The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection between Darkness and Spiritual Growth

The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection between Darkness and Spiritual Growth

by Gerald G. May


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Now in paperback: a distinguished psychiatrist, spiritual counsellor and bestselling author shows how the dark sides of the spiritual life are a vital ingredient in deep, authentic, healthy spirituality.

Gerald G. May, MD, one of the great spiritual teachers and writers of our time, argues that the dark 'shadow' side of the true spiritual life has been trivialised and neglected to our serious detriment. Superficial and naively upbeat spirituality does not heal and enrich the soul. Nor does the other tendency to relegate deep spiritual growth to only mystics and saints. Only the honest, sometimes difficult encounters with what Christian spirituality has called and described in helpful detail as 'the dark night of the soul' can lead to true spiritual wholeness.

May emphasises that the dark night is not necessarily a time of suffering and near despair, but a time of deep transition, a search for new orientation when things are clouded and full of mystery. The dark gives depth, dimension and fullness to the spiritual life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060750558
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/01/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 168,719
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Gerald G. May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and Grace, Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, Will and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.

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The Dark Night of the Soul
A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth

Chapter One

Half a Friar

The Story of Teresa and John
That Jews and Christians, together with Muslims, can live in amity, respecting differences while honoring commonalities -- that this is no pipe dream -- is proven by the fact that, for centuries, they did just that.

-- James Carroll

Jews, Christians, and Muslims did indeed live in harmony in a time and place that "some remember as a kind of paradise." It is known as the convivencia, the "living together." The time was between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and the place was Spain. As Carroll recounts it, it was a time when Muslims opened the doors of their mosques for Christian worship services and when Jews were schoolmasters for Christian children. This rich cross-fertilization of faiths and cultures produced famous universities and renowned thinkers, including the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who chose to write not in Hebrew, but in Arabic.

Religious warfare originating outside Spain began to dismantle the convivencia in the twelfth century, but vestiges of its rich heritage lasted into the sixteenth century, the time of Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. In many ways, Teresa and John inherited the creative legacy of the convivencia.

John of the Cross will forever be credited for the idea of dark night of the soul, but the inspiration wasn't his alone. John acknowledged his indebtedness to a number of previous authors, including an obscure sixth-century mystic who wrote under the name of Dionysius and spoke of"a ray of darkness." Of all those who influenced John's work, however, the most important was Teresa, the woman he called his spiritual mother. Though he seldom acknowledged her as a source, nearly all of John's imagery and most of his fundamental insights can be found in Teresa's earlier writings. Thus to appreciate the meaning of the dark night, we must start with Teresa of Ávila.


In the rugged central highlands of Spain, fifty miles west of Madrid, is the ancient walled city of Ávila. It lies on the Adaja River, in a valley between two great mountain ranges: the Sierra de Gredos to the south and the Sierra de Guadarrama to the east. Teresa was born there in the cold early spring of 1515.

It was the last year of the reign of King Ferdinand; Isabella had died a decade earlier, after establishing the Spanish Inquisition, putting a formal end to the convivencia by expelling all Jews from Spain, and sending Columbus to the New World. Balboa had just claimed the entire Pacific Ocean in the name of Spain, and treasure from the Americas was making Spain the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world. Elsewhere, Leonardo da Vinci had just painted the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo had finished his sculpture of David. Copernicus was developing his claim that the planets revolve around the sun, and two years later Martin Luther would nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

Teresa was born into a wealthy family of textile merchants. Her grandfather had been a converso, a Jew forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. Her father saw to the education of his twelve children and made sure his daughters learned to read and write at home -- there was no public education for women. Teresa was bright, spirited, adventurous, and, like many children of the time, fervently religious. At the age of seven, inspired by reading the lives of the saints, she and a brother tried to run away from home and become martyrs, "to go to the land of the Moors ... and have them cut off our heads." They were apprehended at the edge of town by an uncle, who returned them to their worried mother. "Our greatest obstacle," Teresa later wrote, "was that we had parents."

When Teresa was twelve, her mother died. Soon thereafter, her father noticed that Teresa's passions had shifted from spirituality to romance novels and, of course, to boys. Concerned about her future, he sent her to a convent school when she was sixteen.

He never wanted her to become a nun and could not have foreseen that her passions would revert, as they soon did, to prayer and a growing call to religious life. Because her father was strongly set against her becoming a nun, Teresa struggled mightily with the decision. Perhaps in part because of this conflict, she fell ill. The illness, the first of many that were to plague her the rest of her life, forced her to leave the school. Her recovery took nearly two years, during which her sense of call to religious life grew even stronger. Finally at the age of twenty, she convinced her father of her determination and became a Carmelite novice.

Less than two years after her profession as a nun, she again became ill, eventually suffering a paralysis of her legs that kept her an invalid for three years. Then, at the age of twenty-seven, while praying to St. Joseph, she experienced what she felt was a miraculous recovery. In that same year, 1542, less than thirty miles away in the small village of Fontiveros, John of the Cross was born.


John's father, like Teresa's, had come from a wealthy family of textile merchants. But the family disowned him when he married John's mother, a poor weaver far beneath his social station. Thus, unlike Teresa, John was born into poverty. Worse, his father died shortly after John was born, leaving John and his mother and two older brothers destitute. After one of his brothers died, possibly from malnutrition, his mother moved to Medina del Campo. There she was able to place John in a church orphanage school, where he could be fed and educated. He excelled academically and as a teenager worked in a hospital as an orderly.

We have no evidence that he ever considered any career other than the religious life ...

The Dark Night of the Soul
A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth
. Copyright © by Gerald G. May. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

1Half A Friar: The Story of Teresa and John15
2We Are Love: The Theology of Teresa and John41
3A Deeper Longing: The Liberation of Desire63
4With A Temple: Meditation and Contemplation103
5Three Signs and Three Spirits: The Psychology of the Night135
6The Dark Night Today: Modern Contexts153
7Daybreak: The Coming of the Dawn181

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Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection between Darkness and Spiritual Growth 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
HolyTree More than 1 year ago
Gerald May does an excellent job of elucidating the ancient concept of "the dark night of the soul." An often used phrase, it has become a catch-all for anyone having a hard time of anything. But, as May points out, that was not its original meaning. This is a deeply spiritual book that sheds light on the social, cultural and religious backgrounds of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. In doing so, Dr. May exercises finesse in explaining the true meaning of "the dark night." I am a scientist by training and profession. I am also a deeply spiritual person who constantly seeks a closeness to the divine. Perhaps it is this likeness to Dr. May himself that allows his work to speak so clearly to me. He is systematic in his approach to understanding the issues of such topics as meditation vs contemplation, spiritual dry spells, difficulty in prayer, etc. He doesn't allow contemporary fads or catch-phrases to cloud his objectiveness. His purpose in writing the book is clear and his objectives are accomplished. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is seeking a clear understanding of how the seeker journeys through their spiritual life. I am 66yo and I wish that I had discovered this book 10 years ago when it was written. I would be a much better Christian and happier person now if I had read this book years ago!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great overview of the works of St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. One star was removed because it can sometimes be hard to grasp, and I think I would need to re-read this one 2 or 3 times to fully understand it. Overall, a great book that has inspired me to read the original works. 
aheksch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I think its a really interesting book it has so many action and conflict but always the main character solve it.
revslick on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Gerald May has written an excellent primer to St John of the Cross with a little Teresa of Avila thrown in for good measure. I recommend it to anybody looking to expand their insight into spirituality and specifically our inner growth into the Divine. My only critique is May's comments regarding addiction, which are both intriguing and disappointing. It is like he get the outward veneer of recovery but not the deep monster of addiction, otherwise I highly recommend.
luvdancr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book got me through the hard time of having my leg broken. It helped me make sense of a large period of time where I was greatly depressed as well, It didn't cure me of anything, but it helped me feel so not lonely.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago