Reflections on St. John’s The Dark Night of the Soul
The following is a paper I wrote in my MFA program concerning The Dark Night of the Soul. It explores the benefits of pain of suffering on our spiritual lives, and further examines how suffering and conflict catalyze character development in fiction.
The Dark Night of the Soul: How Turmoil Produces Character Development
“Pain provides an opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency”
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (433)
James 1:2-4 states, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” The idea of finding joy in suffering is a familiar concept to parishioners of many faiths. Yet, it seems counterintuitive. Why would one choose suffering? Perhaps one perseveres through suffering because there is a promise of a greater reward. To mystics, this suffering is a gateway, a “transition” as Evelyn Underhill titles it, to an expansion of self only discovered through intense contemplation. This contemplation brings us into a period of darkness necessary for spiritual growth. It is the stripping away of the material self, an unmasking of our desires and carnal instincts which, like a baptism, washes away the former to reveal a much improved individual, one synchronized with a higher power. St. John of the Cross called this transition “The Dark Night of the Soul” and deemed it a prerequisite to a full union with God. Only through tribulation can we learn to fully depend on God, because all of our natural powers fail us. It is when we die to the self that we truly live, a paradox fully illustrated throughout St. John’s work. In a similar manner, character development also travels the same avenues of conflict, character alteration, and eventual resolution. In essence, a good story chronicles the personal changes a character makes through various trials, and illustrates how the character emerges better – stronger, smarter, nicer, wiser, more open-minded. Thus, the dark night of the soul not only has spiritual implications, it also applies to fictional aspects as well.
St. John of the Cross describes a period of darkness which is required to draw closer to God. In the beginning, he quotes these lyrics: “Oh Night, that led me, guiding night, / Oh Night far sweeter than the Dawn; / Oh Night, that did so then unite / the Loved with his Beloved, / Transforming Lover in Beloved” (540). St. John then explains, by analyzing the poem by stanza, how the darkness functions as an “education” while also “purging” an individual of all human aspects. In other words, one cannot approach God before acquiring a deeper understanding of His holiness. That understanding, St. John remarks, is only gained through enduring the “Dark Night.” It is only through difficulty that we can graduate to this new mindset, thus deprivation and loneliness (a temporary “absence” of God) are used to develop a keen awareness (and certainly, at times, despair). St. John writes,
We must then know that, after the soul resolutely converts herself to serve God, God generally sets to work to educate her spiritually and to regale her, as does a loving mother her tender child, whom she warms at the heat of her breast, and rears with sweet milk and soft and delicate food and bear about in her arms and cherishes; but, by degrees, as it waxes in growth, the mother begins to wean it and hiding from it her soft breast, anoints it with bitter aloes, and putting the infant from her arms, teaches it to walk with its feet, to the end that, losing its childish ways, it may become used to greater and more real things. (544)
This separation is not God’s punishment, but rather, a form of instruction. When we are dependent upon the spirit, we are as spiritual “infants.” We must mature to a greater understanding of God by traveling through the dark night. The process is laborious and difficult. St. John admits, “For, when the savour and relish in spiritual things is at an end, they naturally find themselves without force and spirit, and this uneasiness makes them bring their ill humour into their ordinary occupations, and wax angry at trifles, and at times, even they become insufferable…Like to the child, when he is taken away from the breast he was enjoying to his heart’s desire” (555). It is when the source of pleasure is removed, when the individual is placed in a situation of pain or inconvenience, that God begins his lesson: “In the which physical satiety, if they do not give way thereto there is nothing to blame, only an imperfection which must be purged in the aridness and conflict of the obscure night (555).
Through this lens of bitter anguish, we begin to understand how God uses the “dark night” and can thus “rejoice” in the suffering. We are, then, to view the difficulty not with resentment, but rather with anticipation (“Oh Night, that did so then unite / the Loved with his Beloved”). It is an opportunity to be educated, to draw closer to an omnipotent Power. From an intellectual perspective, education of any quality requires commitment, discipline, and perseverance. From a spiritual level, the same expectation of surrender and compromise are required. The individual must commit to contemplation, an exercise which brings him/her deeper, beyond the physical world and the physical body. Through this difficulty, we grow and mature. It is, to put it colloquially, our awkward teenage experience played out on a spiritual level (minus the zits and torment of middle school dances). St. John assures us that the process is valuable:
God unswathes the soul from out her swaddling clothes, and lowers her from His arms, making her to walk on her own feet, and weaning her form the mild and soft and honeyed food of children, gives her to eat of bread with crust, so that she may begin to relish the food of grown up men which, in these drynesses and darkness of the senses, He begins to give to the spirit empty and barren of the substance of the senses; which is the infused contemplation… (575)
Indeed, as physical maturity shapes who we are, the dark night influences our spiritual growth and development. One cannot graduate to genuine maturity without this experience. If the experience is avoided, those individuals will remain in a state of arrested spiritual development, groaning like the hungry child as his mother’s breast, unable (through his own fear or stubbornness) to digest solid foods. Evelyn Underhill agrees with such an analysis. In her text Mysticism, she states, “This divine necessity of pain, this necessary sharing in this travail of a World of Becoming, is beautifully described by Tauler in one of those ‘internal conversations’ between the contemplative soul and its God…” (Underhill 222). Underhill suggests that contemplation is a method of communicating with God, thus prayer and meditation (in the orthodox sense) and contemplation (of the mystic sense) are avenues to God. This is perhaps why parishioners are encouraged to “pray unceasingly,” as prayer is an infinite conversation with the Almighty. The absence of prayer, meditation, or contemplation can leave one dry and unfulfilled. Such contemplation requires, I believe, an open mind, a welcome reception to God and a suspension of disbelief which must override the rational mind. Without this allegiance, one is essentially limiting his/her opportunities to experience God. One must embrace the mystery. Underhill posits that the whole man cannot be transformed unless he travels through the dark night:
The Dark Night, then, is really a deeply human process, in which the self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind. Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful and departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his “spiritual” side, can Divine Humanity be formed. (388)
In a similar vein, Underhill states that a dark night experience is necessary to transition “from multiplicity to Unity” (Underhill 401). Thus the reward for difficulty is Unity, a consummation of the spiritual self with the Infinite. The dark night cleanses one from the impurities of humanity and readies it for union, like a bride preparing for her wedding. She must accept the coming changes – the loss of her last name (if she so chooses), the sharing of a home and life, the possibility of creating children together, ultimately the dissolving of self into the collective. These are changes she can only understand if she fully contemplates them.
And these changes are for greater improvement. If we are not prepared for our union with God by traveling through a dark night, we cannot fully comprehend or appreciate the changes taking place. Apologist and children’s author C.S. Lewis once wrote on a similar theme in his book The Problem of Pain. In it, Lewis echoes St. John’s theme on the necessity of darkness as preparation for something richer and greater. Lewis, who wrote the book as a guide for laymen to understand troubling aspects of their faith, compares the “Dark Night” experience to the training of a dog:
Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the ‘best’ of irrational creatures, and a proper object for a man to love – of course, with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations – man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, housetrains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts of the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts. It will be noted that the man (I am speaking throughout of the good man) takes all these pains with the dog, and gives all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale – because it is so nearly lovable that it is worth his while to make it fully lovable. (386-387)
Of course, Lewis is not suggesting that parishioners are seen as “dogs” to the Almighty. Certainly we don’t desire to become a dog whisperer of sorts, taking great pains to look into Fido’s deepest and darkest aspects of the psyche. Instead, we attempt to acclimate dogs into a more obedient, more loving form of themselves, one that will best benefit the relationship between man and canine. It is because we realize that can have a meaningful relationship with our pets that we attempt to train and raise them. Yet, we must say “no” to puppies who excuse themselves in the floor, or to dogs tempted by an open trash can with freshly-disposed leftovers. At first, this may seem selfish, making a pet bend to personal wishes and requests. However, the human (the “good human” as Lewis distinguishes) knows what is best for the dog. If I were to train a dog to control itself around trash, I can essentially save its life by preventing it from eating foods not appropriate for dogs. In my human wisdom, I must guide the dog to hone his instincts, if not out of pure obedience, out of safety and personal benefit ultimately.
Here we begin to understand the crux of St. John’s argument. Union with God is, in and of itself, a soul’s delight. Yet, we also see how the human can benefit from God’s wisdom. Viewing the Ten Commandments, we understand that these laws are as much about general common sense as about a requirement of simple obedience. A man’s life is far less difficult if he avoids the material pitfalls of his flesh. By flesh, I do not exclusively reference sexual sins, but also equally distressing sins of Pride, Avarice, Envy, and Gluttony. Contemplation leads us further into God, which grants us the wisdom to live out our earthly days with joy and a deep, abiding satisfaction. Contemplation leads us out of the dark night, and into a higher plane of thinking and feeling which surpasses the snares in which humanity often entangles itself.
Yet, such snares are the basis for good storytelling. Good protagonists usually find themselves entangled in such nets, and we watch anxiously as they weave the way out. Many characters experience a dark night, although it may not necessarily pertain to a spiritual crisis. Good characters have both internal and external conflict. Batman, for example, fights a host of antagonists in his mission to protect Gotham. But as the Dark Knight series illustrates, Bruce Wayne is still haunted by his parents’ murder. Batman repeatedly locks away Catwoman, the Joker, Penguin, Two-Faced, and a host of other “bad guys” into prison or Arkham Asylum. Usually, they are released or escape, and the plotline repeats itself, ad nauseam. As more contemporary films have shown, Batman must fight the internal urge to kill the antagonists, only to realize that if he kills them, he has become an antagonist himself. Fiction writer John Gardner mentions such conflicts in his book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Gardner writes that the best conflict involves an internal struggle: “… in the relationship between character and situation here must be some conflict: Certain forces, within and outside the character, must press him toward a certain course of action, while other forces, both within and outside, must exert strong pressure against that course of action…All meaning, in the best fiction, comes from…the heart in conflict with itself” (Gardner 186-187).
Indeed, conflict is at the very essence of the story. Many books have been written about the importance of conflict to rouse support (or sympathy) for a protagonist. However, the difficulties are necessary. As St. John writes, a conflict is necessary for growth and enlightenment. In spiritual life, as well as in fictional worlds, conflict brings understanding. Romantic poet William Blake spoke of the importance of conflict in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence” (plate 3). Often, in literature, characters must experience turmoil or tragedy in order to improve. Harry Potter, as an example of the orphan motif, loses his parents to the first encounter with Voldemort. He struggles with this loss throughout the series. It is a point of sorrow for Harry, but also a source of strength as he faces various challenges. When creating a story, it is important to note how turmoil usually catalyzes the action of the plot. Take, for example, the following scenarios:
- Andrew walks his dog across the street.
- A woman busy chatting on a cell phone hits the dog and the dog dies.
- Frustrated and sad, Andrew curses the driver.
- The driver turns out to be his boss’s wife at a soul-crushing, white-collar job.
- Andrew is fired for insubordination.
- In his despair, he decides to start an online dog adoption site in conjunction with local agencies. Through ad sales and side work, Andrew can pay his bills.
- Now Andrew is happier, has more satisfying work by helping rescue dogs, and has more freedom since he can work from home.
- Andrew walks his dog across the street. Nothing happens.
In scenario 1, a tragedy paves the way for several difficult events, but eventually leads to a more satisfying life. In steep contrast, nothing happens in scenario 2, so there is no conflict, no character growth. It’s as boring and predictable as tapioca. Thus, conflict is necessary for character growth. Andrew certainly wouldn’t have left his soul-crushing job because of financial obligations and the regular pressures of adulthood. Yet, this one incident causes him immense pain and sorrow and forces him to change. Through the pain, he discovers that he can be happier and more fulfilled than simply collecting a paycheck at his former employer. Now Andrew has a purpose. Now Andrew is doing more meaningful work which is connected with the first two events of the story (honoring his dog). Thus, Andrew has experienced character growth which is very satisfying for the reader. It is through this “dark night” that Andrew is enlightened as to his real destiny, which is helping other creatures.
Turmoil, then, is an essential component of good storytelling. It is through the darkness that we must take our characters through difficulty, paragraph by paragraph, until we reach the higher plane of a satisfying resolution. These difficulties are the defining moments. Like transforming coal into diamonds, we must create pressure in a prescribed timeframe to create a well-rounded character. The diamond cannot emerge without some monumental push, a force which will turn it from its former state to something much better, and much more valued. It the trials and tribulations that make a character one we cherish and admire. A dark night experience is surely required of a parishioner, but is also vital for character development.
A Kempis, Thomas, et al. Wellsprings of Faith: The Imitation of Christ, The Dark Night of the
Soul, The Interior Castle. Imitation of Christ, Barnes & Noble, 2005.
Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 1793,
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York, NY, Vintage,
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics,
HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2004, pp. 371–433.
The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2008.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: a Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual
Consciousness. 12th ed., New York, New American Library, 1974.
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