I remember the day so well.
It was a spring afternoon in my sophomore year of college. I was sitting in a hardback chair in one of the older auditoriums on campus, attending a lecture for my honors coursework. At the front of the auditorium stood a guest lecturer — an eager professor with a combined background in theology, philosophy, and psychology — who wore glasses, shaggy hair, and a sincere smile.
His lecture was my introduction to St. John of the Cross.
St. John of the Cross was a 16th-century mystic and Carmelite friar best known for his writings on a subject he called “the dark night of the soul.” It was a phrase I’d heard before, in offhand moments, to describe times of particular difficulty or pain in a person’s life.
I learned that day that it’s something quite different than that. I learned that it’s a real thing.
That day, I learned two ideas that profoundly impacted my understanding of Christian spirituality and the path my own life’s journey took from that point forward:
- First, I was given a concrete understanding that the soul forms over time — that it is, in fact, the Spirit’s intention to guide the soul through a process of formation over its lifetime.
- Second, I learned that this formational process includes seasons of darkness — intentional seasons of darkness — in the soul’s awareness of God.
I was, to put it lightly, intrigued by these two ideas, and I became a bit preoccupied with St. John of the Cross as a result of that lecture.
I made a beeline for the campus library and checked out a translated volume of his Dark Night of the Soul. Then I requested special permission to write my final term paper on the subject, even though St. John of the Cross’ writings were not included in the semester’s required canon of texts.
And I shared what I’d learned with a close friend — someone who was going through an unusual season in life for which the language and explanation of “the dark night of the soul” seemed to offer some much-needed perspective and hope.
Are you familiar with the dark night of the soul? Have you experienced one, or do you know someone who has?
Over the next little while, we’re going to explore this developmental theology as St. John of the Cross wrote about it. And it is my hope that this series offers you — as it did my friend and me — a greater degree of understanding and hope, especially if you are traveling through a dark night currently or have in the past but didn’t know what to make of it.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned through my study and experience of this subject, it’s that the developmental theology of the dark night of the soul offers just that: a great deal of understanding and hope.