John of the Cross, translated by Mirabai Starr
It's common today to hear people say that they're going through a dark night of the soul. As is often the case, many people know the title of John of the Cross's classic without having read a word of it. This new translation should invite people into a book that spells out, in sparkling clear language and structure, certain phases in the spiritual life and the meaning of painful periods of setback and disillusionment.
We all have our ups and downs. At the end of struggles people sometimes claim that they have gone through an ordeal and have come out happy on the other side. One senses a degree of pride in the accomplishment. But I'm not convinced that these victories signal the kind of darkness John describes so carefully. Many spiritual guides warn that we can play tricks on ourselves, bolstering a fragile ego with the thought that we have triumphed in a major rite of passage. The difference lies in the congratulatory attitude: "Look at me-I've succumbed and survived."
Certain challenges have the potential of initiating a person into a new level of experience, but not all painful transitions qualify as a dark night of the soul. It's tempting to bless a difficult period with the awesome phrase, allowing an escape from what is truly a spiritual crisis. Often what we think is the great challenge of a lifetime is only a decoy disguising the real place of transformation. A person may be faced with a difficult marriage and deal with it by escaping into the rigors of a spiritual practice. The dark night, a source of profound change in character, may be at home, while the focus of attention is at the ashram or church.
John of the Cross clearly places the dark night of the soul in the spiritual life, but, from my point of view, spirit and soul need not be separated. Spiritual processes are usually at work beneath and beyond the psychological ones. I don't want to separate these two dimensions, saying that the dark night happens during meditation, while the deep soul is undergoing its changes in ordinary life. But if that is so, how do we distinguish between depression, say, and the dark night John describes?
The key is to distinguish between the ego and the soul. The ego, of course, is the subjective world of the self, the concern of modern psychology and self-help books. Psychology helps us adjust to a difficult world, deal with passions and emotions, and clear the personality for what it might call good functioning. The soul is vast in comparison and full of mysteries. It ranges from the high mysticism of contemplation and vision to deep struggles with meaning and connection.
As I see it, John of the Cross is speaking of mysterious developments in the vast realm of the soul, which includes the psychological. He considers the emotions in relation to spiritual developments. We tend to see difficult feelings as a form of illness, which we hope to conquer, cure, and expel. He has a far greater imagination of human life: his goal is not health but union with the divine.
Here we run into trouble: Do you have to be a Christian to benefit from John's guidance? Do you have to believe in God? On both counts I would say no. Everyone has a spiritual life, even those whose ultimate concern has been deflected into money, sex, drink, or success. John's analysis applies to the human condition, not to a class of believers. On the question of God, to appreciate John's insights it would help to have a subtle idea of the divine. Without dissolving God into vague notions of a supreme power or the Force being with you, it's possible to allow a sense of the infinite and the unknowable in an intelligent philosophy of life. Such an appreciation of the divine might allow us to read this as a book about transcendence, not merely psychological development.
Do you have to be deeply involved in a spiritual practice to experience John's dark night of the soul? I think we're all called to be mystics and that the ladder of emotions John describes may be part of anyone's life. The culture in which we live, for all its religions and spiritual movements, is not inherently religious and so convinces most people that the meaning of life is financial and psychological. But in the very heart of a career decision, a painful divorce, or the memory of abuse lie questions of meaning and value. In those emotional crucibles spiritual issues are being forged. If we had the imagination for it, we would see that every day we are dealing with our spiritual processes. If we could see deeply enough into ordinary life, we might understand what John is writing about.
While I wouldn't equate the dark night with depression, I do think our depressive moods could be imagined spiritually rather than only psychologically. John might help us see that what we call depression is a kind of initiation rather than just an emotional problem. Usually we use the word "depression" for its clinical overtones, suggesting that it is a concern of health and that it can be treated. With John of the Cross in mind, we might imagine the same experience as a crossroads in our effort to make a meaningful life and to achieve a sense of union with the life coursing through us.
Depression has its physical, emotional, and psychological dimensions and is tied in with our background, personality, and experiences. It has its chemical and genetic base. But it is also spiritual and potentially valuable in making a meaningful life. John distinguishes between the dark night of the senses and that of the higher soul. He accounts for both, the deep soul and the high spirit, and he offers a sophisticated map through the full range of this darkness.
Maybe John is right in saying that only a few reach the high levels of this process, but I would still argue that everyone, no matter how confused and ill-situated in life, can have at least modest mystical experiences. They may be as simple as the beautiful stillness that settles at the sight of a sunset or a brief period of wonder at the birth of a child. Mysticism doesn't have to be a life profession. Further, I think that much of our depression, anxiety, and addiction has to do with what John writes about: the soul's need and longing for transcendence. This need is instinctual and unavoidable.
Being engaged in a process of spiritual refinement, the kind John and other mystics chart with close attention to detail, has everything to do with how we feel and how well we deal with life. Spirit and soul are distinct but inseparable. I hope this classic text will help reintroduce the spiritual into our everyday lives. Without it we lack the vision to deal with our personal and social problems effectively and make sense out of a mysterious and challenging existence.
All my life I have wanted to be a translator, partly because I enjoy working with words, but also because I find bad translations an unnecessary obstacle to some of the world's great literature. And so, I am grateful for Mirabai Starr's fluid, inviting translation of this important text. Her translation allows me to adapt John's words to my life with an immediacy I've never felt before in relation to this work. With this marvelous English version in hand, and with the idea that the book speaks about our daily, if hidden, attempts at transcendence, readers might discover their spiritual calling here and make the all-important shift from curing the personality to caring for the soul.
MY FRIENDSHIP WITH THE SAINT
When I first encountered the sixteenth-century mystic John of the Cross, he was introduced to me as Spain's favorite poet and most confusing theologian. I loved him immediately. "I've never had a student who really got John of the Cross," my venerable old professor of Spanish literature, Sabine Ulibarri, remarked. He shook his head sadly, cocking one eye toward me. What could he mean by that? Here was a man who for decades had been teaching a vibrant classic text overflowing with mystical devotion telling me his students didn't respond. There must be a trick, I mused. I feel like I see John clearly. It's like he's speaking directly to me, using my own code of paradox and formlessness.
I took Ulibarri's sly comment as a personal challenge, enrolled in graduate school in philosophy, and began my master's studies on Dark Night of the Soul. Not only did John's message continue to grow clearer, but I developed an irresistible urge to someday compose a new translation of this mystical masterpiece. I wanted to contribute to making Dark Night accessible not only to religious scholars and devout Catholics but to every spiritual seeker who finds her own inner life drying up and dropping into darkness. The temptation to try my hand at rendering a fresh version of Dark Night grew stronger as I began to assign the classic translations of the text in the college humanities courses I taught.
In the blank wall of my students' faces, I could see the same resistance my old professor had lamented years earlier. I had to work hard to awaken their excitement for this work that meant so much to me. It's not that the two existing English translations were inadequate; on the contrary. Their authors, E. Allison Peers, and Kieran Kavanaugh with Otilio Rodriguez, created eminent renditions of the sacred prose. Yet their unwavering faithfulness to literal accuracy and their identification with the Church yielded somewhat ponderous and slow-moving treatises, preserving much of the obscurity of the Renaissance original. While precise, they are not especially readable.
For years, I held this inspiration in silence. I was busy trying to work out my own practice, parent my children, teach college, and write fiction. The translation project felt like a personal indulgence I was compelled to resist.
Though I resonate strongly with the medieval mystics and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I am not a Catholic. I was born into a nonreligious Jewish family that seemed to unconsciously identify itself with that post-Holocaust generation that had given up on God in the wake of the unspeakable atrocities of Nazi Germany. I spent my teens and twenties in ashrams chanting to Hindu goddesses, watching my breath in Buddhist zendos and stupas, prostrating to Allah with the Sufis, and purifying myself in Native American sweat lodges. But eventually, the juice drained out of my spiritual practices and the fireworks faded. By the time I reached my thirties, nothing remained but a quiet connection to emptiness.
Out of that core of stillness, the seed planted long ago by John germinated and pushed up toward the light. I could resist no longer and embarked upon what has become not only a project of literary translation but a journey of personal transformation as well. I see now that any notion of engaging with such powerful teachings without surrendering myself to them is naive. The deeper I stepped into the landscape of the text, the more powerful was the inexplicable sadness to which I woke each morning, and yet the more profound the stillness that seemed to spread itself inside me. I had to question myself carefully: Who was I to speak for this enlightened being and assign myself as his personal editor? All I could do was surrender to the muse of darkness and keep showing up with my dictionary.
Many of the Baroque overtones in this translation have been removed in hopes of highlighting the essential melodic themes. John is a Christian mystic known for using only the lightest of touches when it comes to direct Christian references. These have been minimized still further, not out of disrespect for Christianity-far from it-but because I felt that this way the universality of his wisdom would shine through even more brightly and touch a greater number of souls who walk a path of suffering, no matter what their religious tradition. In the language of Christian mysticism, the soul is feminine, lover, and God is masculine, Beloved. In the Spanish language, the soul, el alma, is also feminine. Regardless of the physical gender of the seeker we are talking about, the pronoun "she" is used throughout the text to identify the spiritual self in love with God; this is a linguistic convention I chose to preserve.
My own spiritual journey began with a passionate longing for God and has led me through the gardens and fires of each of the world's religious traditions, where I followed and was often disappointed by a host of teachers. The expression of my devotion has moved inward now. Sometimes I wonder if this simple emptiness is enough. Lacking the trappings of ceremony and even words, is it truly a spiritual path anymore? This is not always a comfortable state. And yet it is one that I am certain I share with a vast circle of Western seekers. There is a scattered tribe of souls who started out on their journey long ago with all that same fire and find themselves now back in the world but definitely not of it, wondering if any of it is real-interpersonal relationships, stewardship of the environment, divine union in love with God-and their wondering causes a profound and nameless ache in their hearts.
These are the companions of the spirit I held in my heart as I composed this translation of Dark Night of the Soul.
SAYING "YES" TO GOD
Say when you were very young the veil lifted just enough for you to glimpse the underlying Real behind it and then dropped again. Maybe it never recurred, but you could not forget. And this discovery became the prime mover of the rest of your life, in ways you may not have even noticed.
Say you have explored a multitude of spiritual paths. Maybe you have been the embodiment of devotion within each. You perform more austere austerities. Your attention to liturgy is so pointed that you become sacred language. You meditate into the small of the night. Your breath grows so gentle that it can scarcely be detected.
Say these practices fill your heart. They make you feel holiness like wind through every fiber of your being and think rivers of holy thoughts. You recognize the communities they bring you to as your own lost tribe. You get very good at being a Sufi or a Taoist, a contemplative Christian or a yogini. The passion of your love for God intensifies.
Say that while each of the world's great spiritual traditions may hint at that vastness you have longed for, none of them returns you to its threshold. Each of your chosen paths is about something, when all you've ever meant to choose is nothing. Simply because this is where you first saw God: in the emptiness.
Say prayer starts to dry up on your tongue. Sacred literature becomes fallen leaves, blows away. Meditation brings no serenity anymore. Devotion grows brittle, cracks. The God you bow down to no longer draws you.
Say you bow down anyway. You repeat your mantra along the line of your prayer beads, continue chanting the divine names, melodious. You reread the scriptures, go to mass. You find satisfaction in none of these, yet you persevere. Why not? The things of the world are no competition. You long ago lost interest in material gain, in social status, in interpersonal drama. This wretched limbo lasts for years.
Say each of the familiar spiritual rooms you go to seeking refuge are dark now, and empty. You sit down anyway. You take off your clothes at the door and enter naked. All agendas have fallen away. You grow so still in your nondoing that you forget for a moment that you are or that maybe God is not. This quietude deepens in proportion to your surrender.
Say what's secretly going on is that the Beloved is loving you back. That your first glimpse of the Absolute was God's first great gift to you. That your years of revelation inside his many vessels was his second gift, wherein, like a mother, he was holding you, like a child, close to his breast, tenderly feeding you. And that this darkness of the soul you have come upon and cannot seem to come out of is his final and greatest gift to you.
Because it is only in this vast emptiness that he can enter, as your Beloved, and fill you. Where the darkness is nothing but unutterable radiance.
Say he knows you are ready to receive him and to be annihilated in love.
Can you say YES to that?
A LIFE OF FIRE
On his deathbed at the age of forty-nine, as the Last Rites were being administered and the appropriate sacred texts recited, John of the Cross interrupted. "Please," he begged his friends, "read to me from the Song of Songs." It is the passion of the lover longing for union with the Beloved, expressed so lyrically in the Songs of Solomon, that characterizes John's entire spiritual journey. It was the ultimate transfiguration of self in God for which John had been waiting all his life and to which he endeavored to gently guide all the souls in his care. To achieve that sweetest of goals, John had walked through unspeakable darkness.
John of the Cross was born John de Yepes y Alvarez in 1542, in the small town of Fontiveros, Spain. Haunted by abject poverty, his family wandered from place to place seeking their livelihood. As an adolescent, John found work at a hospital where people with syphilis came to die. John tended these patients with the depth of compassion that imbued all his relationships from then on. During this time, John was befriended by a Carmelite priest who, deeply impressed by the young man's fine mind and gentle spirit, arranged for him to be sponsored to study theology at the famous University of Salamanca. This required that John join the Carmelite Order. Inexorably drawn to a spiritual path, John enthusiastically agreed.
But monastic life was disappointing. The purity of prayer he craved was obscured by the blind adherence to the ritual and dogma of the institutionalized Church. Disillusioned by the trappings and yearning for direct experience, the young priest seriously considered dropping out of the Order and going into seclusion, where he could devote himself to undistracted contemplation of the divine.
But then the paths of John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila crossed. The flame that she was recognized the flame that he was and the resulting conflagration quietly changed the world.
On a practical level, the dynamic fifty-two-year-old nun was busy trying to reform the Carmelite Order. When she first encountered the twenty-five-year-old priest, Teresa immediately recognized in him a profound quality of sanctity coupled with clear vision. Here was a man yearning for the same life of simple contemplation that she was struggling to win back, a devout Carmelite disillusioned by an institution that had lost its holy inspiration. Teresa named John confessor to the nuns in her first reformed convent. Their mutual admiration grew to adoration, and they spent the rest of their lives in passionate spiritual partnership. The mystical poetry of the twelfth-century Sufi saint, Jalaluddin Rumi, reflects a similar connection: the dervish Shams'i'Tabriz was Rumi's living spiritual inspiration.
Teresa's movement became known as the Discalced Carmelite Order, meaning the "Barefoot Carmelites." The monks and nuns took off their shoes and put on rough sandals in honor of the stark simplicity to which they were striving to return. While King Philip of Spain fully supported the reform, officials in Rome were antagonistic. John paid for his participation in this effort. In 1577, at the age of thirty-five, he was captured by a group of friars committed to upholding the traditions of the established Church. He was taken to Toledo where he was interrogated and tortured. They tried to force him into denouncing the reform, but he refused. And so he was imprisoned in a tiny dark closet that had previously served as a toilet. He was brought out only to be flogged in the center of the dining commons while the monks ate their dinner.
John himself suffered virtual starvation. That first winter, he endured brutal cold and was offered neither cloak nor blanket. In the summer, the heat was stifling and his clothes began to rot on his body. At first he took comfort in his quiet interior connection to God, but over time the divine presence began to fade and John could not help but wonder if his Beloved had abandoned him. He was Jonah languishing inside the belly of the whale.
In the depths of his despair, John composed passionate love poems to God. Since he had no access to writing materials, he committed them to memory. Finally, a Carmelite brother assigned to guard the prisoner, who basked daily in the saint's serene yet passionate presence, secretly procured a scroll, a quill, and some ink, allowing John to surreptitiously scribble his verses in the darkness. Although his creative flow saved his sanity, it could not save his life. Convinced after nine months that if he endured another moment of incarceration he would die, John tied knots in scraps of cloth and slipped through a tiny window at the upper edge of his cell. He lowered himself down the long wall of the monastery and into the safety of the night. He found shelter in a nearby convent of Teresa's nuns, where he crept through the gate, leaned his head against the archway of the chapel, and wept as the sisters recited the Angelus.
After his miraculous escape from prison, John fell into a state of profound ecstasy. He had traveled through perfect darkness and emerged to find the living God waiting for him in the depths of his own heart. The communion between lover and Beloved yielded a permanent transformation in the God-intoxicated man. At the height of this mystical state, John composed the poem "Songs of the Soul: One Dark Night." Later, he described it as "an outpouring of love for God," which he was powerless to resist. Like the Songs of Solomon, John's verses sang of the passion of longing and the ecstasy of secret union with the Beloved-a union that could take place only after the soul had made her escape from the confines of her old house through the wilderness of the darkest night.
Although the poem is a metaphor for the spiritual journey, it reads more like sublime erotica than acceptable theology. And so John's Discalced Brethren gently prevailed upon him to write a commentary on his mystical verses. This gave rise to the brilliant spiritual treatise known as Dark Night of the Soul.
For the next two decades John dedicated himself to the necessary evil of administrating the reform, which spread all over Spain, and to the sweet simplicity of guiding the spiritual lives of his Barefoot Sons and Daughters. He continued to compose love poems to God and to write theological commentaries on them. Drawn to alleviate suffering wherever he encountered it, John was known for his gentle kindness and childlike playfulness. Although the doctrine of the dark night is harsh and uncompromising, the priest, it seems, could not bear to see anybody sad or sick. He was as likely to gather the monks for a hike up into the Andalucian hills to contemplate their God under the open night sky as to call them to the confessional.
As the years unfolded, John grew less and less at home in the world. His silent raptures would last for hours. He was continuously struggling to call himself back down to the business at hand while all his soul wanted was to float upwards in loving contemplation of the divine. Conversations with Teresa would begin with passionate declarations of the greatness of God and end in rapt silence in which both of them became transfixed by the glory they had been extolling.
Toward the end of the saint's life, envies and disquietudes within the reform itself led to a secret effort to remove him from the sphere of influence. John was about to be sent to the New World-a mission to which he willingly consented-when an old leg wound, suffered in prison two decades earlier, became suddenly infected and spread to his back. His Superior insisted that he receive medical attention and gave him two options: to seek care in the convent of Baeza where the nuns adored him, or to travel to the monastery of Ubeda where no one knew him.
True to his humble nature, John chose Ubeda. The Prior there, a bitter man who had heard stories of the sick priest's lifelong sanctity, took an immediate disliking to him. He savagely neglected John's care, complaining of the costs the patient exacted from his operating budget. John's condition grew worse. When John felt that his death was approaching, he called the Prior to him so that he could apologize for all the trouble he had caused. Struck by the dying saint's radiance, the Prior was overcome by remorse. He, in turn, begged forgiveness of John and the heart-opening he experienced that day irrevocably changed him.
That night, John's closest Discalced Brethren found their way to his side and gathered around him in a circle of love. Filled with the poetry of divine love, he died whispering the words of the Psalmist: "Into your hands, Beloved, I commend my spirit."
Forty years after his death, the first complete edition of John's writings was published. Ninety-five years later, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that John of the Cross was officially named patron of Spanish poets. Unlike his beloved friend and mentor, St. Teresa of Avila, John was not a charismatic character. In fact, his lifetime was characterized by a series of excruciating misunderstandings. His small stature and quiet nature rendered him nearly invisible; if it weren't for Teresa's constant efforts to draw attention to his spiritual mastery, he may well have died in simple obscurity.
John's passion was reflected in his writing. Yet, the same poetry that brought comfort and inspiration to the monks and nuns in his care drew the dangerous attention of the Inquistion, which eventually destroyed him. From the tightrope of renegade spirituality, John might just as easily have tumbled into persecution for heresy as canonization for sainthood.
Even now, John is little known outside of Spain or beyond the confines of academic and theological studies. Many people toss around the term "dark night of the soul" in reference to a period of personal pain arising from a bad divorce or a career catastrophe. Few people are familiar with John as the articulator of a brilliant and penetrating teaching on love and emptiness.
"I AM NOTHING"
In a Western world busy recovering from a legacy of shame and blame, John's continual declaration that "I am nothing" (and the implicit suggestion that we, too, are nothing) may set off alarms. But these would be false alarms. The radical humility John speaks of has little to do with the pathology of self-deprecation. It is a state of blessedness, where we let go of identification with the small, separate self so that we can rest in our togetherness with the Beloved. To be truly humble is to feel a tender acceptance of all reality just as it is, which includes compassion for ourselves just as we are. This kind of humility is a surrender of our whole being to the simple truth of love.
In the dark night, says John, the secret essence of the soul that knows the truth is calling out to God: Beloved, you pray, please remind me again and again that I am nothing. Strip me of the consolations of my complacent spirituality. Plunge me into the darkness where I cannot rely on any of my old tricks for maintaining my separation. Let me give up on trying to convince myself that my own spiritual deeds are bound to be pleasing to you. Take all my juicy spiritual feelings, Beloved, and dry them up, and then please light them on fire. Take my lofty spiritual concepts and plunge them into darkness, and then burn them. Let me only love you, Beloved. Let me quietly and with unutterable simplicity just love you.
This humility is not fatalism. It is active and impassioned. John would likely distrust some of today's self-proclaimed spiritual teachers who make a living preaching a path of comfort and ease, who declare themselves perfected beings, who make of enlightenment a commodity accessible to the privileged, who adopt spirituality as a style, who claim that there is some pot of gold to be collected at the end of the rainbow. The true teachers are often the invisible ones.
The dark night is not an abstract notion on some list of spiritual experiences every seeker is supposed to have. The dark night descends on a soul only when everything else has failed. When you are no longer the best meditator in the class because your meditation produces absolutely nothing. When prayer evaporates on your tongue and you have nothing left to say to God. When you are not even tempted to return to a life of worldly pleasure because the world has proven empty and yet taking another step through the void of the spiritual life feels futile because you are no good at it and it seems that God has given up on you, anyway.
This, says John, is the beginning of blessedness. This is the choiceless choice when the soul can do nothing but surrender. Because even if you cannot sense a shred of the Beloved's love for you, even if you can scarcely conjure up your old passion for him, it has become perfectly clear that you are incapable of doing anything on your own to remedy your spiritual brokenness. All efforts to purge your unspiritual inclinations have only honed the laser of attention on the false self. Unwilling to keep struggling, the soul finds itself surrendering to its deepest inner wound and breathing in the stillness there.
"The central paradox of the spiritual path," says Tim Farrington, author of Hell of Mercy, "is that in striving to transcend the self, we actually build it up. Our holy solutions invariably calcify into grotesque casts of ego. The dark night is God's solution to our solutions, dissolving our best-laid constructions anew into the mystery of grace. It happens in spite of our best efforts to resist it. But thank God it happens."
The only action left to the soul, ultimately, is to put down its self-importance and cultivate a simple loving attention toward the Beloved. That's when the Beloved takes over and all our holy intentions vaporize. That's when the soul, says John, is infused passively with his love. Though his radiance is imperceptible to the faculty of the senses and invisible to the faculty of the intellect, the soul that has allowed itself to be empty can at last be filled and overflow with him.
Humility, then, is not a matter of beating ourselves up. It is not a question of judging ourselves as stupid or sinful, as hopeless and bad. Who are we to judge these things? Humility, for John, is the gentle acceptance of that most tender place inside ourselves that throbs with the pain of separation from the Beloved. It is that deep knowingness that identification with the false self brings nothing but further separation. It is an initially reluctant dropping down into the emptiness and an ultimate experience of peace when we stop doing and rediscover simple being. It is the Sabbath of the soul when we heed the call to cease creating and remember that we are created.
The emptiness of the dark night is a yielding emptiness. It is an emptiness that gives way to the fullness of all possibility, which manifests as limitless diversity, which circles back to emptiness. It is the impossible-to-translate sunyata of Buddhism. It is the living substratum of all reality. It is rooted in quiet.
"God spoke only one word for all eternity and he spoke it in silence," says John, "and it is in eternal silence that we hear it." Plunged at some point into the darkness of the spiritual journey, where all preconceptions of holiness are obliterated, we have nowhere to go but into the silence where the divine reality secretly reveals itself to a consciousness cleared of the ongoing chatter of the false self. What the Buddhists call the "monkey mind" eventually settles down so that sacred truth can speak itself.
This is where contemplative practice bears fruit. The contemplatives show us that by learning to be in stillness, we can access "the divine word spoken in silence," the secret word that sets up the vibration from which all creation issues. By sitting quietly with the breath, the blessed "no-self" begins to emerge.
In an article on Carmelite prayer, Fr. Iain Matthew says that contemplation "commits a person to complete confidence and trust in the love of God who is continually breaking into our lives. The contemplative stance is an openness to that love and the demands it makes on us to change. To be a contemplative is to be a watch in the night for the approach of Mystery. And it is a readiness to be transformed in an engagement with that Mystery."
Fr. Thomas Keating, known for the practice of "centering prayer," says that when John talks about being nothing, what he means is that by relinquishing any fixed point of reference for the false self, we can let down into an ever-deepening identification with God. Far from reflecting the shame of our own unworthiness, this detachment from our individuality allows us to see that having been created in the image of God is to be perfectly beautiful and perfectly good. In contemplative stillness, attachment to our own limitations begins to fall away so that we can participate in the unspoken holiness that gives rise to all that is.
If all your spiritual activities have grown empty and you are compelled to walk away, says John, tie yourself to one practice only: contemplative silence. Abandon discursive prayer if it has become mechanical and meaningless. Let go of holy images if they no longer evoke the sacred. Refrain from spiritual discourse if it tastes like idle gossip in your mouth. But do not turn away from the silence.
It's tempting to give up the spiritual journey when the darkness falls. It's easy to get bogged down by cynicism and cease reaching out for the Beloved. But contemplative practice, Fr. Keating points out, keeps us alert to the movements of the false self and makes a small space for us to hear the invitation to enter into the ultimate reality, which is nothing other than God's love for us. "This whole thing is God's idea!" Fr. Keating exclaims. John would agree.
This is a path of annihilation of the ego. But we must first be brought home to ourselves before we can bear to see our nothingness before God. It is not an optimal journey for the seeker whose selfhood has been so badly wounded and diminished that the only sensible course is one of healing and building up a strong ego. It is not an appropriate teaching for those who suffer from a chronic need for affirmation. It is less for those who are struggling to find themselves than it is for the ones who have a clear sense of self and are ready to purify it. Radical humility, John teaches, is not a malady requiring a cure but the blessing of the "yes" that rises from the very core of the soul in love with God.
And yet neither is the dark night reserved for some spiritual elite whose personalities are so strong and intact that they can afford to blithely cast them into the flames of union. Someone who is broken, says Fr. Matthew, who has struggled all his life with some intense deficiency, may have a uniquely powerful relationship with God. Fr. Matthew suggests that these teachings can throw out a lifeline to all who suffer. This is a path for those who use their suffering as a tool for transformation. In the dark night of each soul, we are simultaneously annihilated and immeasurably strengthened.
SAYING "NO" TO GOD
Fr. Matthew describes evil as the saying of an absolute "no" to God. Sin, then, would be any act that engages the "no." Perhaps hell, then, is the consequence of the "no" in the life of the soul trapped in denial of God. And the devil might simply be that aspect of our selves that most stubbornly refuses God.
In this translation, all references to evil, sin, hell, and the devil, as states and entities, have been replaced with terms that reflect a false sense of separation from God. If the divine is truly divine and ultimate reality truly ultimate, then there is nothing but God. Where John spoke of El Diablo, the term "fragmented self" has been chosen to describe that shadow side of our own being so lost in the illusion of separation from the Beloved that all it can do is rebel against merging. The terms "Spirit of Evil" and the "Fallen One" evoke the perils that result from this delusion.
Islam means "the peace that comes with utter surrender to God." The primary declaration of Muslims is "There is no God but God." The first part of this prayer is negation: there is no God. But it is only out of this absolute emptiness that the affirmation of truth can rise: but God. The fragmented self John calls El Diablo can be seen as that aspect of our being that has become disoriented by the negation and has lost the thread of the affirmation.
It is the fragmented self that is terrified of annihilation. And with good reason. Its suspicion is well-founded that if it were to allow the soul to follow through with its intentions and attain union with the Beloved, the result would be its own death. The soul cannot enter into the fusion of divine love with its shadow clinging to its skirt. It must strip itself of identification with the small self and step naked into the garden where the Beloved is waiting.
The closer the soul approaches on its journey home to God, the more ferocious is the resistance of the fragmented self. Divine union is about wholeness, and the fragmented self does not want to be made whole. But because only God is real, the "no" ultimately disappears in the radiance of divine love like a broken heart that heals the instant the dreamer wakes in the night to feel the arms of her true love holding her close, just as he has always held her.
THE JOURNEY OF LOVE
The road to the divine encounter is not for the weekend adventurer. It will quickly disappoint the spiritually curious. If you crave ecstatic visions and spiritual comforts, do not bother to walk this way. The dark night of the soul is for the seeker so on fire with love for God that she will get to him by any means necessary. This includes being willing to plunge into the abyss of the Unknown, of the Unknowable. It is a path for the spiritually desperate. And yet it is a state over which the soul has absolutely no control.
Before the soul even begins this journey, she will already have suffered acute disillusionment with the world. Plagued by an unquenchable thirst for the sacred, she has lost interest in material security and social recognition. She has dedicated herself to the cultivation of spiritual practice. Her only hope is that by blowing on the coals of intuition of the divine with the breath of prayer, it will burst into flames and reveal the Beloved. But the spiritual life turns out to be not at all what she thought it would be. The radiance she anticipated looks exactly like impenetrable darkness.
John describes this darkness as being of two kinds, which correspond to the two aspects of the human soul: the sensory and the spiritual. And so there are two successive nights: the night of sense and the night of spirit. In the night of sense, the soul is stripped of all perceptions of God. In the night of spirit, all ideas of God fall away.
Early in her spiritual life, the soul could not help but wallow like a happy baby in the juicy feelings evoked by spiritual practices. In the night of sense, these juices dry up and the soul is left baffled and bereft. This, John assures us, is a good thing. It means that God sees that we have grown strong enough to endure a light burden of aridity. He has removed us from the spiritual breast and set us down on our own tender feet.
Many souls lose faith at this point. They conclude that they must not be suited to the spiritual life and they give up. They have mistaken a state of purity for an impoverished one. Yet there is no question of returning their energies to the world, which has lost any allure. And so they engage halfheartedly in spiritual practice, resigned to aridity, coming to some small peace with emptiness.
Every once in a while, the tree of prayer, which had been long dormant, bursts into blossom and the seeker feels momentarily connected to the divine sweetness he has always craved. Maybe someone he loves is dying, and he slips into the hospital chapel to call out for God. Or a sunset or a kiss or a sleeping infant may rend a hole in the curtain of illusion, and he glimpses the perfect beauty of the Grand Design behind it all. The winds of sensory purgation soon blow back through, however, and the garden is again laid bare. The soul sits helpless amid the spiritual wreckage and simply breathes in the darkness. There is nothing else to do. The seeker in this state may be shy about disclosing his inner struggle to anyone for fear it will reveal nothing but his own deadly doubts and spiritual failures.
The soul who perseveres without the motivation of sensory satisfaction moves beyond what John refers to as the state of the beginner and into the state of the adept. This is the dreadful night of the spirit, where not only is the soul denuded of divine feelings but any ability to conceptualize the Beloved collapses. The seeker is confronted with the terror of formlessness.
Where the night of sense requires some active participation on the soul's part, in the night of spirit God takes over. In fact, John warns, any effort the seeker might make to further his spiritual progress not only fails to produce results but might actually hinder the work the Beloved is secretly executing deep inside the soul. All the seeker can do is surrender to the darkness and take humble refuge in the ineffable stillness of what Fr. Iain calls the soul's "spiritual meltdown."
The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. Accustomed to feeling and conceiving of the Beloved her own way, she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She perceives God's gentle touch as an unbearable burden. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now, a way with which the faculties of sense and reason cannot interfere.
At the same time that the soul in the night of spirit becomes paralyzed in spiritual practice, her love-longing for God begins to intensify. In the stillness left behind by its broken-open senses and intellect, a quality of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. It turns out that the Beloved is longing for union with the lover as fervently as she has been yearning for him. In the night of spirit, he is calling it home to him and, like the song of Krishna's flute luring the gopi to the divine embrace, God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown until it is annihilated in the flames of perfect love.
A life of contemplative devotion could be somewhat easier for the ones who remove themselves from the distractions of the marketplace and set themselves apart in mountaintop monasteries than for those immersed in the world. Monks and nuns may well struggle mightily with their inner shadows, but the focus of their lives is primarily on a direct relationship with ultimate reality.
What about those of us who struggle each day to pay taxes to a government we may not agree with, spending our weeks engaged in labors we may not find fulfilling? Those of us who are called in the night to nurse a sick baby or pick up a rebellious teen from the police station? Those of us so exhausted from a day of chopping our twenty-first-century wood and carrying our twenty-first-century water that the thought of getting up an extra hour earlier each morning to sit in silent meditation feels like adding another ten pounds to our already barely manageable load? What about those of us who spent our youth trying every way we could find to "get to God" and ended up in Cincinnati or Santa Fe, with a couple of failed marriages behind us, ownership of a modest business, and credit card debts for pleasures we cannot remember? Those of us struggling to keep our community water clean and our kids crack-free and our own codependent tendencies in check?
Many of us have reached a plateau and have become resigned to the aridity of our spiritual lives. We are probably caught in the wilderness John calls the "night of sense." We no longer pursue the spiritual fireworks we once found so compelling. The "highs" we used to attain while chanting and prostrating and dancing for God have proven to be fluff obscuring the simple quietude of divine suchness. And yet, there is bitterness and grief in our capitulation. We may no longer be suffering from the delusions of a spiritual carnival, but we have lost something vital.
Maybe what we're missing is the love. Maybe we have forgotten that the only reason to strive and to surrender, to sit in the silence or to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, is because ultimate reality is love, and it is only by loving that we remember. Be still now, John would say. Borrow a moment from each day to stop and touch down with the stillness that is your true nature, which is God's true nature, which is nothing, which is love.
Perhaps if we recommit to the journey without any hope of arriving anywhere, the longing for union will rekindle and we will be propelled into the terrible night of the spirit where we are simultaneously overcome with thirst for the Beloved and lost in utter formlessness. But then, maybe this night of spirit will make us wish we had been content to hang out in the tolerable aridity of the night of sense where we rarely felt connected to our Beloved but at least we still knew he was there.
Is it enough to do our best to be good citizens of the planet, raising compassionate families and running ecologically responsible businesses, reading meaningful books and guiding friends through authentic crises, showing up for the occasional Dharma talk or celebration of the Shabbat, keeping a framed photo of a Hindu guru or a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe in our bedroom to honor what we know to be that which, though intangible, is Most Important? Why plunge willingly off this comfortable flat place and into the abyss?
The leap is not required. Most souls never jump, says John. There is no judgment about this. The dark night is not about who wins the race by crossing the finish line of self-annihilation. There is nothing we can do, anyway. The dark night is about being fully present in the tender, wounded emptiness of our own souls. It's about not turning away from the pain but learning to rest in it. Rather than distracting ourselves from the simple darkness at our core, we sit with it, paying close attention, and opening our hearts to all that is left, which is love. It is the cultivation of compassion for our suffering selves and for all selves who suffer the illusion of separation from the Beloved. It a quiet, formless, willingness to return.
Songs of the Soul
On a dark night,
Inflamed by love-longing-
O exquisite risk!-
Undetected I slipped away.
My house, at last, grown still.
Secure in the 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 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.
-- from Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, translated by Mirabai Starr,
Copyright © February 2002, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.
Used by permission.