The soul walks this path to reach that sublime and joyous union with God.
The poem, The Dark Night, is an evocative eight stanza account of contemplative prayer.
Like all John’s work, The Dark Night presumes two things. It presumes the yearning for freedom and self awareness.
The Dark Night presumes we have recognized the need to escape the experience of a self. The human “I” being like a tiny bubble on the ocean of being that has become so wholly self-consumed it is now oblivious to the reality of its true being, the great ocean. How do we escape the clutches of this self obsession? This is where St John steps in with The Dark Night.
The poem is accompanied by a fairly extensive commentary, The Dark Night of the Ascent of Mt Carmel. The Dark Night and Ascent of Mt Carmel are generally published as two separate works, however, they are incomplete without each other. The part of the commentary published as The Dark Night accompanies the first three stanzas of the poem.
The first stanza of the poem accompanied by some extracts from the commentary is presented here. The complete poem is posted with the blogs.
So dark the night! At rest
and hushed my house, I went with no one knowing
upon a lover’s quest
— Ah, the sheer grace! – so blest,
my eager heart with love aflame and glowing.
In this first stanza, the soul is speaking of the way it followed in its departure from love of self and of all things through a method of true denudation, which causes it to die to itself and to all things and to begin the delightful life of love in God.
The soul states that it was able to make this escape because of the vigour and warmth gained from the condition of general loving knowledge in this obscure contemplation. It emphasizes the intense happiness it possessed in journeying to God through this dark night, for that night of purifying contemplation lulled to sleep and deadened all the inordinate movements of the passions and appetites in the house of sense.
This dark night is an inflow of God into the soul, which purges it of its habitual ignorances and imperfections, natural and spiritual, and which the contemplatives call infused contemplation.
Insofar as infused contemplation is loving wisdom of God, it produces two principle effects in the soul: it prepares the soul for the union with God through love by both purging and illumining it. (II, 5:1)
This was great happiness and a sheer grace for me, because through the annihilation and calming of my faculties, passions, appetites and affections, by which my experience and satisfaction in God was base, I went from my human operation and way of acting to God’s operation and way of acting. That is:
My intellect departed from itself, changing from human and natural to divine. For, united to God through this purgation, it no longer understands by means of its natural vigour and light, but by means of the divine wisdom to which it is united.
And my will departed from itself and became divine. United with the divine love, it no longer loves in a lowly manner, with its natural strength, but with the strength and purity of the Holy Spirit; and thus the will does not operate humanly in relation to God.
And the memory, too, was changed into presentiments of eternal glory. And finally, all the strength and affections of the soul, by means of this night and purgation of the old man, are renewed with divine qualities and delights. (II, 4:2)
Accordingly, God makes the soul die to all that He is not, so that when it is stripped and flayed of its old skin, He may clothe it anew. Its youth is renewed like the eagle’s, clothed in the new man which is created according to God. This renovation is: an illumination of the human intellect with supernatural light so that it becomes divine, united with the divine; an informing of the will with love of God so that it is no longer less than divine and loves in no other way than divinely, united and made one with the divine will and love; and also a divine conversion of the memory, the affections, and the appetites according to God. And thus this soul will be a soul of heaven, heavenly and more divine than human.
As we have gradually seen, God accomplishes all this work in the soul by illumining it and firing it divinely with love’s urgent longings. (II, 13:11)
Oh what a sheer grace it is for the soul to be freed from the house of its senses! This fortune, in my opinion, can only be understood by the person who has savoured it. For then a person will become clearly aware of the wretched servitude and the many miseries he suffered when he was subject to the activity of his faculties and appetites. He will understand how the life of the spirit is true freedom and wealth. (II, 14:3)
The second stanza of the poem and extracts from the commentary are posted here.
In darkness, hid from sight
I went by secret ladder safe and sure
– – Ah, grace of sheer delight! – –
so softly veiled by night,
hushed now my house, in darkness and secure.
The soul in its song continues to recount some of the properties of the darkness of this night and mentions again the happiness resulting from them.
In this night the soul subtly escapes from its enemies, who were always opposed to its departure.
The soul is particularly secure in this night because its appetites, affections, passions, etc. were put to sleep, mortified, and deadened. These are the members of the household that when awake and alive would not consent to this departure.
As a result the soul asserts that in darkness it walks securely.
In the measure that the soul walks in darkness and emptiness in its natural operations, it walks securely. As the prophet says, the soul’s perdition comes only from itself.
Oh, then, spiritual soul, when you see your appetites darkened, your inclinations dry, your faculties incapacitated, do not be afflicted; think of this as a grace, since God is freeing you from yourself.
Indeed, the soul is getting lost from what it knew and tasted, and going by a way in which it neither knows nor tastes.
Another more basic reason the soul walks securely in darkness is that this light, or obscure wisdom, so absorbs and engulfs the soul in the dark night of contemplation and brings it so near God that it is protected and freed from all that is not God.
The spiritual light is so bright and so transcendent that it blinds and darkens the natural intellect as this latter approaches it.
It should be known that in this verse the soul calls dark contemplation a secret ladder.
It is called secret not only because of one’s inability to understand but also because of the effects it produces in the soul.
Since the wisdom of this contemplation is the language of God to the soul, of Pure Spirit to pure spirit, all that is less than spirit, such as the sensory, fails to perceive it. Consequently this wisdom is secret to the senses; they have neither the knowledge nor the ability to speak of it, nor do they even desire to do so because it is beyond words.
Not for this reason alone do we call mystical wisdom secret but also because it has the characteristic of hiding the soul within itself. This mystical wisdom occasionally so engulfs souls in its secret abyss that they have the keen awareness of being brought into a place far removed from every creature. They accordingly feel that they have been led into a remarkably deep and vast wilderness unattainable by any human creature, into an immense, unbounded desert, the more delightful, savorous, and loving, the deeper, vaster and more solitary it is. They are conscious of being so much more hidden, the more they are elevated above every temporal creature.
Souls are so elevated and exalted by this abyss of wisdom, which leads them into the heart of the science of love.
The second characteristic has yet to be discussed, that is how this secret wisdom is also a ladder. It should be known that there are many reasons for calling this secret wisdom a ladder.
We declare that the principal property involved in calling contemplation a ladder is its being a science of love, which as we said is an infused loving knowledge that both illumines and enamours the soul, elevating it step by step to God. For it is only love that unites and joins the soul to God.
The soul in its song exclaims In darkness hid from sight since God dwells substantially in the soul and these are divine touches of the loving substance of God in the substance of the soul.
A person in this way becomes wholly spiritual, and in these hiding places of unitive contemplation, and by their means, the passions and spiritual appetites are to a great degree eliminated: hushed now my house, in darkness and secure.
John’s commentary to The Dark Night ends with this, the third stanza.
Hidden in that glad night,
Regarding nothing as I stole away,
No-one to see my flight,
No other guide or light
Save one that in my heart burned bright as day.
In this glad contemplative night, God conducts the soul by so solitary and secret a contemplation, one so remote and alien to all sense, that nothing pertinent to the senses, nor any touch of creature, can reach or detain it on the route leading to union with God.
The second property of this night has as its cause the spiritual darkness of this night in which all the faculties of the higher part of the soul are in obscurity. In neither looking nor being able to look at anything, the soul is not detained in its journey to God by anything outside of Him, for in its advance it is free of hindrance from the forms and figures of the natural apprehensions, which are those that usually prevent it from union with the eternal being of God.
The third property is that, although the soul in its progress has not the support of any particular interior light of the intellect or of any other exterior guide that may give it satisfaction on this lofty path – since these dense darknesses have deprived it of all satisfaction – love alone is what guides and moves it and makes it soar to God in an unknown way along the road of solitude.
- The Dark Night by St John of the Cross
Commentary translated by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, ICS Publications.
Poem translated by Marjorie Flowers.