📖Dark Night of the Soul

St. John of the Cross

On the spiritual path to God, people experience two “dark nights” (dark night of senses and dark night of spirit).

The first purgation or night is bitter and terrible to sense […]. The second bears not comparison with it, for it is horrible and awful to the spirit […].

The nights are very similar to depression but are spiritual in nature (some call them spiritual depression) and result in purgation of spiritual imperfections (re: Spiritual Materialism).

Dark night of senses is arid and empty of sensory sweetness, so the person cannot derive any pleasure from spiritual works or any other thing.

God now sees that they have grown a little, and are becoming string enough to lay aside their swaddling clothes and be taken from the gentle breast; so He sets them down from His arms and teaches them to walk on their own feet; which they feel to be very strange, for everything seems to be going wrong with them.

During this time, God is working on their spirit (which they cannot experience) so the senses remains dry.


On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me—
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh,  night  that  joined  Beloved  with  lover,
Lover  transformed  in  the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

Book the first: of the dark night of the senses


  • dark night of the senses
  • dark night of the spirit

“The first purgation or night is bitter and terrible to sense, as we shall now show. The second bears not comparison with it, for it is horrible and awful to the spirit, as we shall show presently.”

Spiritual imperfections:

  • spiritual pride:

    • taking pride in their spiritual practice, deriving satisfaction with themselves and their works
    • desire (in vain) to speak of spiritual practice in the presence of others, or desire to teach such things (rather than learn them)
    • the devil creates a fervour and desire to perform these works more frequently so that their pride can may grow even greater. For these persons, the work is not only valueless, but even becomes vices.
    • sometimes they are anxious that others should recognize how spiritual and devout they are
  • spiritual avarice (greed):

    • dissatisfied with spirituality that God gives them. they do not find the desired consolation in spiritual things
    • many can never have enough of listening to spiritual teachers, learning spiritual concepts, possessing and reading many books, and spending time on these rather than works of mortification and perfecting the inward property of spirit. they burden themselves with images and glossaries (which are very curious), constantly switching from one to another
  • spiritual luxury:

    • “in their very spiritual exercises, when they are powerless to prevent it, there arise and assert themselves in the sensual part of the soul impure acts and motions, and sometimes this happens even when the spirit is deep in prayer, or engaged in the Sacrament of Penance or in the Eucharist.”
    • These things are not in their power; they proceed from one of three causes:

      1. when spirit (higher part) is moved to pleasure, the sensual nature (lower part) is moved to the pleasure as well (because it cannot do otherwise). and it therefore lay hold upon that which comes nearest to itself, which is the impure and sensual
      2. the devil, who stirs up the motions of impurity at times of prayer to disturb the soul. For through fear of these, person becomes lax in prayer (which is the aim of the devil), but some give prayer altogether, because they think these things attack them the most in prayer.
      3. the fear which such persons have conceived for these representation and motions. Something that they see or say or think brings them to their mind, and this makes them afraid, so that they suffer from them through no fault of their own
  • spiritual wrath:

    • “when they delight and pleasure in spiritual things come to an end, they naturally become embittered, and bear that lack of sweetness which they have to suffer with a bad grace, which affects all they do; and they very easily become irritated over the smallest matter”
    • “This frequently happens after they have been very pleasantly recollected in prayer according to sense; when their pleasure and delight therein come to an end, their nature is naturally vexed and disappointed, just as is the child when they take it from the breast of which it was enjoying the sweetness.”
    • this is not a sin but only imperfection, which must be purged by the aridity and severity of the dark night.
    • another kind of spiritual wrath: become irritated at the sins of others, and keep watch on those others with a sort of uneasy zeal. At times, there is an impulse to reprove them angrily and set themselves as masters of virtue
    • displaying the impatience (they would like to be saints in a day). Purpose to accomplish a great deal and make big resolutions
  • spiritual gluttony:

    • lured by spiritual sweetness that they find in exercises into striving more after spiritual sweetness than after spiritual purity and discretion. this gluttony makes them go to extremes (penances, fasts)
    • “Inasmuch as all extremes are vicious, and as in behaving thus such persons are working their own will, they grow in vice rather than in virtue”
    • “These persons have the same defect as regards the practice of prayer, for they think that all the business of prayer consists in experiencing sensible pleasure and devotion and they strive to obtain this by great effort, wearying and fatiguing their faculties and their heads; and when they have not found this pleasure they become greatly discouraged, thinking that they have accomplished nothing.”
    • “These persons who are thus inclined to such pleasures have another very great imperfection, which is that they are very weak and remiss in journeying upon the hard road of the Cross; for the soul that is given to sweetness naturally has its face set against all self-denial, which is devoid of sweetness.”
  • spiritual envy and sloth:

    • (sloth) beginners are apt to flee from things that are most spiritual because they are incompatible with sensible pleasure (for they are accustomed to sweetness in spiritual things)

When they are going about these spiritual exercises with the greatest delight and pleasure, and when they believe that the sun of Divine favour is shining most brightly upon them, God turns all this light of their into darkness, and shuts against them the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which they were tasting in God whensoever and for as long as they desired. […] For, as I have said, God now sees that they have grown a little, and are becoming string enough to lay aside their swaddling clothes and be taken from the gentle breast; so He sets them down from His arms and teaches them to walk on their own feet; which they feel to be very strange, for everything seems to be going wrong with them.

Signs of the dark night of senses (ch. ix):

  1. No pleasure or consolation in the things of God and in any thing created.
  2. The memory is ordinarily centered upon God, thinking that it is not serving God, but is backsliding, because it finds itself without sweetness in the things of God.

    When the cause is aridity, it is true that the sensual part of the soul has fallen low, and is weak and feeble in its actions, by reason of the little pleasure which it finds in them; but the spirit, on the other hand, is ready and strong.

    […] and ordinarily, together with the aridity and emptiness which it causes in the senses, it gives the soul an inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness, without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so.

  3. The soul can no longer meditate or reflect in the imaginative sphere of sense as it used to, however much it would try.

    For this night of aridities is not usually continuous in their senses. At times they have these aridities; at others they have them not. At times they cannot meditate; at others they can.

How to conduct themselves in this dark night (ch. x–xi):

  • meditation → contemplation
  • take comfort, persevere in patience, and be in no wise afflicted
  • do not devote themselves to reasoning or meditation, but allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness
  • it might seem that you are doing nothing and you are wasting your time, but you are not
  • p.34

    For the more a soul endeavous to find support in affection and knowledge, the more will it feel the lack of these, which cannot now be supplied to it upon that road.

Benefits of the dark night of senses:

  • the knowledge of oneself and of one’s misery
  • “the knowledge of the greatness and excellence of God”
  • habitual remembrance and thought of God
  • practice of the virtues
  • “often, in the midst of these times of aridity and hardship, God communicates to the soul, when it is least expecting it, the purest spiritual sweetness and love, together with spiritual knowledge which is sometimes very delicate, each manifestation of which is of greater benefit and worth that those which the soul enjoyed aforetime”

Book the second: of the dark night of the spirit


Want to receive my 🖋 posts as I publish them?