Bringing Light To The Dark Night Of The Soul

I was listening to a local church sermon podcast, and the subject of  The Dark Night Of The Soul arose. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it is a poem written by St John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite Monk and Mystic who lived in the 16th century and whose eight-stanza poem outlines the soul’s journey from the distractions and entanglements of the world to the perfect peace and harmony of union with God. The woman preaching [another matter altogether] gave the poem and the man unequivocal praise and highly recommended that everyone read his poem and the accompanying dissertation he wrote which explains and outlines the poem. She stated “If any of you in your Christian walk feel like you are pursuing God, and yet you are feeling this drought, I strongly encourage you to read it…It is a very powerful truth and a very strong discipleship lesson that hopefully we will all go through in our Christian walk.”

This naturally caught my attention for several reasons. The first because I find Roman Catholic mysticism and the so-called “desert fathers” to be an intriguing part of history and the whole concept truly fascinates me. But secondly, and more importantly, it was clear to me that the woman preaching was not particularly familiar with either the man or the poem, which resulted in a misrepresentation of both. To that end, I found her enthused endorsement extremely troubling. I believe a real lack of discernment was exhibited with recommending and then preaching an entire sermon on the man and his techniques, and then implying that they were beneficial to the believer today.

The preacher refers to him merely as a “theologian and a philosopher” But such general terms are vague and not particularly helpful. From a theological point of view he was the Roman Catholic counterpart of the occult mystics of the 5th century who excelled in the theology of darkness. Deeply devoted to esceticism, he teamed up with another occult nun, Theresa of Avila to “reform” the Carmelite order  by pushing it to heights of fanaticism. [An order by the way, which was consecrated  to the Virgin Mary, and who had as one of its tenants the belief that if you wore a brown scapular, the Carmelite habit, you would be saved from eternal damnation] He became her right hand and the confessor for her nuns and together they explored the heights of enlightened mysticism [which resembles Kabbalah more than anything] which they believed lead to Christian perfection. The mysticism is composed of three parts: purgation, in which the senses and spirit are purged of all desires; illumination, in which God supernaturally floods the soul with his love while the individual remains passive; and union, in which the soul is united with God in perfection. St John of the Cross says that such an individual will be able to skip purgatory since purgatory’s work has been completed in this life. If you completed it and achieved that perfection, you would not have to suffer punishment in purgatory for your sins, but rather would go straight to heaven.

That’s the  context in what we’re dealing with, and I know that’s not what the preacher believes. For her, she takes the poem and the treatise on their own and understands the poem to mean that when we are baby Christians, God gives us the warm fuzzies. Later in life, God removes them so we can grow deeper with God and so he can purify us. I’d be interested to hear where that is spelled out in the bible, but that for now is besides the point. Her type of Dark Night Of The Soul is not what St John of the Cross believes or is trying to communicate, not with his understanding of the purpose and end results of consolations and desolations. I don’t believe for a second that the idea of a step-by-step process of self-denial and affliction culminating in glory is  taught in Scripture, and I don’t think it’s useful or beneficial for us Christians to be taking lessons and to be getting advice from a Pseudo-Dionysian, Roman Catholic, pro-purgatorial, pro-christian perfection, ascetic mystic monk. Do we really want to involved ourselves in that? I don’t believe it is wise to consider pursuing that, not with with the plethora of false teaching and the gospel confusion. I also don’t  believe it wise to promote a poem and a book from a “theologian and philosopher” without offering a proper contex of what they are bringing to the table by way of beliefes, values and presuppositions, and how these might affect what is being promoted.

3 thoughts on “Bringing Light To The Dark Night Of The Soul

  1. Your problems with the Carmelite order are understandable and expected. However, Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his work “Fire Within,” meticulously shows how these mystics’ teachings are nothing more than elaborations of the Gospel teaching of self-denial and union with Christ. I’d highly recommend that book if you’re interested in seeing an argument for the orthodoxy and sensibility of Jaunine/Teresian spirituality.

    But, I think your central point is very well taken — this deconstruction of Carmelite mysticism to the “warm fuzzies” is both absurd and infantalizing. The Christian life is a real via crucis, and these two writers only sought to show how that way procedes (the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way). But your point is well-received: people should take Teresa and John for what they are — dogmatic catholics who are firmly entrenched in the mystical tradition of the Church, and giving rise to the Catholic Church’s greatest explication of mystical union to date.

    • Hey Ryan. I may indeed pick up that book, because the whole thing does fascinate me. As far as the rest goes, you and I are in agreement that this sort of thing is not particularily “protestant-friendly” and really devalues it and rips it out of its roman catholic context.

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