The Dark Night Of The Soul, by St. John of The Cross
In reading this book I find myself of somewhat mixed emotions. On the one hand, I found a great deal in this book that represented defective Hellenistic Christianity, from unbiblical beliefs in Purgatory and a hostility to the physical world that comes from the authoritarian gnosticism of which he was a part to a love of praising the traditions and ways of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, even given these flaws this book had much to offer it, not least because it offers a decisive rejection of the lassiez faire ways of contemporary ragamuffins concerning the role of trials. All too often contemporary gnostics who call themselves believers are of the belief that the difficulties of life are a sign that God has rejected them rather than a sign that their character needs to be refined. And this book, thankfully, makes that distinction clear, that times of absence and barrenness in life are a sign of God’s working with us to purify us and are not a sign of God’s rejection of us, which is a worthwhile thing to those of us who are all too familiar with our own dark nights of the soul .
In general, this book is a short commentary on a poem from the author himself that seek to convince and encourage those whom the author instructed during his time as a priest and a leader within a religious Order in 16th century Spain. His own life, from his childhood poverty to the political disputes that troubled his adult life within his religious order which included a painfully unpleasant experience in prison, was sufficiently dramatic and sufficiently full of trouble to make it easy to understand his interest in the refining aspect of trials. The author provides homilies on his own poetic text as if it was the sort of text that one could sermonize from, and occasionally (although sometimes erroneously or speculatively) makes reference to the Bible to support his points. His book begins with a discussion of the various imperfections of the soul and then discusses the lengthy process of the purification of the soul, going into detail about the sort of pain that one suffers in the dark night of the soul, which he only begins talking about at the beginning of book two. Included in this are a discussion of the secretive and personal nature of mysticism and the superiority of the spirit to the flesh, which at times moves from the biblical position to the position of the philosophical Greeks. At one point a discussion of angelology appears to represent a belief that the angelic realm tends to act as a sort of pleroma between God and mankind of descending virtue and spirituality.
Despite the book’s flaws, though, it is easy to understand why this book remains appreciated by so many and remains a worthwhile encouragement during difficult times of spiritual refining, which, as the author maintains, can last for years. As someone who has known lengthy dark nights of my own soul, from which I emerged a different person than I was before, the author’s experience speaks to my own. In our contemporary age, as well as the age in which the author lived and wrote, there have been many false ministers preaching doctrines of prosperity which flattered the wealthy and corrupt of the time, and made it seem as if enduring difficult times was a sign of God’s particular disfavor rather than the natural process of God refining and purifying imperfect human beings to be a part of his family. This denigration of that refining process in popular religious culture has often led those for whom life is difficult and unpleasant to despair, and has been accordingly a tool of Satan. This book gives thoughtful encouragement to those whose spiritual lives are filled with a great deal of longing and not nearly the amount of pleasure that most people seem to find in existence and that is sufficient to make this a worthwhile book to read and appreciate even today.
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