You can’t find satisfaction or delight in anything
    • Work, school, friendships, relationships, the sacraments, future plans and dreams: nothing brings you happiness
  2. You are filled with a great concern that you’re not serving God
    • “Am I being faithful? Am I doing something wrong?”
  3. You are unable to do any type of meditative prayer
    • Lectio Divina, Ignatian meditation, reflecting on Scripture or the life of Christ: no matter how hard you try, you’re not getting anything out of mediation

When all three of these signs are present, it’s valid to conclude that you are experiencing this process of purification, but if only one or two signs are present, something else may be taking place. 

What Should We Do if We Find Ourselves in a Dark Night?

St. John has some tips on what to do if you meet the three criteria above for a Dark Night of the Soul:

  1. Resist the temptation to run away from the darkness.
    • Souls often panic from the lack of comfort and delight that the faith used to give them, and they try to go back to how things used to be. 
    • God is inviting you to something new: take the leap of faith, and be present to him
  2. Persevere in prayer, but in a more receptive way.
    • You may face a temptation to stop praying because it’s hard, but it’s essential to keep praying. Be open to praying in a new way, even if that’s just sitting in the silence of God
  3. Don’t try to stir up feelings.
    • St. John of the Cross – “Live without the concern, without the effort, without the desire to taste or feel him. All these desires disquiet the soul, and will distract it from the peaceful, quiet, and sweet idleness of the contemplation that is being communicated to it.”

St. John’s Image of Light and Fire

When God draws close to us, it’s often associated with pain, discomfort, and darkness. However, St. John of the Cross equates it to light and fire. He explains how, when we try and look at the sun, we are blinded by the power of the light and can’t see the way we’re used to seeing. In the Dark Night of the Soul, something similar happens: God draws so close to us that we can’t see what’s happening in our lives and we can’t see him, leaving us to walk by faith. 

Fire can be cozy, warm, and comforting, but can also burn you. When our hearts are full and we’re clinging to too much, God’s fire isn’t joyful, it’s inflictive, burning the attachments that are blocking his way into our hearts. 

During this time God wants to know, “Will you follow me still?”


1 Comment

  1. Outstanding synopsis on the dark night. Thank you very much for writing this. It was very helpful for me during this time.


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