Dark Night of the Soul

For the album by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, see Dark Night of the Soul (album).

Dark Night of the Soul (Spanish: La noche oscura del alma) is the title given to a poem by 16th-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. The author himself did not title the poem, on which he wrote two book-length commentaries: The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo), and The Dark Night (Noche Oscura).

Poem and treatise by Saint John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross' poem, in 8 stanzas of 5 lines each, narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. The journey is called "The Dark Night" in part because darkness represents the fact that the destination, God, is unknowable (as in the 14thc. mystic classic The Cloud of Unknowing—which goes back, as does John's poem, to the 6th century writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite), and the path is unknowable. Salí sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada, John writes in the first verse of the poem, which verse in its entirety is translated:[1]

In an obscure night
Fevered with love's anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be

—that is, the body and the mind, with their cares, being stilled. At the beginning of the treatise Dark Night, (the Declaración) John writes, "In this first verse, the soul tells the mode and manner in which it departs, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, dying through a true mortification to all of them and to itself, to arrive at a sweet and delicious life with God." The "dark night of the soul" does not refer to the hardships and difficulties of life in general, although the phrase has understandably been taken to refer to such trials. The nights which the soul experiences are the necessary purgations on the path to divine union, of which there are two: the first is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul, the second of the spiritual part (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Ch.1.2). Such Purgations comprise the first of the three stages of the mystic journey, followed by Illumination and Union.[2] John does not actually use the term "dark night of the soul". His term is "dark night, noche oscura."

There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the joyful experience of being guided to God. The only light in this dark night is that which burns in the soul. And that is a guide more certain than the mid-day sun: Aquésta me guiaba, más cierto que la luz del mediodía. This light leads the soul engaged in the mystic journey to divine union.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is divided into three books that reflect the two phases of the dark night. The first is a purification of the senses (It is titled "The Active Night of the Senses"). The second and third books describe the more intense purification of the spirit (Titled "The Active Night of the Spirit"). Dark Night of the Soul further describes the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love, previously described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle. The time or place of composition are not certain. It is likely the poem was written between 1577–79, and has been held that it was composed while John was imprisoned in Toledo, although the few explicit statements in this regard are not very convincing nor first hand.[3]

The treatises, written some time between 1578–85, are commentaries on the poem, explaining its meaning line by line. Padre Lucinio del SS. Sacramento, who edited the critical edition (edition 5), with extremely thorough notes, of John of the Cross's Complete Works in the Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos series,[4] writes that "The idea of the 'night' to analyse the complex psychology of the soul under the purifying influence of grace is the most original and fruitful symbolic creation of the Mystic Doctor's doctrine."[5] The Ascent and the Dark Night should be considered as forming a single body as P. Lucinio states,[6] quoting Andrés de la Incarnación and P. Silverio de Santa Teresa. Both works were left uncompleted.

Spiritual term in the Roman Catholic tradition

Main article: Spiritual dryness

The term "dark night (of the soul)" is used in Roman Catholicism for a spiritual crisis in a journey towards union with God, like that described by Saint John of the Cross.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, wrote of her own experience. Centering on doubts about the afterlife, she reportedly told her fellow nuns, "If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into."[7]

While this crisis is usually temporary in nature, it may last for extended periods. The "dark night" of Saint Paul of the Cross in the 18th century lasted 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, according to letters released in 2007, "may be the most extensive such case on record", lasting from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief in between.[8] Franciscan Friar Father Benedict Groeschel, a friend of Mother Teresa for a large part of her life, claims that "the darkness left" towards the end of her life.[9]

In culture

Ernest Dowson alludes to the 'obscure night of the soul' in his absinthe poem, Absinthia Taetra.

In The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald penned his famous line, "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning".

As a comment on the shallowness of modern spirituality, author and humorist Douglas Adams parodied the phrase with the title of his 1988 science fiction novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

English electronic band Depeche Mode make a clear reference in their song "I Feel Loved", the second single released from the album Exciter, in which Dave Gahan sings, "It's the dark night of my soul and temptation's taking hold, but through the pain and the suffering, through the heartache and trembling I feel loved...".

Alternative rock band Sparklehorse, along with producer Danger Mouse and director and visual artist David Lynch, collaborated with a number of other artists—including Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle, and Wayne Coyne—on an audio-visual project entitled Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night of the Soul.

The phrase has also been used as a song title by several other bands and music artists, including Steve Bell, The Get Up Kids, Ulver, Mayhem, and Shai Linne in The Solus Christus Project.

Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt set the poem to music on her album The Mask and Mirror.

Composer Ola Gjeilo has written a choral setting with piano and string quartet, fourteen minutes long, influenced by the phrase.

Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison writes about the "dark night of the soul" in two of his songs, "Tore Down a la Rimbaud" on A Sense of Wonder, and "Give Me My Rapture" on Poetic Champions Compose.

In his novel, "Insomnia," Stephen King makes a reference to the F. Scott Fitzgerald usage when his protagonist first begins experiencing the signs of insomnia following the death of his [the character's] wife.

See also


  1. Underhill, Evelyn. (1974). Mysticism. 12th ed., New York: New American Library. [1930], p.83
  2. Underhill, Mysticism, Ch. 4
  3. Lucinio del SS. Sacramento, Nota Introductoria a la 'Subida' y la 'Noche' in Vida y Obras completas de San Juan de la Cruz, 5th ed., Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1954, p. 358.
  4. Vida y Obras de San Juan de la Cruz, 5th ed. Lucinio del Ss. Sacramento, Ed. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1964.
  5. Lucinio del SS. Sacramento, Nota Introductoria, p. 359.
  6. Nota Introductoria, p. 357.
  7. Martin, James (29 August 2007). "A Saint's Dark Night". The New York Times.
  8. David van Biema (23 August 2007). "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith". Time Magazine.
  9. Groeschel, Father Benedict (9 September 2007). "The Mother Teresa I Knew" (RM). EWTN Sunday Night Live.

Further reading

External links

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