St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was a Spanish mystic and Carmelite. After attempting to reform his Order to a more basic form of life, his fellow friars - feeling that his reform was not orthodox - beat him, and locked him in a small cell. Following his escape in August 1578, it was not long before St. John composed his well-known mystical poem, La Noche Oscura - The Dark Night. Though only eight stanzas, the poem is pregnant with relational meaning as the soul seeks union with the Beloved. But the poem has also been interpreted a different way. There are many who speak of going through a period of darkness, despair, or depression. Those in the New Thought or New Age movement, spiritual seekers and even those within Catholicism speak of this period as their “dark night of the soul.” For these individuals, this is another phrase for spiritual dryness or spiritual aridity, often seen as a period of backsliding or a crisis of faith. For example, when 19th century Carmelite St. Thérèse of Lisieux began having doubts about the afterlife, she spoke to her Sisters about going through a dark night.
The suggestion that is implicit in using this terminology to describe a period of crisis is that lapses in one’s faith are signposts of spiritual progress. But one would argue that St. John of the Cross was not discussing a crisis of faith - this notion would come more from existentialist Protestants, such as Soren Kierkegaard, instead of Catholic teaching. St. John would instead contend that lapses of faith move the individual away from God, not toward him. Yet this identification with spiritual aridity and the dark night continues. In more recent years, Mother Teresa wrote that she experienced spiritual aridity. With the help of her spiritual director, Mother Teresa came to view the darkness as the “spiritual side” of her ministry, and as a way of identifying with the suffering Christ:
“‘I have come to darkness,’ she wrote in one letter, ‘for I believe it is a part, a very, very small part, of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth’... Kathryn Spink, her official biographer, wonders how pervasive this ‘dark night’ was in Mother Teresa’s life. In a letter, Spink wrote: ‘One only had to be with Mother for a while to know that the joy... was not skin-deep... watch how she drew in stature following prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and see how she was visibly energized by being among the people in whom she consistently saw Christ was to realize she was being constantly confirmed in what God was doing through her.”
Thus, the identification of spiritual dryness or aridity and St. John’s dark night of the soul has continued. Moving forward, by exploring the pertinent areas of our saint’s life and by discussing the text of the poem itself, one would argue that we will come a deeper understanding of what was actually meant by the “dark night,” and see that the identification of spiritual aridity with the dark night is actually a fallacious move. Instead, the dark night of the soul has more to do with the purification and purgation of the spirit and of the senses, in which one can then find God. It is through the darkness that one can better recognize the light.
The Life of Juan de la Cruz
Born in 1542, Juan de Yepes y Alvarez was the child of a silk merchant, Gonzalo, and a poor woman, Catalina Alvarez. She was suspected of being of Moorish descent, and as a result, Gonzalo’s family disinherited him. At the age of two, St. John lost his father, and after moving to Medina del Campo, Catalina began raising her three sons on her own. Some of the struggles which the family encountered were formative for St. John’s later mystical theology. At the age of 20, he worked in the local hospital as an orderly, caring for those with contagious and venereal diseases, including syphilis. After befriending a Carmelite priest who was deeply impressed with St. John, the priest sponsored his time at the University of Salamanca, a Jesuit university, to study theology. The only stipulation that the priest had given him was that he must enter the Carmelite Order.
Upon entering the Order, he took the name John of St. Matthias, and only later took the name Juan de la Cruz - John of the Cross. In 1567, he was ordained a priest, but after five years as a priest, he started to become disillusioned by the Order, and saw the clear need for reforms. He considered leaving the Carmelites and joining the Carthusians to devote himself to seclusion and contemplation - but this changed when he met St. Teresa of Avila, another Spanish mystic. She was leading part of a reform movement within the Order - the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. At the time, St. Teresa was 52 and St. John was 25. Shortly after meeting her, St. John became St. Teresa’s confessor and spiritual director at her convent in Avila, Spain. However, since the Spanish Inquisition was focusing on those who sought spiritual change - largely as a result of the recent Protestant Reformation and the examples of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and others, St. Teresa was very cautious in her reforms.
Due to his close spiritual friendship with St. Teresa - often compared to St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi - St. John took up similar reforms within the Order. But in 1577, St. John’s attempts were noticed, and were not taken lightly. He was kidnapped and taken to a non-reformed monastery in Toledo. For the next nine months, St. John was kept in a cell that measured six by ten feet, once used as a toilet, aside from brief visits to the refectory, as the friars would bring him to be flogged during dinner. St. John lived in solitary confinement and was only fed a little bread and water. During the winter he was given no blankets or warm clothes, and during the summer, his rotting clothes hung to his withering body. When he was near death, St. John orchestrated an escape and returned to the convent - although his roles in leadership were removed from him by the non-reformed friars. St. John went on to write a number of important works - including The Dark Night.
St. John would write poems on small scraps of paper, and often, we see that many of his commentaries bear the same titles as his poems. Now, throughout their day-to-day lives, St. Teresa had the Sisters sing, and most of the time they sang St. John’s poetry. The Sisters loved his poems, but often asked him to explain the meaning of the stanzas. As a result, St. John wrote two commentaries on his poem, the Ascent to Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. On a related note, when St. John knew he was not going to see someone for a while, he quickly wrote down a phrase, maxim or aphorism he wanted them to contemplate until the next time he saw them. After his death, these sayings were gathered and collected into the Sayings of Light and Love, one of the most famous being, “In the evening of life, you will be examined in love.”
Now, concerning mystical experiences, it is worth noting that St. John was appalled at those he felt were distracted by voices, visions, prophecies and such, as he felt that they would never be able to move beyond these experiences and find union with the Beloved. However, St. John himself experienced these various mystical phenomena, as he attributes his escape plan to a voice in his visions. He also had a vision that showed him the image he proceeded to draw on his hand of the crucified Jesus hanging forward on a cross - from the point of view of the Father. This was a very different kind of depiction of the crucifixion up to this point in Christian artwork, but was later picked up in the artwork of Salvador Dali. Thus, although St. John seemingly frowned upon such mystical experiences, he also experienced them - and mentioned some of these at various places, such as his reference in the Ascent of Mount Carmel to the stigmata of St. Francis.
In 1591, St. John contracted a severe leg infection, and “dying before he even turned 50, this wonder of a man asked those around him on his deathbed to sing him his favorite song - the Song of Songs.” Despite the challenges he faced in life, his vindication came in 1726 when he was canonized as a saint and then again two hundred years later, in 1926, when he was declared one of the Doctors of the Church. In 1993, Pope John Paul II named St. John of the Cross the patron saint of Spanish poets and song writers, having written his doctoral dissertation on him.
The Dark Night
On a dark night,
Inflamed by love-longing -
O exquisite risk! -
Undetected I slip away.
My house, at last, grown still.
Secure in darkness,
I climbed the secret ladder in disguise -
O exquisite risk! -
Concealed by the darkness.
My house, at last, grown still.
That sweet night: a secret.
Nobody saw me;
I did not see a thing.
No other light, no other guide
Than the one burning in my heart.
This light led the way
More clearly than in the risen sun
To where he was waiting for me
- The one I knew so intimately -
In a place where no one could find us.
O night, that guided me!
O night, sweeter than sunrise!
O night, that joined lover with Beloved!
Lover transformed in Beloved!
Upon my blossoming breast,
Which I cultivated just for him,
He drifted into sleep,
And while I caressed him,
A cedar breeze touched the air.
Wind blew down from the tower,
Parting the locks of his hair.
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And all my senses were suspended.
I lost myself. Forgot myself.
I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.
Everything fell away and I left myself behind,
Abandoning my cares
Among the lilies, forgotten.
(Translated by Mirabai Starr)
Before examining the poem itself, it is pertinent to situate the poem within its own tradition and pick up on a few elements that are present within it. Beginning with the line, “On a dark night,” one is tempted to recall Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s opening to Canto I of his Inferno, “At the midpoint on the journey of life, I found myself in a dark forest, for the clear path was lost.” This common element of darkness is heavily present within the mystical tradition - in Dante, St. John of the Cross, and others. For St. John, this darkness arose largely out of his own experience. When writing the poem, he was recalling his imprisonment in the Carmelite monastery. John has now become Jonah, inside the belly of the fish. Being locked up - just as St. Francis of Assisi was centuries prior - in a small cell is very much like returning to the womb, a dark and cold environment where God grows the soul. It seems that God converted the most inactive time of St. John’s life into the most intense, experiential and moving period, making his theology deeply personal yet also detached.
St. John had coined the phrase “the dark night,” but was not the originator of the association between God and darkness. Theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Johannes Tauler, Jan van Ruysbroeck and others explored this relationship between God and darkness, inspired by a number of Scriptural passages. In Scripture, we read of the darkness enveloping the primeval earth at its creation (Genesis 1:2), as God created darkness (Isaiah 45:7). According to Psalms, in a poetic sense, God "dwells in thick darkness" and makes darkness "his covering.” God utilizes darkness just as God utilizes light - but though God uses darkness, he is not himself darkness - as 1st John 1:5 says that "in Him there is no darkness at all." Darkness provides rest for mankind, it serves as a covering, it is what God used in the temple to approach men due to his unapproachable light, it was what covered the land of Egypt during the ninth plague, it was how God approached Moses in at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19), and so forth. The association of God and darkness picked up by St. John of the Cross, therefore, has roots throughout Christian tradition.
But this is not the only element of tradition present in the poem. Consider the 14th century text, The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous Middle English work, which is seen as a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer. It suggests that the way to know God is to take God out of the box, to not limit God by our own understanding and surrender oneself to the realm of "unknowing." It draws on the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius and Christian Neo-Platonism, and prior to this, the theme of the Cloud had been in the Confessions of St. Augustine. This work inspired a number of mystics - including John Scotus Eriugena, St. John of the Cross and others. Consider the line at the end of Dark Night, “I lost myself. I forgot myself.” St. John declares in one of his commentaries on this poem that to truly “reach union with the wisdom of God, a person must advance by unknowing rather than by knowing.” The theme of unknowing was also later picked up by Thomas Merton, 20th century Trappist monk and writer, and others.
Merton is notable for a number of reasons, but he gave insight into the ideas and principles in the writings of St. John which speak of his doctrine of detachment from creatures to find mystical union. Although not specifically present in the poem, in St. John’s commentary, Ascent of Mount Carmel, the doctrine of detachment is “sometimes quoted word for word from Saint Thomas in the questions on beatitude. Practically the whole of The Ascent of Mount Carmel can be reduced to these pages of the Angelic Doctor.” This is significant, as we see St. John having attended a Jesuit university for his degree in theology, but also having a grasp on Dominican writings. Thus, he is not only working out of the Carmelite tradition, but also the Dominican and Jesuit traditions.
It can be seen that St. John draws upon a rich tradition of Christian mysticism and is working within a great depth of spiritual wisdom and spiritual seekers. Since Origen (AD 253), the Song of Songs has been a staple of Christian mysticism. Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great, William of Saint Thierry, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avila and others have used Song of Songs. St. John of the Cross also uses the Song of Songs, in keeping with his form of Bridal mysticism. Further, he cites Pseudo-Dionysius a handful of times in his writings, making reference to his Mystical Theology. This poem also fits within a long line of Christian poetry, which is also seen in the Eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas and later, of the Wesley brother’s hymns.
In the poem itself, St. John points to a link between human love and divine love, and uses the imagery of marriage and eroticism to express the mystical union between God and man. Carmelite scholar Keith Egan wrote of the poem:
“’Noche oscura has an unmistakable erotic story line, it tells the story of an intense loving encounter between a woman and a man. A young woman leaves her home in night’s darkness. She is filled with deep, loving desires. Though it was dark, she confidently, departs from her home by a secret ladder. Her heart, burning with desire, is a better guide to her lover than the light of the noonday sun. She finds her love waiting for her, a lover she knows ever well. The night which guides her more lovely than the light of dawn and unites her with her lover so she is changed, transformed into her lover. Her lover sleeps on her flowering her breasts which she keeps for him alone. A breeze makes it way from what she calls fanning cedars. In their embrace, she parts his hair and with his lovely hand he wounds her neck. This embraces leaves her oblivious to herself. She forgets about everything as she reclines in ecstasy on her lover leaving all else forgotten among the lilies.”
Eros here is essentially the capacity for desire, “movement to and attraction for the good and beautiful including sexual attraction but not limited to genital expression... [it is] a depiction of eros redeemed and is an example of the intimate connection between nature and grace, both of which point to glory.” It is clear that the Lover and the Beloved, the “characters”of this mystical and theological love poem, are inflamed by the passionate desire for one another. The soul is feminine - the Lover, and God is masculine - the Beloved. “In the Spanish language, the soul, el alma, is also feminine... the pronoun ‘she’ is used throughout the text to identify the spiritual self in love with God.” Consider the repeated lines in the poem: O exquisite risk! / My house, at last, grown still / O night... Each of these three lines speaks of a risk, a rest, and a renewal in the eve of the day. One can also see a number of themes - darkness, love, longing, desire, a journey, secrecy, a guiding light, forgetfulness, passion. Human love contains these various thematic elements, but even more so in the divine relationship. If the Trinity is a divine community of love, St. John seems to be saying, how much more so do we share in that community and communion? Union is implicit within the communion, and it is through this fulfillment of divine longing that the divine and human meet. It moves from communion to communing.
This is the idea that in the night of sense, the soul is stripped away of its perceptions of God, and in the night of spirit, all ideas of God are stripped away. In order to understand this stripping away of perceptions and ideas of God, we may turn to C.S. Lewis. In 1956, Anglican lay theologian C.S. Lewis married Helen Joy Davidman. After only four years of marriage Joy died of bonce cancer. Lewis was devastated, and proceeded to write a journal that later became published under the title of A Grief Observed in 1961. In it, Lewis notes that he is trying to keep himself from loving the idea of her - from only loving what he wanted to remember about her. When she was alive, she would be there to shatter the image he had created of her, whether he had mentally picked and chosen the good and positive things about her and only remembered that part of her - this is what he feared. He wanted to have her around to remind him of who she really was, and he hoped that he would never lose sight of that. In like manner, St. John is suggesting that we know God at birth, but we lose the true reality of God by building up perceptions and images. We have “lost” who God really is. Thus, to begin to come to a deeper understanding of who God is, one must go through the dark night.
The Greek philosopher Plato once said, “He whom love touches not walks in darkness.” Although divorced from its Greek context, for our purposes we may say that St. John’s “dark night of the soul” was still a labor of love from God to man as noted by Plato. Although the phrase later became associated with spiritual aridity and spiritual dryness, the phrase originally referred to the night of senses in which the spirit was purged of its perceptions in order to reach union with the Beloved. We have also seen that this association between God and darkness is not only found in the Biblical tradition, but also in other medieval mystics. Further, the presence of bridal mysticism and eros in the Dark Night demonstrate that St. John was intentionally conveying a message not of backsliding or of spiritual aridity, but of a deep love between God and man. Although one may use the phrase to refer to such as period of darkness, this was not St. John’s original meaning. In the end, then, it is not we, but St. John of the Cross who has the last word, “The Dark Night is the inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it of its ignorances and imperfections, natural and spiritual, which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation... Herein God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in perfection of love without its doing anything or understanding of what manner is that infused contemplation.”
Bodo, Murray. Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God. 1st ed. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007. 96.
Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. Mysticism: Holiness East and West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 215-216, 218, 296.
Egan, Keith. John of the Cross: A Mystic's Poetry. United States of America: University of Chicago, Lumen Christi Institute, 2013. Film.
Egan, Keith. "The Éros of the ‘Dark Night’." In Seeking the Seeker: Explorations in the Discipline of Spirituality: A Festschrift for Kees Waaijman on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, 302. 1st ed. Leuven: Peeters, 2008.
Ellsberg, Robert. "St. John of the Cross." In All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, 544. 1st ed. New York City, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.
Fanning, Steven. "Spanish Mystics of the Golden Age." In Mystics of the Christian Tradition, 149-158. New York City: Routledge, 2001.
Hsia, R. Po-Chia. "New Religious Orders for Men." In The Cambridge History of Christianity: Reform and Expansion 1500-1660, 176-177. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Kavanaugh O.C.D., Kieran, and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D. "The Living Flame of Love by St. John of the Cross." In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. 2nd ed. Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979.
King, Ursula. Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages. Mahwah, New Jersey: HiddenSpring, 2001. 153-157.
Larkin, O.C.D., Ernest E. "Spiritual Poverty: The Message of John of the Cross." Emmanuel: The Magazine of Eucharistic Spirituality 90, no. 10 (1984): 575-80.
Martin, S.J., James. "A Saint's Dark Night." New York Times, August 29, 2007. Print.
Martin, S.J., James. "Share This Joy With All You Meet: Mother Teresa." In My Life with the Saints, 173. 1st ed. Chicago, Illinois: Loyola Press, 2006.
Merton, Thomas. The Ascent to Truth. 1st ed. New York City, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951. 329.
Peers, E. Allison. Ascent of Mount Carmel: A Masterpiece in the Literature of Mysticism by St. John of the Cross. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Image Books, 1958.
Schrock, Daniel P. The Dark Night: A Gift of God. 1st ed. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2009. 45.
Starr, Mirabai. Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross. 1st ed. New York City, New York: Riverhead Books, 2002. 4.
 The poem has variously been called Dark Night of the Soul or Dark Night. Part of the confusion arises due to his commentary on the poem bearing a similar title, but Keith Egan holds that the phrase “of the soul” is actually a later insertion by a copyist, and not actually St. John’s words. Instead, it was simply “noche oscura,” no “of the soul” (Egan, Keith. John of the Cross: A Mystic's Poetry. United States of America: University of Chicago, Lumen Christi Institute, 2013. Film.).
 Martin, S.J., James. "A Saint's Dark Night." New York Times, August 29, 2007.
 Martin, S.J., James. "Share This Joy With All You Meet: Mother Teresa." In My Life with the Saints, 173. 1st ed. Chicago, Illinois: Loyola Press, 2006.
 Fanning, Steven. "Spanish Mystics of the Golden Age." In Mystics of the Christian Tradition, 149-158. New York City: Routledge, 2001.
 Larkin, O.C.D., Ernest E. "Spiritual Poverty: The Message of John of the Cross." Emmanuel: The Magazine of Eucharistic Spirituality 90, no. 10 (1984): 575.
 Starr, Mirabai. Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross. 1st Ed. ed. New York City, New York: Riverhead Books, 2002. 4.
 Starr, Dark Night, 4.
 Ellsberg, Robert. "St. John of the Cross." In All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, 544. 1st ed. New York City, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.
 Fanning , “Spanish Mystics”, 150.
 Merton, Thomas. The Ascent to Truth. 1st ed. New York City, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951. 329.
 The name Discalced Carmelites comes from the sandals its members wore instead of the shoes worn by the unreformed Calced Carmelites. Sandals became a symbol, but the new branch of Carmelites insisted on many other austere features of the original rule approved by Innocent IV in 1247” (Cambridge History of Christianity: Reform and Expansion 1500-1660; 176-177).
 Ellsberg, All Saints, 545.
 Starr, Dark Night, 5.
 Bodo, Murray. Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God. 1st ed. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007. 96.
 Starr, Dark Night, 5.
 King, Ursula. Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages. Mahwah, New Jersey: HiddenSpring, 2001. 153-157.
 Egan, A Mystic’s Poetry.
 Fanning, “Spanish Mystics,” 155.
 Egan, A Mystic’s Poetry.
 Fanning, “Spanish Mystics”, 156.
 Egan, Keith. "The Éros of the ‘Dark Night’." In Seeking the Seeker: Explorations in the Discipline of Spirituality: A Festschrift for Kees Waaijman on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, 302. 1st ed. Leuven: Peeters, 2008.
 Schrock, Daniel P. The Dark Night: A Gift of God. 1st ed. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2009. 45.
 Often seen as a polemic against the Egyptian sun god, Ra.
 Confessions IX.10.
 Ascent of Mount Carmel I.4.5.
 Merton, Ascent to Truth, 132.
 There are a number of images and words that appear be derived from the Song of Songs: “loving embrace, nighttime journey in search of the beloved, sense of mystery, burning desires, darkness to light, a loving hand, breast, hair, gentle hand, cool breeze, tower/turret, cedar tree, wound of love, lilies, union of lovers” (Egan, “Eros”, 314).
 Egan, “Eros”, 307.
 Ibid, 304-305.
 Ibid, 301.
 Starr, Dark Night, xx.
 The Symposium, chapter seven.
 Dark Night of the Soul, Book 2.5. (Derived from Peers, E. Allison. Ascent of Mount Carmel: A Masterpiece in the Literature of Mysticism by St. John of the Cross. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Image Books, 1958.)