I’ve been thinking of this series a lot as I go through the hours of each day — and also of you, as you read it. I can’t help wondering how it’s hitting you. Is it familiar territory? Completely new? Does it feel just a bit overwhelming? Perhaps a lot mysterious?
I want to acknowledge a few things before we go on.
First, this is heavy fare.
We’re traversing into material a mystic saint wrote over 400 years ago about the movement of the soul into divine union with God. That’s heavy. And dense. Definitely not what we’d consider light reading or easy ideas to consider.
And so my intent is to traverse with care, as much as I’m able. To render John of the Cross’ ideas in accessible language. To give word pictures or examples where I can. To break this series into as many bite-sized chunks as seems advisable.
Accordingly, if you need more explanation about something as we go, please don’t hesitate to ask. I get that this is dense fare, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I overlook important distinctions along the way.
Second, I’ve mentioned several times in the series that the experience of a dark night is not your fault.
I wouldn’t be surprised if hearing that made you uncomfortable. Church teaching so often clangs the bell of what we could or should or ought to be doing in order to get results — or simply to make sense of our spiritual lives. Something doesn’t feel right and it’s not our fault? That seems really strange.
I know. It does seem strange.
Yes, we do participate in the growth of our soul’s journey with God. Yes, we are part of the relationship equation with God.
But John of the Cross wants us to settle into the idea that God is dynamically active in our process of growth. The movement of our soul is a very real presence to God. And in fact, most of the movement of our soul happens by his hand, not ours. The scriptures teach that it’s God who draws us to himself in our conversion. They teach that he’s the one who washes us clean. In fact, thematically through the scriptures, we get the sense that God has a much greater handle on what’s happening in the world and in us than we do.
And so, again, I’ll reiterate something true about the dark night of the soul: it’s initiated by God and not a result of something we did or didn’t do right.
John of the Cross would say, in fact, that a clear way to tell if you’re experiencing a dark night of the soul is to look at your desire. If your desire is for God and you still can’t seem to feel or muster the strength to approach God or your usual spiritual rhythms, you’re likely in a dark night season. (Conversely, if your desire is elsewhere and you’ve simply lost interest in the spiritual life in favor of other pursuits or forays, that’s something else entirely.)
Third, it’s important to note this is a season, not an instance.
Something is happening on the inside of someone walking through a dark night of the soul. It’s not happening from the outside. It’s not the result of a bad day, a wonky prayer experience, or a string of tough events.
It’s a process of formation inside the soul.
Which means it is a season — and often a long one, at that — with a number of shifts and turns along the way. We’ll explore those shifts and turns together through this series.
And lastly, if you’d like to read the saint’s words for yourself, I’ll recommend two translations.
The first is the classic translation that’s been in circulation as the standard for many years, by E. Allison Peers. This is the translation I studied in college, and you can get a pretty cheap edition on Amazon for about $5.
I’ll warn you that the Peers translation is a dense and difficult read, though, intent on a word-by-word literal translation of the original rather than an accessible, beautiful rendering of the saint’s words and ideas in English.
For a more accessible edition, I recommend the more recent translation by Mirabai Starr. Although this one’s suggested, too, with a caveat: It’s the first translation of John of the Cross’ work ever published by a non-Catholic. I had some concerns about this fact when I began reading it, especially given some of the notes shared by the translator in the introduction about choices she made while translating, but now that I’ve finished reading it, I can say it does a beautiful, faithful job of illuminating the saint’s ideas and intents for us and is faithful to the teaching of the scriptures.
Do you have any questions about all this before we move further into the series?