My Experience with John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul

In the 16th Century in Spain there was a very poor and little man (just four feet and eleven inches tall!) who became a spiritual giant with incomparable heavenly riches. His name was John of the Cross.

John of the Cross had an insatiable longing for Jesus, his Bridegroom and the Lover of his soul. As a young man he became a Carmelite monk to devote himself to a life of prayer and serving God. His disciplines of poverty, fasting, solitude, and silence opened up a spacious place in his soul for him to contemplate the beauty and goodness of God. In Jesus’ name he served as a nurse in a hospital, taught poor children how to read, and provided spiritual direction to thousands of people.

With his dear friend Teresa of Avila (old enough to be his mother and yet he became her spiritual director) he brought spiritual reform and renewal to the Catholic church of that era in Spain. He showed people how to join him in turning away from the mindless chatter and feverish activity that is so common in the world and instead to contemplate God in the heart.

John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul

The religious leaders were threatened by John of the Cross’ intimacy with Jesus. They commanded him to stop teaching contemplative prayer and they persecuted him. He refused so they flogged him and imprisoned him in a six foot by ten foot room. They fed him nothing but bread and water.

Still he would not stop inviting others to seek Jesus in earnest, sincere prayer. So he was given more floggings and they kept him in his dark dungeon.

John’s dark closet of confinement became what he called a Dark Night of the Soul. He was tortured because he loved Jesus Christ but the Lord didn’t rescue him. He prayed to be delivered but his prayers weren’t answered. Desperately, he sought the light of God’s blessing but he was imprisoned in the dark — for nine months.

What would you do? What would I do?

John of the Cross composed love poems to Jesus! With no felt sense of God’s loving presence shining on him he worshiped the Lord with affection and reverence. He had no pen or paper so he memorized the prayers of his heart. Then when he finally escaped from his prison he shared his poems with others — monks and nuns, students, business people, mothers, the poor. There were hundreds and hundreds of people from all walks of like that came to him for spiritual direction.

Over 400 years later people are still reading John of the Cross’ poems and his books about them, learning from him how to pray from the depths of their heart and to love and worship God even in their Dark Nights of the Soul. In fact, millions of people have been drawn to Jesus by the writings of the little man who followed the way of the cross with all his heart.

Questions in the Dark Night of the Soul

John of the Cross’ most famous poem is The Dark Night. His prayer poem and explanation of it helps us understand the lament of the Psalmist that every earnest follower of Christ experiences at one time or another, “Why, O Lord, do you hide your face from me?” (For instance, see Psalm 13:1, 27:9, 44:24, 69:17.)

What’s going on in the Dark Night of the Soul? Why does God allow us to fall into this empty void? Does he not love us? Will he not help us? How do we deal with feeling abandoned in hopeless darkness? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

We need to understand what God is doing in the Dark Night of the Soul. Most Christ-followers don’t and so they turn away from this deep work of the Holy Spirit and regress to a spirituality they can understand and feel in control of — or they give up. But John of the Cross helps us to bring our distressed questions and our desperate longings to the cross of Jesus.

John of the Cross’ Poem on the Dark Night of the Soul

For Lent this year I’m re-reading John of the Cross’ 16th Century writings, including his poem and explanations on the Dark Night of the Soul. I’ve been meditating on this most famous stanza from his poem:

One dark night,
Fired with love’s urgent longings
— Ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled.

My Experience with The Dark Night

The words of The Dark Night are more than brilliant, poetic words — they’re prayers. Even though the words scare me I’m drawn to a strange, inexplicable sweetness in them. How is it that words of darkness can offer penetrating light? How can a death be so pregnant with life?

And yet, to be honest, even as I read and re-read the poet’s words, even as I searched my heart I wasn’t sure what they meant. What is this Dark Night of the Soul which John of the Cross writes about with such passion and intrigue?

This is the same way that the people in John of the Cross’ day felt. They asked him to explain the meanings of his poems so he wrote whole books to explain them! Doesn’t this remind you of Jesus? Just like how Jesus taught people using parables that came from his life experience so John of the Cross taught people using his prayer poems.

So I read John of the Cross’ explanation on this first stanza of his poem on the Dark Night of the Soul. He begins by saying the Dark Night is “a contemplative purgation or nakedness and poverty of spirit.” Contemplative purgation? Nakedness and poverty of spirit? I finished reading his explanation and still couldn’t find coherence. I re-read his explanations again and again. His words seemed all jumbled to me and my understanding seemed even more confused!

Then I realized that my experience with John of the Cross’s poem and explanation of The Dark Night was just like my personal experiences of going through the Dark Night of the Soul: the disorientation and disintegration is so overwhelming and the absence of any tangible sense of God’s loving presence and purpose are so absent as to leave me in utter despair.

It’s Time to Pray!

Finally I prayed. I asked God to help me put John of the Cross’ explanation of the Dark Night of the Soul into words that I could comprehend. I relied on God to help me put words to what he was teaching me through John of the Cross.

Then it dawned on me that in The Dark Night John of the Cross was re-telling the story of the prison that became his prayer closet! He was illustrating the purging of his soul through suffering that became his illumination and union with God. In the inspiration of the Holy Spirit it was good that John of the Cross’ writings were re-creating in me the same troubling experience I felt when I was in a spiritual prison in my own Dark Nights of the Soul.

I’d like to share with you my meditation on The Dark Night poem. Mostly these words are my re-ordering and occasional paraphrasing of John of the Cross’ explanations of his prayer poem. I have added a few of my own thoughts, including those relating to the cross and resurrection of Christ.

My Meditation on The Dark Night

“One dark night,”
I was empty of any spiritual resources,
               feeling abandoned by God,
               and with no apprehension of God in my soul,
               nothing to support me —
no illuminating insights
or vigorous thoughts of God,
no strength in my will,
my way of loving feeble,
no affection for God,
                              not finding satisfaction in him.

“Fired with love’s urgent longings”
My will was wounded with sorrows,
and yearnings for
God’s love;
being purged of myself in this darkness
I was left with nothing but
pure faith.

“– Ah, the sheer grace! –”
What a surprise!
It was a great, happy gift from God
to have my natural and base
faculties, passions, appetites, and affections
            What joy was set before me!
                        I was at the cross of Christ.

“I went out unseen,”
I stopped relying on my human operation
and way of acting;
The old man I used to be was dead,
my sins were forgiven
and renounced;
now my soul was naked —
I had nothing,
no understanding, love, or affection,
                                  nothing to give to God.

“My house being now all stilled.”
I became completely calm,
                      unhindered by the flesh or the devil;
I was waiting patiently
to receive from the Holy Spirit
the divine wisdom
that shines light into my mind,
the divine love
that purifies and strengthens my will,
and a divine affection
that renews my soul with delight.
I was waiting in faith
           for the resurrection of Jesus Christ
                       that unites me with God.

“My House Now Being All Stilled”

When I finished writing my meditation I realized that I had been so drawn into my search for Jesus in John of the Cross’ poem on The Dark Night that I didn’t even realize that four hours had passed! I had skipped my morning run that I love so much and I hadn’t eaten breakfast, nor had anything to drink.

“Fired with love’s urgent longings” I had confined myself to a dark closet till John of the Cross’ words came true for me too: “My house now being all stilled.”

Seeking the Lord Jesus Christ — even when it is still too dark to find him — is it’s own reward! But, O the heavenly joy that comes when we can say, as I did thirty years ago after my first experience with the Dark Night, “In a Dark Night of the Soul I Found Jesus!

More Soul Shepherding

Let me guide you on the path to bring your pain, emptiness, and needs to Jesus Christ at his cross. Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross is my 68-page booklet that’s filled with engaging stories, Scripture meditations on suffering of Christ, and prayers to enliven your heart to God’s unfailing love for you.


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