Into This Dark Night: My Wish for You

Shell in a boat.

It’s been a long journey for us here, learning about the dark night of the soul together. My sense is that enough has been said, at least for now, about this concept in this space. There’s plenty to ponder, for sure. And the archives are here, should you want to revisit the entries. 

But as we close out this series, I want to share my heart toward you through this. 

If you are walking in a dark night — either of the senses or the spirit — I want you to know this is real. You aren’t imagining things. You haven’t done something to upset God. God hasn’t left you. 

God is here, but in imperceptible ways. 

And what is happening here, even though you can’t see, hear, feel, or understand it, is profound and powerful.

It only requires that you wait.

The other aspect of my heart toward you here is that you would have companionship in this journey.

Companionship in the spiritual journey — having a place to talk about and discover God in the details of our lives — is always helpful. I have been meeting with a spiritual director once a month for four years, and it is one of the most beloved aspects of my life.

But in this place of the dark night, where the journey is so mysterious and dark and lonely, I would especially encourage you to seek out mature, wise, and discerning companionship.

How can you locate such a companion? 

There are a number of ways.

Call your church to learn if they provide this ministry. Call retreat centers in your area, as they often have spiritual directors available to meet with retreatants and local residents. 

Two websites — Spiritual Directors International and the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association — provide online directories for finding a spiritual director in your area. 

And lastly, if you would like my companionship with you — whether you’re in the midst of a dark night or not — I provide spiritual companionship to individuals all over the globe. It would be an honor and privilege to provide such space and conversation for you. You are welcome to get in touch with me here

Thank you for being here in this series with me. The dark night of the soul is not an oft-talked-about subject in churches, and I so wish it was more broadly known.

Much love,


Into This Dark Night: Why This?


Near the beginning of our study of the painful night of the spirit, a friend emailed me and said: 

“I just can’t comprehend why God would allow someone to experience that.”

We had, at that point in the series, talked about Mother Teresa and her 40 years spent suffering in the dark. We had also discussed that the night of the spirit is darker than the night of sense.

Why? she wondered. Why would God do all this?

In the place of such a challenging concept as the dark night of the soul, and especially the night of the spirit, I find two thoughts very helpful. 

The first is that our souls were meant for union with God.

Such intimacy was the intent of creation, and the fall of humanity has made the human journey one that continually seeks re-union. Some mystics throughout history have used the image of a spiral to picture this journey of the soul back toward God througout a lifetime. The labyrinth is another representation of this journey, with the soul advancing ever nearer the center, even as there are turns in the journey that seem to take us away from that point of center. 

John of the Cross uses the image of a ladder — similar to Jacob’s — in which we are continually ascending and descending the rungs but ultimately climbing ever higher toward the perfection of union. 

Even though the journey is complex and the experience sometimes one of consolation and sometimes one of desolation, all of it is meant for the intent of union. 

Such union is our soul’s intended home. 

The second thought I find helpful in the face of such a difficult concept is that the soul increasingly desires such union and is willing to endure whatever pain may be required to land upon it. 

John of the Cross says that at this point in the soul’s journey, when the night of the spirit comes, the soul is “so in love with God that she would give a thousand lives for him.” She would willingly die a thousand deaths. 

She is, plainly, heartsick for God. 

“When this love shows up in the soul,” he says, “it finds her ready to be wounded and united with love itself.”

The night of the spirit is one of the most agonizing experiences a soul can endure on earth. But it’s a road the soul, prepared for this journey, is willing to take when it comes. 

Into This Dark Night: Seeing All the Dust Particles

We're at the Plaza Theatre to see the Civil Wars, and our seats are incredible. Yeah!

The spiritual blindness that happens in the night of the spirit happens because the divine light of God is brighter than the eyes of our soul can handle. This is one reason the night of the spirit hurts — because our souls, being human, are much weaker than the brightness of the divine light of God. 

John of the Cross says this: 

“The light and wisdom of this contemplation are so pure and bright and the soul it invades is so dark and impure that their meeting is going to be painful. When the eyes are bad — impure and sickly — clear light feels like an ambush and it hurts.”

There’s another reason the night of the spirit is so painful, though, and it’s because what the soul is able to see when the divine light shines upon it are all its imperfections. 

The saint describes it this way: 

“Consider common, natural light: a sunbeam shines through a window. The freer the air is from little specks of dust, the less clearly we see the ray of light. The more motes that are floating in the air, the more clearly the sunbeam appears to our eyes. This is because light itself is invisible. Light is the means by which the things it strikes are perceived.”

The light of God is a sunbeam on the soul, and our native imperfections are dust motes and particles floating through the air, now clearly visible because of that ray of light. The sudden, acute awareness of all these imperfections makes the soul in this place feel quite wretched. 

Remember, the soul that has entered the night of the spirit has already endured the night of the senses. Her love for God has been purified a great deal, and she has come to a place of being wildly in love with God

Seeing her impurities through the searing light of God undoes her.

She feels these impurities will separate her from the lover of her soul, God, forever. 

Into This Dark Night: A Different Sort of Darkness

May all who enter here find peace.

In the night of the senses, we learned that darkness comes because God slams the door shut on the senses. There’s a drying up of what we feel and experience of God, and it’s because he’s turned the light off.

The night of the spirit is a different sort of darkness. 

Here, the work of God in the soul is directed toward divine union — the most intimate “one-ing” the soul can ever experience. And so, to accomplish this union, God turns up the light that’s poured into the soul. 

The result is utter blindness. 

I love the way John of the Cross makes sense of this blindness in response to God’s light: 

“The brighter the light, the more blinding it is to the owl. The more directly we gaze at the sun, the more it darkens our visual faculty, depriving it and overwhelming it, because of its inherent weakness.”

God’s light is so bright that it pains and blinds our “eyes,” or soul. We can’t see. We’re putting our hands out in front of us, feeling our way forward without the help of sight to see our way.

As paradoxical as it sounds, the darkness happening here in the night of the spirit is actually light. And it is immensely painful to the soul.

Tomorrow, we’ll learn why.

Into This Dark Night: The Night of the Spirit Is Darker

A little delicacy.

I mentioned yesterday that the night of the spirit is a difficult reality to write about. Whereas we spent about four weeks exploring the night of the senses (you can find the archive of those posts here), I suspect we’ll spend just a few days on the night of the spirit.

It’s just that profound.

Additionally, John of the Cross tells us that the night of the spirit is much less common than the night of the senses. Most individuals in the life of faith, he says, experience the night of the senses to some degree or another, and often several different times.

The night of the spirit is rare.

And it is incredibly potent and pain-filled for the one enduring it. 

St. John of the Cross uses the word “misery” quite a lot to describe this experience. 

For instance, here’s one way he describes what it’s like:

“In the face of her own misery, the soul feels herself coming undone and melting away in a cruel spiritual death.

   It is as if the soul were being swallowed by a beast and disintegrating in the darkness of its belly, like Jonah when he was trapped inside the whale. She must abide in this tomb of dark death until the spiritual resurrection she is hoping for.”

An interior death is taking place in the night of the spirit. 

In the night of the senses, a kind of death happened, too, but it was more a death of externals. The soulwas learning to depend less on action and feeling. Its interior life was strengthening and growing in love for God. 

Here, rather than dying to externals and what the soul can perceive, the soul is dying to what is left to be purified inside of her. It is, as John of the Cross puts it, “descending into the underworld alive.” 


Tomorrow we’ll look at the why and the how of this happening.

Into This Dark Night: The Night of the Spirit

Hero of faith.

The night of the spirit. 

This is a really difficult reality to write about.

Whenever I think of this most difficult journey in the spiritual life, I think of Mother Teresa. Most likely, you have heard that after her death, the world learned she had carried a spiritual darkness in her life for 40 long years. 

Forty years. 

How can we begin to wrap our minds around that? 

I remember when the news of this broke.

The news agencies didn’t know what to make of it. They were, in short, flabbergasted. That small, humble woman everyone in the world knew as the face of love, as one who had wholly given herself to God in every single moment she lived, had walked blindly in spiritual darkness for 40 years. 

She didn’t know where God was. She felt wholly abandoned. 

And yet she continued to love God and people broken in both body and spirit.

The media outlets questioned her faith. They questioned her life. They questioned everything she stood for and everything we thought we knew of her. 

But those of us acquainted with the deeper realities of the spiritual journey knew, immediately, this: 

She had endured the most difficult season of all. She had endured the dark night of the spirit. 

This is a difficult one to write about. And truthfully, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to say about it here. We’ll discover the answer to that question together over the course of the next few days.  

Into This Dark Night: When the Night of the Senses Ends

He has my heart.

We’ve spent several weeks venturing into the terrain of the night of the senses, which is the first portion of the dark night of the soul.

What happens when it ends? 

John of the Cross teaches us that a time of consolation and strength sets in. We learned on Friday that, eventually, love is enkindled within us and we become more and more consumed by that love, without really knowing how it got there or how it continues to grow.

God has done it, and we begin living into it.

Once we emerge from this portion of the dark night, John of the Cross also says this: 

“In this phase, the soul is like someone who has escaped from prison. She goes about the things of God with freedom and satisfaction. Now that the faculties are no longer attached to the discursive mind or troubled by the spiritual anxiety that used to bind the soul, her interior delight flows more abundantly than it ever did before she entered that first dark night. Without the labor of the intellect, she now finds within her the most serene and loving contemplation and spiritual sweetness.” 

Freedom. Interior delight. Serenity. Spiritual sweetness. 

I just love that. Don’t you?

The saint also tells us that the soul, upon emerging from this night of sense, begins to cultivate mastery of the spiritual life:

“What joy! The soul has emerged victorious from the tribulations of the night of sensory purification. She has risen above the state of the beginner and entered the state of the adept. God may not immediately move her into the night of the spirit, now. Instead, the soul may spend years cultivating mastery before she is ready to face the impenetrable darkness that leads to union.”

I can just see the soul going along with increasing strength and ease on this other side, firmly and continuously practicing the disciplines of the spiritual life from a new place than she did before — not based on what she does or how she feels, but from a rootedness in her belonging to God and the love and connection to God she received in new doses while enduring the night of sense.

Before we discuss the second phase of the dark night of the soul — the night of the spirit — I want to say a few things to wrap up our learnings about the night of the senses: 

  • The night of the senses can last a long or a short time. 
  • It can also repeat itself.
  • God may choose to apply a light or heavy hand of the darkened senses to a soul enduring such a season. 
  • The strength or lightness of the experience is based upon what God deems most fitting and endurable for each individual soul.

In other words, there is no formula. 

But as we have seen through our exploration these past few weeks, it is a worthy trial. God has deemed the soul ready for such a journey. And while it is confusing and painful and sometimes disillusioning, it is meant to be so. 

God is doing good work in the soul, and it is work we cannot do for ourselves. 

It is wholly grace.

Into This Dark Night: The Gift of Enkindled Love


We’ve mentioned many times in this series that something is happening in this dark night that we cannot see or comprehend.

We’ve said God is infusing and strengthening us at the level of the spirit. We’ve said that faithfulness to this dark night strengthens us in virtue and grows us in love. We’ve said that the invitation in this season is an invitation to simply sit before God in a season of contemplation without seeking words or thoughts or impulses or images.

John of the Cross says the spirit feasts in this season while the senses lay void and inactive.

But at the beginning of this season, we are so unaware of the spirit’s activity inside of us that we can’t see this feast is happening. Our spirits are yet weak in us. We cannot perceive all that is happening underneath the surface.

He writes:

“At first, focused as she is on the absence of familiar sweetness, the soul may not notice the spiritual delight. This is because the exchange is still strange to her. Her tastes are accustomed to those old sensory pleasures, and she remains on the lookout for them. The spiritual palate has not yet been purified and attuned to such subtle delight.”

It’s such a subtle sweetness. It’s beyond what we have known and seen. 

And yet we will grow in our capacity to notice and be changed by it. Because eventually, he says, love is enkindled in the soul. 

He writes:

“And yet, at times, she will begin to feel a certain yearning for God … She does not know or understand where such love and longing come from.

… She finds herself madly in love, without knowing why. At times, the fire of love burns so hot in the spirit and the soul’s longing mounts to such a passion that she feels as if her very bones were drying up in this thirst. Her nature seems to be shriveling, her natural powers fading, their warmth and strength wiped out by the magnitude of this thirsty love. This thirst is a living thing.”

The great and overwhelming gift on the other end of the night of the senses is a fiery, burning love for God that consumes us.

It seems impossible such a love could exist — much less thrive — when we enter and sit in this night. Everything is dark. We feel nothing. We understand nothing. It feels lonely and barren here. 

But know this:

God is enkindling your spirit with love in this dark night, and eventually you will burn bright again — brighter than you’ve ever known or burned before.

Into This Dark Night: What's Also Happening Here

The trees are monsters.

In a previous post in this series, we talked about what’s happening in the night of the senses: God is growing us at the level of the spirit in our connection to him.

But there’s something else happening here too: 

We are growing in virtue and love.

Early in his description of the night of the senses, John of the Cross names seven “imperfections” that plague a beginner’s soul without her knowledge of them being imperfections. These include spiritual pride, spirtual greed, spiritual lust, spiritual anger, spiritual gluttony, and spiritual envy and laziness. 

And he says of the beginner’s journey:

“Remember when she used to seek God through those feeble, limited, and ineffectual manipulations? At every step she stumbled into a thousand ignorances and imperfections! Once the night quenches all and darkens the discursive mind, it liberates her, bestowing innumerable blessings. The soul grows vastly in virtue.” 

Before the night descends, we are inclined to think the things we do and the consolation we experience in our spiritual lives has something to do with us. We love God, yes. But we also love ourselves. And we tend to love ourselves more than we love God or our neighbors. 

The night of the senses is meant to purify us — to make our love more pure and our actions more full of true virtue. 

And so we lose sight of ourselves. And we lose sight of God.

We come face to face with our cravings for good feelings and experiences. We notice how much we want distraction. We see how much we based our self-concept and sense of okay-ness in how we were feeling and how our experiences and activities compared to those of others. 

In short, in the night of senses, stripped of all those other fetters, we begin gaining accurate self-knowledge. We start to see the truth about ourselves. 

And it’s humbling.

This affects the way we begin to relate to God.

We become more humble and respectful. Less demanding and presumptuous. Less familiar and more awe-filled. 

We begin to love God more for who he is and less for ourselves. 

And through it all, as we remain faithful to God and receptive to the truths of ourselves being revealed, we also grow in virtue. John of the Cross says that we grow in patience toward God and ourselves. We become more generous toward others, no longer looking to them as a point of comparison but as people from whom we might learn something. We become more enduring and strong as we cope with the hardships of being surrounded by darkened senses but keep persevering. 

The night of the senses accomplishes many good things, even though it doesn’t feel good — and even though we can’t perceive these good things are happening when they are.

How do you respond to this?

Into This Dark Night: Another Way Contemplation Can Look

Julian of Norwich. She inspires me.

For a long time, before I ever experienced contemplation as St. John of the Cross really meant it — as a “loving attentiveness to God” — I had heard contemplation described that way and never really understood it. It seemed strange to me. What did it mean to “just be” before God? What did it mean to put ourselves before God without any thought or image at all? 

Truthfully, it sounded odd. 

And then when I learned of the two Greek words used to describe two diverging ways to experience God in prayer — kataphatic and apophatic — the type of contemplation described by St. John of the Cross seemed even more foreign to me. 

Kataphatic prayer makes use of words and images.

The kind of imaginative prayer described by St. Ignatius of Loyola that I mentioned in a previous post is this kind of prayer. In this kind of prayer, we hold images in our minds and experience ongoing conversations with God. We’re conscious of our thoughts in prayer, and we’re able to “hear” God’s words in response to us interiorly. 

Apophatic prayer, in contrast, is wordless and formless.

It’s an experience of prayer in which the soul acknowledges that God cannot ever be fully held in the mind and actually transcends all images — and therefore the soul lets go of any impulse to relate to God in these ways. This kind of prayer is often connected to relating to God in “a cloud of unknowing” or “darkness” or “nakedness of being.” 

The first time I heard these two terms used to describe the two major categories of prayer, I had an immediate aversion to the description of apophatic prayer. I had been living in a long season of consolation where the imaginative life of prayer had become my regular means of connecting to God, and especially Jesus. My prayer life, experienced in this way, was very active and incredibly dear to me. And this way of prayer had born much fruit in my life. Love for Jesus had erupted in me, and I was irrevocably changed. 

Why would I ever want to give that up? 

Weren’t the experiences I had with Jesus in prayer more beloved and preferable — even to God — than an experience of darkness and nothingness? 

Who would want to experience that?

(I mean, really.)

So I continued on my merry way, relishing the images and word-filled conversations I had with Jesus on a regular basis, continuing to fall more and more in love with God.

Until a little over three years ago. 

One day I sat at my desk, opened the Scriptures before me, and couldn’t taste words. They didn’t seem enough. They couldn’t hold God.

I went to pray and felt an immediate aversion to the images I’d been holding in my life of prayer with God. God was so much more than any image. God was

On that first day, I sat at my desk with my eyes closed and just let myself be in the presence of God. God was this massive greatness, creating everything and upholding everything, far beyond what I could imagine or understand … and I was grateful for that.

I just wanted to be with God without having to understand God.

And so each day in that season, I came and sat with the “cloud of unknowing” that was God beyond my concepts of God. And it was truly enough — more than enough, really.

Into This Dark Night: One Way Contemplation Can Look

A rainy night.

When I first experienced the kind of contemplation John of the Cross talks about, I didn’t know that’s what it was. In fact, it was only in hindsight — much, much later — that I realized what I’d endured was a night of the senses in the dark night of the soul. 

All I knew at the time was that completely new revelations about myself were opening up all over the place, and all of those self-revelations caused me to shut down completely. 

I was 19. And I didn’t know which way was up anymore.

I’d grown up in the church and had a relationship with God the whole of my life. It was a meaningful relationship, too — one that guided my life. As I matured in age, I got in involved in the usual things: youth group, youth choir, discipleship groups, Bible studies, and eventually I sang on the youth worship team and discipled girls who were younger than me. I read my Bible frequently and kept a faithful prayer journal. I went to a Christian college. I dated — and then married — a Christian boy.

But then two things happened.

I read a book that, for whatever reason, made me connect with a truth in my heart that I’d never fully acknowledged before: I didn’t understand grace or my need for Jesus. And second, I enrolled myself in therapy.

Through therapy, I began to see how much of my whole existence was spent doing, doing, doing, and how at the root of all that doing was a life-arresting belief that I needed to live that way in order to survive and find love and acceptance.

It was a freefall moment for me, looking around at my entire reality and finding it all suspect. What I thought were my motivations were not my motivations at all. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know my relation to the world around me. And I didn’t know where God fit into all of it, either.

And so I stopped. 

No leadership or discipleship activities. Very rare church attendance. My prayer journal languished, unattended, by my bedside. 

I did nothing. I just sat in the dark.

For two long years.

Those two years weren’t spent in what you’d call a “loving attentiveness toward God,” by any means. It felt more like a challenge. I was sitting down on the floor of my life, challenging God to prove that he loved me in a way that had nothing to do with all those things I’d been doing, doing, doing to earn that love. Somehow, he loved me beyond all that, but that didn’t make sense to me. And so I sat down and asked him to teach me. And I refused to get up until he did.

This was certainly more rebellious in spirit than the “loving attentiveness” St. John of the Cross encourages during such a season. And it seemed, at least from my vantage point, triggered completely by me. I’d had the self-revelations. I’d enrolled in therapy. I’d decided to sit down on the floor of my life and do nothing. 

But looking back, I eventually came to see that it was, indeed, a night of the senses initiated by God.

And it was, indeed, contemplation — albeit a very rudimentary version of it.

Because while I was sitting there doing nothing for those two long years, the root of my whole being was intently trained on God. I just kept beating against him while I sat there, asking him to give me the truth, knowledge, awareness, belief I needed to learn.

I knew I couldn’t learn it for myself. I had no idea what the learning even was or meant. I was in the dark, but I was willing to sit there and let him work whatever needed to be worked in my soul for as long as it needed to take.

And even though I thought at the time that it was happening because I’d initiated all that “doing nothing-ness,” I know now it was initiated by God. The timing for those self-revelations was ripe. My heart was ready for true awareness and honesty. It was time for me to grow up in love and truth and God.

And so God clicked it all in motion.

And I responded, and said yes.

Into This Dark Night: Existing in Contemplation

Sun pushes through.

I mentioned in the last post in this series that “doing nothing” and “just being” in the dark night of the senses becomes a form of spiritual discipline in this season, and today I’d like to talk about what that means. 

Here’s how St. John of the Cross describes the intended activity of this portion of the dark night: 

“The soul must content herself with a loving attentiveness toward God, without agitation, without effort, without the desire to taste or feel him. These urges only disquiet and distract the soul from the peaceful quietude and sweet ease inherent in the gift of contemplation being offered.”

A loving attentiveness toward God. I just love that description, don’t you? This is the soul’s only necessary activity during this time. 

John of the Cross calls this practice of applying simple, unencumbered, loving attentiveness toward God contemplation. That’s a mouthful of a concept, and it is one that has carried a couple different connotations throughout the centuries for different spiritual writers. 

For some spiritual writers, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, contemplation referred to the use of imagination in prayer — a kind of contemplation that sat with scenes from the Scriptures or scenes given to the soul by God and noticed the details of those scenes. This kind of “praying with the imagination” became, for St. Ignatius, one way for the soul to reflect upon its posture and relation to God, which then became a gateway to conversation with God.

For another group of spiritual writers, contemplation has referred to a kind of intense, singular study of an object in order to notice — really notice — it. A common example here would be the contemplation of a single flower, staring at it for a long period of time to notice all of its intricacies and, through such intense noticing, be led into spiritual experience. The perspective regarding this type of contemplation is that by studying a single object with such continuity and faithfulness, we deepen our ability to truly see.

John of the Cross meant something quite different by the word contemplation. For him, contemplation meant being present to God without thought, study, activity, or imagination. Simply being before God.

Have you ever experienced this kind of contemplative prayer before?

Into This Dark Night: Moving Toward Pure Encounter

Late afternoon shadows.

I’m still sitting with how strange it is, I’m sure, for you to hear St. John of the Cross prescribe inactivity during the dark night of the senses.

Even if we don’t feel it, wouldn’t it be a good thing to be faithful to the various spiritual disciplines, like reading the Scriptures, prayer, fellowship, meditation, fasting, worship? Why stop those things? What harm — rather than good — could they really do? They’re good things, aren’t they? The church has been practicing them for centuries upon centuries, encouraging us toward the goodness they offer the soul.

It’s true. The spiritual disciplines are good and effectual for us and our growth. And there are certainly times when faithfulness to God through spiritual activity — even when we don’t want to do it or seem to gain nothing from it — is warranted. 

But in this particular season, when God specifically seeks to wean our dependence on our senses and to grow us up at the level of the spirit, those activities actually hinder the work intended for this time. 

Here’s how the saint puts it:

“It would be as if a painter were composing a portrait and the model kept shifting because she felt like she had to be doing something! She would be disturbing the master’s work, preventing him from accomplishing his masterpiece. What the soul really wants is to abide in inner peace and ease. Any activity, preference, or notion she might feel inclined toward will only distract her, intensifying her awareness of sensory emptiness.”

This goes back to what we learned earlier about the night of the senses being aimed toward removing our dependence on our senses. The more aware we are of our activity, or of the felt effects of our activity, the more something serves as an intermediary between us and God. Something is between us — either the activities we do or our noticing the effect of those activities on us. 

In the night of the senses, God is moving us toward pure encounter.

Here, he is teaching us how to exist with nothing standing between us and himself. Spirit to spirit. Pure encounter.

In a way, this “doing nothing” and “just being” takes its own form as a spiritual discipline during this season. Tomorrow, we’ll learn what it looks like to exist in this way before God. 

Into This Dark Night: The Invitation to You Here

Purple beauty.

This may be hard to believe, but when you are in a dark night of the senses, you don’t need to do anything. 

In fact, any activity you might do to help things along hinders the progress of this dark night. 

The temptation in this place is to stir up spiritual activity in the hopes of bringing back that feeling or confirmation we used to have that God is here and things are right with our soul. These efforts are in vain. Since the dark night is, in essence, a darkening of the senses, any effort to stir up those feelings in order to gain reassurance will prove fruitless. The senses are turned off for this season.

Another misdirected belief that can crop up in this place is that we need to cling to the spiritual disciplines so our faith won’t run aground here. There’s a belief that doing things will keep us grounded — that we need to keep our faith afloat during this dark time.

Spiritual activity isn’t the need of this season. 

The need is rest … quiet … stillness … inactivity. 

Does that strike you as odd? We’ve been talking about moving from milk to solid foods, from the mother’s breast to our own two feet. Oughtn’t that mean doing things to strengthen our limbs — like a bunch of activity to grow strong? 


Here’s how John of the Cross puts it:

“If only souls that this happens to could just be quiet, setting aside all concern about accomplishing any task — interior or exterior — and quit troubling themselves about doing anything! Soon, within that very stillness and release, they would begin to taste subtly of that inner nourishment, a nourishment so delicate that if they were purposely to try they could never taste it. This work only happens when the soul is at ease and free from care.”

The invitation to you in this place is rest. You are growing up — taking on solids and growing to stand and walk on your own two feet — but this happens at the level of the spirit, not the senses. It’s something God infuses in you. 

In short, he’s the one who grows you up. Your task is to let him. 

Let go. Rest. Be still here in this place.

Is that something you can allow yourself to do?

Into This Dark Night: What's Happening Here


When God shuts the door to the senses in the first portion of the dark night, he’s leading you into a purer union with himself — one not dependent upon what you do or how you feel, but spirit to spirit.

He’s seeking to give you pure encounter with himself.

John of the Cross identifies two levels of the soul: sense and spirit.

The senses are those faculties that help us understand and experience the world. They’re tied to feelings, to experiences, to understanding, to imagination, and to analysis. The saint calls it “the discursive mind.” At the level of the senses, we take in information — felt or cognitive — and make sense of it all. 

But this is a lower plane of connection to God than that of the spirit. The spirit exists beyond the senses. It is beyond “discursive thought” and even imagination. In the spirit, there are no words or images to translate for us. The spirit simply is, pure being, with God. 

We don’t know how to live in pure spirit before God, and so God must take us there. This is why the night of the senses happens: so we grow at the level of the spirit in our connection to God. 

Here’s how John of the Cross describes what’s happening in the night of the senses: 

“God has transferred goodness and power from the senses to the spirit. Unable to make use of these precious gifts, the senses are left fallow, dessicated, void. While the spirit is feasting, the sensory part of the soul is starving; it grows too weak to act. But the spirit thrives on this banquet, growing stronger and more alert.”

Something important is happening here, and it’s something our conscious mind cannot understand and our felt experience cannot access.

And that is as it should be. 

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to live inside this place — what response helps this process along, and what response hinders its progress.

Into This Dark Night: How It Descends

Step through the doorway?

The dark night of the senses descends when the beginner’s interior life has become more attuned to God than to the world. Her allegiance is firmly planted in God, even though she is yet young and childish in her desires for God. There’s no concern she’ll flee from God to the world when change descends on her joy-filled spiritual life. 

And so it’s time to grow.

That’s when, John of the Cross says: 

“God suddenly darkens all that light. He slams the door shut.

… This feels very strange. Everything seems backwards!”

Again, this has nothing to do with the soul’s decreasing desire for God. She has not done anything wrong. She has not fled the spiritual life. If she had, this would not be a dark night. 

In a dark night of the senses, the soul loses her felt experience of everything — material and spiritual. Nothing holds pleasure for the soul in this place. And the soul’s response at the start of this experience is grief.

She cannot seem to find God anywhere, and she thinks she has somehow lost him — or been lost to him.

Have you ever experienced this?

Into This Dark Night: When the Time for Weaning Draws Nigh

She likes boxes.

I used to think the passage in Hebrews 12 was really cruel — you know, the one that says God disciplines his children and chastens those he loves. I would read that and think, “What?” It sounded more mean than a good thing. 

But then I read the Message version of that passage about a year ago, and it adjusted my perspective a great deal. Here’s a small portion of how it goes: 

“God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves.”

— Hebrews 12:7-8

The whole passage (vv. 4-11) is worth a read, but it was that word training that changed my understanding of that passage and the analogy of God as parent. Training implies a way to go. A way to be directed that’s for our good. A way we’re meant to be. And God is seeking to direct us there. 

It made such a difference for me to hear it in the context of an irresponsible parent, too: someone who leaves their child to fend for herself. What’s loving about that? A child doesn’t know the world, doesn’t have knowledge or experience or wisdom to navigate her way through. And an unloving parent is one who doesn’t care, who leaves her to figure it out on her own, who opens the door to the big, wide world and says, “Have at it.”

The loving parent is the one who takes an active role in teaching, guiding, sharing, correcting, interpreting, and being with. The loving parent is the one who knows where the child needs to go — sees ahead of her to the necessary steps of her development — and walks her through those steps when the time is right. A loving parent helps a child through her growth with the wisdom and knowledge she doesn’t yet have for herself.

That’s similar to what’s happening when the night of sense descends. 

John of the Cross describes it this way: 

As the baby grows, the mother gradually caresses it less. She begins to hide her tender love. She sets the child down on its own two feet. This is to help the baby let go of its childish ways and experience more significant things.

As we discussed in yesterday’s post, the sweet time spent at the mother’s breast is right for a time. Its sweetness is as it should be, and the mother feels such delight in giving and sharing that time with her child.

But we’re not meant to be infants at the breast all our lives.

There comes a time when, for our own best interest, we must be set down on the ground in order to discover our limbs and muscles. There comes a time when we, for our own best good, must learn to eat more than our mother’s sweet milk. There comes a time when it’s right and good for us to learn to motor ourselves around. 

It isn’t a lack of love on the mother’s part that brings that separation. It’s her love and maturity to move us along in our next necessary growth.

That’s what the night of the senses is about: a new period of our necessary growth.

Into This Dark Night: The Beginner's Journey


Let’s begin with this. 

That burst of love and goodness you felt when you first encountered God and began the journey of life with God — it was right and given to you by God. All the enthusiasm you felt for God, to connect with God and be a part of the spiritual reality of life — that was exactly as it was meant to be. You were meant to feel yourself near to God and experience bliss and pleasure in God and the things of God.

John of the Cross speaks of this reality like a newborn infant at its mother’s breast: 

Once the soul has completely surrendered to serving God, she is nurtured and caressed by him, just like a tender baby with its loving mother. The mother holds the child close in her arms, warming it with the heat of her breasts, nourishing it with sweet milk and softened foods. …

The grace of God is just like a loving mother. Grace kindles in the soul renewed warmth and ardor for serving God. Through grace, the soul discovers sweet spiritual milk and effortlessly drinks in all the things of God. Through grace, God gives the soul intense delight in spiritual practices, just as a loving mother places her breast tenderly into the mouth of her child.

This is how an awakened spiritual life is meant to begin.

We hear the word fire a lot to describe it: “He’s so on fire for God!” we say when someone first converts. That fire, that enthusiasm, that energy, that blazing love … it is kindled in us by God, as we are newborn babes drinking full the sweet spiritual milk of true and unending life for the very first time.

The first stage of the dark night of the soul — the dark night of the senses — begins when the time is right for us to be removed from that pure, sweet spiritual bottle of milk, when it’s time for us to be pulled away from the breast of God and placed on the ground instead, where we’re meant to learn to crawl, then stand, then walk, then run.

Into This Dark Night: Some Truths to Hold as We Go


Hello, friends. 

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?

Into This Dark Night: Removing Our Dependence on Our Senses

Bird on a wire.

I remember being so surprised to learn that God wants to remove our dependence on our senses. I mean, didn’t God give us our senses in the first place? Aren’t they a good thing? Why would God take the time to dream up, create, and give us senses to experience the world — not to mention experience our connection to himself — only to eventually take those senses away? What gives here?

But the more I understood, the more I understood.

When we judge our life with God based on our sensory experiences, we lose two ways.

First, we run the risk of judging reality based on feelings.

If we feel an infusion of good feelings when worshipping or praying or reading the Scriptures or any other sacred activity, we’re inclined to think we’re “doing good” with God. Accordingly, if we don’t feel those good sensory experiences during those activities, we’re inclined to think something’s wrong. 

Nothing’s wrong.

We don’t change in our standing with God based on the level of our felt connection to God when we engage spiritual practices. Our standing with God is sure. It doesn’t change with the passing wind. It doesn’t go up and down. It simply is. It can’t be changed or taken away.

(And praise God for that, right?)

Second, rooting our life with God in our sensory experiences can set us up to value the feelings over God himself. After all, who doesn’t love the heady high of worship? Who doesn’t love feeling God closer than one’s own breath? Who doesn’t love the feeling of being loved and cherished by God? 

These are all good things. But they are not the thing itself. 

There comes a point where our love for God is meant to deepen — when we are meant to grow in a purer love for God, simply because he is worthy of that love, not because of any good thing we may receive in the process. 

And so the night of the senses is a purifying process.

It purifies our love for God, and it frees us from our dependence on felt experiences to determine reality.