The Dark Night of the Soul (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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In The Dark Night of the Soul, Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross describes the purification, or "night," that the human soul must experience if it is to enter into loving union with God in this life. Its combination of personal, pastoral, and academic wisdom has made The Dark Night of the Soul an enduring classic in the literature of Christian spirituality. It is a book to which generations of readers, both lay and religious, have turned as they have sought to experience on earth the kind of intimacy with God ...
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The Dark Night of the Soul (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

In The Dark Night of the Soul, Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross describes the purification, or "night," that the human soul must experience if it is to enter into loving union with God in this life. Its combination of personal, pastoral, and academic wisdom has made The Dark Night of the Soul an enduring classic in the literature of Christian spirituality. It is a book to which generations of readers, both lay and religious, have turned as they have sought to experience on earth the kind of intimacy with God that will characterize the lives of the blessed in heaven.
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Introduction

INTRODUCTION

In The Dark Night of the Soul the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross describes the purification, or “night,” that the human soul must experience as God’s gift if it is to enter into loving union with God in this life. This loving union is the goal of the mystical life, a spiritual path that seeks not simply a right intellectual knowledge of God and the things of God, nor simply a moral likeness to God, but a relationship with God in which all that is not God is rigorously and systematically set aside and the mystery that is God’s being is encountered directly by the human person. The Dark Night of the Soul is cast in the form of a commentary on John’s poem of the same name, for, in addition to being a mystic, John was both a theologian and a poet. The book is thus a theological exposition of a mystical poem; in it, John reflects doctrinally and pastorally on his own mystical experience and that of the many others whom he had served as spiritual director and confessor. It is this combination of personal, pastoral, and academic wisdom that has made The Dark Night of the Soul an enduring classic in the literature of Christian spirituality. It is a book to which generations of readers, both lay and religious, have turned as they have sought to experience on earth the kind of intimacy with God that will characterize the lives of the blessed in heaven.

St. John of the Cross was a central figure in the renewal and reform of sixteenth-century Spanish religious life, particularly with respect to the Carmelite religious order, of which he was a member. John was born in 1542 in Fontiveros, Spain, and entered the Carmelite monastery in Medina del Campo when he was twenty-one. In 1567 he met Teresa of Avila, who was already much engaged in reforming the religious life of Carmelite nuns and who was looking for men to assist her in extending the reform to men of the order. John spent the rest of his life involved in the leadership of the reformed, or “discalced,” branch of the Carmelites. The progress of the reform was anything but smooth, and at one point John was actually imprisoned for the better part of a year by members of the non-reformed branch of the order. When John escaped from prison, he did so with a notebook containing poetry written during his confinement. It was these poems, together with others written subsequently, that became the basis of John’s prose treatises, including The Dark Night of the Soul. John’s own “dark night” was thus not only the night of mystical contemplation and negation, but the night of imprisonment and physical suffering, of external circumstances that, John believed, God may work through to accomplish His purposes in the soul.

The Carmelite movement, in whose reform John was so intimately involved, had itself originated in an earlier period of reform, namely the Vita Apostolica movement of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Vita Apostolica, or apostolic life, was the name given by devout men and women to their efforts to imitate in specific detail the lives of Christ and the apostles. Central elements of the apostolic life included a radical poverty like that spoken of in the gospels (no money, no shoes, no spare tunic; cf. Mt. 10:9-10) and a devotion to prayerful contemplation on the mystery of Christ. The apostolic life was pursued in Italy by the disciples of St. Francis and by other groups of lay hermits. In the wake of the First Crusade the apostolic life spread to the Holy Land, where numbers of hermits took up residence in sites associated with the life of Christ and with Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. Toward the end of the twelfth century, many of these hermits began to cluster on Mount Carmel, where, taking Elijah as their model, they practiced an ascetic and contemplative life that they believed stood in direct succession to that of the prophet.

As the political instability of the Crusader kingdom grew, the hermits of Mount Carmel began in the thirteenth century to migrate to the West, taking with them the common Rule that they had received from Albert, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. This had stipulated, among other things, that each hermit have his own cave-dwelling in which he could remain night and day, engaged in continual prayer. But individual cave-dwellings were difficult to come by in Europe; nor could other properly remote hermitages easily be found. The Carmelites thus requested of the Pope that their Rule be amended to allow them to settle in cities, which permission was granted in 1247 by Innocent IV. This began a century-long transition by which the Carmelites ceased to be hermits (living remote and solitary lives of contemplation) and became mendicants (living in cities and engaging in ministries of teaching and preaching), as the followers of St. Francis and others had done before them. These changes in the Carmelite vocation, along with the social and political upheavals of the fourteenth century (including, for example, the Black Death), led to more changes in the Rule, whose original insistence on abstinence (that is, from meat), extended fasts, and silence—all disciplines intended to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening attachment to worldly pleasures—was repeatedly attenuated. By the fifteenth century, the religious life of the Carmelites had suffered significant decline.

Two related but distinct movements—which in Spain owed much to the general climate of religious reform and renewal encouraged by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella—were to reverse this trend, and bring reform and renewal to the order. One was the desire, among reform-minded Carmelites, to return to observance of the primitive rule of the order, with particular stress laid on poverty and penitential practice (both of which were often symbolized by going barefoot) and the contemplative life. The other was the development of practices of prayer that, while not rejecting such practices as communal, vocal prayer, or the recitation of the psalter stressed interiority and the role of contemplation as essential means of fostering a loving union with God in this life. Both movements came to spectacular flower in the life and work of St. Teresa of Avila, and then in that of her younger disciple and colleague, St. John of the Cross.

St. Teresa of Avila had been born in 1515 to a wealthy and pious family in Toledo, and in 1535 entered the Carmelite monastery at Avila. She had learned about contemplative prayer early in her religious life but had found herself frustrated in her efforts to persevere in it. Through a process that included extensive reading of spiritual writers and conversation with many confessors and theological advisors, Teresa found herself drawn into a mystical life that overflowed into the reform of the Carmelite order and the renewal of Carmelite spirituality. In 1562 she founded the first convent of “discalced” (barefoot) Carmelite nuns, and went on to found twenty more before her death in 1582. These convents were marked by an atmosphere of solitude and silence and included several hours each day that were dedicated to mental (as opposed to vocal or communal) prayer. Teresa wrote several books for the instruction of her discalced nuns that have become enduring spiritual classics; among them are The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle.

The Teresian reform had been underway for five years when Teresa and John first met. She was fifty-two; he was twenty-five, newly ordained to the priesthood, and desiring a more fully contemplative life than was available to him in the (calced) Carmelite monastery of which he was a member. For Teresa, who had recently received permission from the prior general of the order to found two houses of discalced friars, John was an answer to prayer, albeit in unexpected form: John was so short in stature that Teresa is reported to have said, “Lord, I asked you for a monk, and you sent me half of one.” In November of 1568, John became one of the first two discalced friars of the Carmelite order. Antonio de Heredia, the former prior of Medina, was superior of the house; John was the novice master, beginning what would become a lifelong work in spiritual direction. When three years later, in 1571, Teresa was appointed prioress of the Incarnation monastery in Avila, she invited John to be the spiritual director there for her nuns and for herself, a position he occupied for five years. Teresa’s and John’s collaboration during those years was such that, according to John’s biographer E. W. T. Dicken, each is most profitably read together with the other. John was a poet with a theologian’s education and discipline; Teresa wrote from a depth and breadth of personal experience and relationship. “Together they present us with an overall perspective view of the theology and practice of the spiritual life which, for Christians of the Western Church, constitutes the almost indispensable key to all serious study of the subject in both earlier and later writers.”

During John’s years as chaplain and confessor to the nuns of the Incarnation, conflicts arose within the order about to whom the office properly belonged. John’s tenure ended abruptly in 1577, when friars belonging to a rival group kidnapped John and imprisoned him at the Carmelite monastery of Toledo. He remained there for nine months, in a room six feet by nine feet, with one two-inch-wide window high in the wall and little in the way of either food or clothing. In the midst of this “dark night” of abandonment and privation, John turned for solace to poetry, composing poems now esteemed as among the greatest lyric poetry in Spanish literature. In these poems, John sought to give expression to some of the seeming incompatibilities of his experience and the synthesis they found in God: darkness and light, emptiness and fullness, desire and fulfillment, detachment and union, nothingness and the divine essence.

John escaped from prison in August 1578 and found refuge with a monastery of Teresian nuns in Toledo. His allies in the order soon appointed him vicar of El Calvario, a monastery in an area of southern Spain remote enough that he would be unlikely to be kidnapped again. Two years later, the conflicts over jurisdiction were resolved when the discalced friars and nuns were allowed to form a new province and govern themselves. By this time, John had already left El Calvario for Baeza, where he was rector of a new college for discalced students in the south. In 1582 he moved to Granada, where he held various high administrative posts in the order while continuing to serve as spiritual director for various groups of friars and nuns. It was in the context of this work that he wrote his prose treatises on spirituality, all of which were composed as commentaries on his previously written poems. During these years he traveled a great deal, visiting houses of friars and nuns and founding seven new monasteries. He moved in university circles, and was known and respected as an expert in Scripture, theology, and spirituality. In his later years, however, he again became involved in conflict within the order. He had been serving as councilor to the vicar general, Nicolás Doria, in Castile for several years when in 1591 he was sent away to the remote monastery of La Peñuela. There he fell ill, and after months of suffering, both from sickness and from inadequate medical care, he died in the nearby town of Ubeda on December 14, 1591.

John left only a modest corpus of written work: some counsels and maxims, a dozen or so poems, a few short letters, and four book-length commentaries on four of his poems, together amounting to perhaps one thousand pages. He was not in the first instance a writer; he was a contemplative and a spiritual director, turning to poetry as an expression of the depths and heights of his mystical experience, and to prose when the friars and nuns under his direction read his poems and asked him to explain what he meant. Both John’s poetry and his prose are characterized by lyrical, symbolic language, which inspired mystics but made theologians nervous. In the Western theological tradition of which John was a part, symbolic language was restricted to devotional literature, while theology was written using conceptual language. The symbol of the “dark night,” which is so central to John, thus seemed quite out of place to many of his contemporaries when they encountered it in his theological treatises.

This nervousness was amplified in the generally suspicious religious climate that characterized the Spain of John’s day. Half a century before, Ferdinand and Isabella’s encouragement of religious reform had included the imposition of orthodoxy as a means of ensuring political and social stability in a recently re-unified country. The means of imposing this orthodoxy, the Spanish Inquisition, was in full swing by the middle of the sixteenth century, publishing lists of forbidden books, interviewing and silencing anyone whose teaching seemed problematic in any way, and, in view of the Protestant reformation that was going on elsewhere in Europe, giving particular attention to anything that smacked of “Lutheranism.” The mysticism of John of the Cross had nothing to do with Lutheranism, but its emphasis on the relation of the individual soul to God, combined with its unusual use of language and imagery, was enough to give a lot of people pause. As a result, the first printed edition of John’s works, which appeared in 1618, was characterized by numerous editorial changes—both deletions and additions—that were meant to deflect suspicions of false teaching. Most of these editorial changes were carried over into subsequent editions, until in the early twentieth century a revival of interest in early Carmelite spirituality led to the production of critical editions based on the manuscripts. Free of both the suspicion and neglect that marked his legacy for several hundred years, John of the Cross is now regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets and one of the Church’s greatest mystical theologians. He was acknowledged as a Doctor of the Church (that is, a notably authoritative teacher) in 1926. Teresa of Avila was similarly recognized in 1970, the first woman ever to be a Doctor of the Church. (One other woman has since been given this title, and she also was a Carmelite: St. Thérèse of Lisieux.)

John’s four prose treatises include, in addition to The Dark Night of the Soul, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. Each is a commentary on a poem of the same name, except for The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, which both comment on the same poem, The Dark Night. John employs the symbol of the “dark night” as a general term denoting the whole discipline of privation or renunciation, from the beginning of the spiritual life to its end. This discipline has two aspects: the active night of voluntary self-discipline, and the passive night of God-given privation (whether this be experienced purely spiritually or through external circumstances as well). The purpose of both the active night and the passive night is to detach the soul from its love for all that is not God, so that it can enter into an undistracted and thus genuine union with God in love. The Christian mystical practice of detachment is thus founded neither on a denial of the reality of that-which-is-not-God (such things have real existence as God’s creatures) nor on a denial of the goodness of such things (they are God’s good creatures), but on an insistence that however real or good a creature may be, it is not God, and cannot and should not be the object of the most intimate love of which a human being is capable. That love is reserved for God alone, and while a loving union with God is not something a human being can work his or her way into, the privative disciplines of the contemplative life are intended to fit the soul to receive this gift, should God graciously choose to bestow it.

Although the Ascent and the Dark Night have come down in the tradition as separate books, they are intimately connected with each other. The Ascent corresponds roughly to the “active night of the soul” and the Dark Night to the “passive night of the soul.” Two other elements complete this complex work: the eight stanzas of the poem The Dark Night, which was written during John’s time at El Calvario (1578-79) following his escape from prison, and a sketch by John of Mount Carmel, the “mount of perfection,” which serves as a visual summary of the mystical experience that John expresses in his poem and explains in his commentary. This image of Mount Carmel, which obviously hearkens back to the origins of the Carmelite order and its particular devotion to Elijah, was intended by John to be a part of his commentary, as he shows when he refers to “the drawing at the beginning of the book.” The treatise The Ascent of Mount Carmel takes its title from the sketch; The Dark Night of the Soul takes its title from the poem.

The Dark Night of the Soul is not a commentary in the usual sense of the term, in that the text upon which John is ostensibly commenting is a poem of eight stanzas, but he comments only on the first two stanzas (explaining the first stanza twice), barely mentions the third, and then ends the book. As John’s purpose in writing was to offer a theological exposition and interpretation of some of the imagery of the poem, perhaps he felt at this point that he had done all he could, and thus he wrote no more. The book describes the passive night of the soul, which John further subdivides into the passive night of the senses and the passive night of the spirit. Numbering introduced by the first editor of John’s works identifies these sections as two books, the first with fourteen chapters and the second with twenty-five chapters. Throughout the work, John retains a dual perspective on his subject: the description of mystical experience contained in the poem and the theological analysis of that experience contained in the book. Even at its most technically theological, however, John’s exposition is never doctrinaire. It is informed at every point, not only by his own experience, but by his attention to the experiences of countless others whose spiritual development he had been privileged to observe as they made their own ascents into the mysterious darkness that is God’s love.

That juxtaposition of darkness and love, so central to all John’s works, but especially The Dark Night of the Soul, is deeply expressive of the paradox central to the Christian faith: that in the cross of Christ, in that abyss of suffering and degradation, is the ultimate expression of the love of an all-powerful and all-merciful God. It is thus perhaps no surprise that John’s writings have proven powerfully attractive to persons grappling with terrible evils and attempting at the same time to experience and respond to them within the context of their Christian faith. T. S. Eliot, in the second of his Four Quartets, written just after the outbreak of the second World War, invokes the negative spirituality of John of the Cross: “be still, and let the dark come upon you.” His aim was evidently not the nihilistic one of embracing darkness for itself, but the Christian one of embracing the light that can come only after the darkness is acknowledged for what it is: for, Eliot goes on to say, one day “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

In the wake of the war, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton likewise looked to St. John of the Cross as a teacher and a guide. Merton was a contemplative monk who was also deeply involved in the civil rights and peace movements. His social involvements were, Merton believed, perfectly congruent with a Christian life of prayer. The very negativity of contemplative prayer, its rigorous insistence on the rejection of all that is not God, gives it a “uselessness” that purifies it from the selfishness and manipulativeness that too often characterize petitionary prayer. It is when prayer is most contemplative that it can issue truly charitable action, says Merton. “There is no contradiction between action and contemplation when Christian apostolic activity is raised to the level of pure charity. On that level, action and contemplation are fused into one activity by the love of God and of our brother in Christ.”

St. John of the Cross would have agreed. The Christian mystic enters into the darkness of contemplation not to avoid the messiness of the world and its evils, but in order to encounter both God and God’s world on God’s terms, in the midst of the darkness in which God’s light is paradoxically hid. Only so can men and women of faith be formed in the perfect charity for which they were made. As John himself notes, “at the end of the day, the subject of examination will be love.”

Margaret Kim Peterson is Theologian in Residence at the First Presbyterian Church at Norristown, Pennsylvania. She teaches theology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 47 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 2, 2012

    highly recommend

    a true classic,something to ponder

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 1, 2010

    Not a good book unless you are a scholar.

    The Spanish to English translation needs further translation into modern English. It includes sentences that take a paragraph to finish, as well as quotes in Latin that she fails to translate into English. This book is not readable by an average reader.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 4, 2009

    Who was St.John of the Cross

    I have been seeing references to and quotes from the writings of St. John of the Cross for years, especially in writings in Yoga, Mindfulness Meditation, and poetry.

    Finally, curiosity got the best of me and I purchased this fascinating book. St. John of the Cross was an amazing character. It fascinates me to peek inside the mind of someone so different from myself. Also his statements about the development of a more spiritual mind are right on.

    People with his singleminded religious zeal have made huge impacts on the way we live. Think Plymouth Rock, the Crusades, the Salem witch hunts, the generosity of The Salvation Army, the fearlessness of the Jihadists, etc.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2013

    Highly Recommended. Literally.

    Astonishing. Humbling.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 15, 2012

    FBI;usa

    If you speak english you can understand that we are going to sue the people that creat this book.

    Att . FBI;usa

    0 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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