Dark Night of the Soul

First, my thanks to my friend Matt for recommending this book!

Dark Night of the Soul is a treatise on a phenomenon which occurs during the course of Christian spiritual devotion. I should point out that the 'dark night' to which John of the Cross, the author of the treatise, refers has nothing to do with what is commonly thought to be the 'dark night of the soul', which is a profound experience of depression. While the image of a 'long dark night of the soul' is apt as a metaphor for depression (it is almost as good as Winston Churchill's 'black dog'), that is not to what John of the Cross refers in his treatise on the 'dark night of the soul'. Part of what I will be doing, then, is clarifying what John of the Cross means when he talks about the 'dark night'.

In addition, Dark Night of the Soul is a companion of another of John's treatises on spirituality, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. I will have little to no recourse to that work in this marginal commentary, however.

The edition of Dark Night of the Soul in my possession and from which I shall quote passages is part of a collection of John's works, published in 1979 by the Institute of Carmelite Studies, and translated and edited by a pair of Carmelites (of the Order of Discalced Carmelites), Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (I should mention that in this collection, the work is entitled The Dark Night) John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, is considered one of the founders of the Discalced Carmelites. Incidentally, John of the Cross, along with Teresa of Avila, is commemorated in the Anglican Church of Canada on October 15.

And now, on to discover what is the dark night of the soul.

Here is John's definition of the dark night of the soul:
It is enough to have referred to the many imperfections of those who live in this beginner's state to see the need there is that God put them in the state of proficients. He does this by introducing them into the dark night, of which we shall now speak. There, through pure dryness and interior darkness, He weans them from the breasts of these gratifications and delights, takes away all these trivialities and childish ways, and makes them acquire the virtues by very different means. No matter how earnestly the beginner in all his actions and passions practices the mortification of self, he will never be able to do so entirely - far from it - until God accomplishes it in him passively by means of the purgation of this night.
May God be pleased to give me His divine light that I may say something worthwhile about this subject, for in a night so dark and a matter so difficult to treat and expound His enlightenment is very necessary.
The verse, then, is:
One dark night,
This night, which as we say is contemplation, causes two kinds of darkness or purgation in spiritual persons according to the two parts of the soul, the sensory and the spiritual.
Hence the one night or purgation will be sensory, by which the senses are purged and accommodated to the spirit... .
The sensory night is common and happens to many; these are the beginners of whom we shall treat first. The spiritual night is the lot of very few, of those who have been tried and are proficient, and of whom we shall speak afterwards. [p. 311; I.7.5-8.1] In so short a passage, there is quite a bit to go over. First, a logistical note: the numbers following the page number refer to the book, chapter and section into which the work is divided. The divisions are universal across critical editions of the work. I will, therefore, refer to them, so that any of you who wish to refer to the work can use other editions of it and still know where I am. Second, by John's statement, 'This night... causes two kinds of darkness... according to the two parts of the soul', we can infer that John holds to what is known as a 'bipartite theory' of the soul. The 'sensory' soul, as we shall see, is lesser, because it is focussed on the world of sense; the spiritual soul is that which is able to contemplate eternal verities. This get-up appears to be under some Platonic influence, but I shall say no more as it is a metaphysical matter. However, it will require some thought as to how to render John's 'dark night' intelligible if one does not hold to such a theory of the soul. Third, notice that the dark night is 'introduced' (as John puts it) by God in order to make beginners of spiritual devotion into proficients, and it is so done because the many imperfections (which John has listed earlier) prevent would-be contemplatives from achieving the goal of contemplation, which is spiritual union with God. I shall have more to say on this aspect of the dark night. Next, John's treatment of the dark night is based on a poem which he recites in the prologue of the work; whether it was written by him as an aid to his discussion of the dark night, or by someone else, I don't know. Since John habitually credits others with sayings, it seems unlikely that another wrote the poem, for he does not mention it. Next, because I imagine that few of my readers are going to launch into a discipline of Christian meditation and contemplation, I shall endeavour to demonstrate how John's work can be, as it were, abstracted to refer to a phenomenon that, I think, is typical of any practice which is ongoing and which requires self-discipline. Obviously this will mean getting away from the text as it is, to a certain extent, but I will do my best to draw any such discussion from what John writes. It also remains the case that I will comment upon what the dark night means for those engaged in spiritual devotion and exercise, in which case what John writes will have immediate relevance. Finally, I will limit my marginal commentary to John's discussion of the 'first' dark night, the dark night of sense. As a beginner in many aspects of the practice of virtue, it will be most helpful for me to focus on this first part of the dark night, and I think all of us who have tried to begin some habit or change how we do things have experienced a 'dark night' of the kind John describes here.
Earlier, John defines the dark night like so:
[T]his dark night signifies here purgative contemplation, which passively causes in the soul this negation of self and of all things. [p. 297; I.P.1
Souls begin to enter this dark night when God, gradually drawing them out of the state of beginners (those who practice meditation on the spiritual road), begins to place them in the state of proficients (those who are already contemplatives) so that by passing through this state they might reach that of the perfect, which is the divine union of the soul with God. [pp. 297-8; I.1.1] Not much new to say (the later definition, which I quoted first, includes all of the information from this former definition) about the dark night here. It is worth noting that the dark night, at least insofar as it pertains to the practice of meditation and contemplation, is not, according to John, something that happens naturally, but a gift of God's - hence one of the stanzas in the poem which reads, 'Ah, the sheer grace!' In my discussion of the phenomenon like the dark night in the practice of other habits and virtues, I believe that the 'dark night' is a natural progression.
Since, as we saw, the dark night is introduced by God because of 'many imperfections of those who live in this beginner's state', we should briefly examine some of these imperfections. John bases them on the 'seven capital vices' (more commonly known as the 'seven deadly sins'). His discussion of them is brief, but not so brief that I could quote it entirely; thus I will focus on part of his discussion of one set of imperfections common to beginners in spiritual practice.
Because of the strong desire of many beginners for spiritual gratification, they usually have many imperfections of anger. For when the delight and satisfaction procured in their spiritual exercises passes, these beginners are naturally left without any spiritual savor. And because of this distastefulness, they become peevish in the works they do and easily angered by the least thing, and occasionally they are so unbearable that nobody can put up with them. This frequently occurs after they have experienced in prayer some recollection pleasant to the senses. After the delight and satisfaction is gone, the sensory part of the soul is naturally left vapid and zestless, just as a child when withdrawn from the sweet breast. These souls are not at fault if they do not allow this dejection to influence them, for it is an imperfection which must be purged through the dryness and distress of the dark night.
Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain indiscreet zeal they become angry over the sins of others, they reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue. All such conduct is contrary to spiritual meekness.
Others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. So impatient are they about these imperfections that they would want to become saints in a day.
Many of these beginners will make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need when He so desires. Their attitude is contrary to spiritual meekness and can only be remedied by the purgation of the dark night. Some, however, are so patient about their desire for advancement that God would prefer to see them a little less so. [pp. 306-7; I.5.1-3] Again, there is a lot to say, even though the passage quoted is relatively short. The imperfections related here have to do with the capital vice of anger (or wrath), as should be obvious. These imperfections, John writes, are some among many which beset beginners in contemplation. Notice, however, that they have an impact on the whole of one's life; the beginner in spiritual contemplation who falls prey to imperfections of anger may 'reprove' others 'angrily', 'setting themselves up as lords of virtue', as John says. If, as I have suggested, all of us are in some sense beginners in the practice of virtue generally, then this kind of imperfection is likely to appear in others. And, indeed, we all know people who set 'themselves up as lords of virtue' and reprove others angrily, unaware of their own imperfections and flaws. These are the kind of people who work not to be more virtuous or caring, or to better the world, but to remove from the world the sources of their irritation, which they mistakenly think to be an improvement. To a certain extent we are all like this, for it is analogous to scratching an itch. The imperfection which struck home for me was the third John mentions, the anger which arises when we don't become 'saints in a day'. It is not only in the practice of spiritual contemplation that this kind of anger arises. In the practice of any habit, in the acquisition of any skill or virtue, I think we are all tempted to become angered or frustrated or irritated when we don't succeed right away. How many of us have resolved to do something but given up in anger when it seemed too hard? This anger, with respect to whatever habit, virtue, practice, goal, or skill, is natural (as John attests). But it is one thing to feel such anger or impatience and accept that we are feeling it; it is another to allow ourselves to give up whatever habit, virtue, practice, goal, or skill that we are striving to acquire or achieve out of that anger or impatience. Now, John of the Cross says that, with respect to the practice of spiritual contemplation, only God can bestow the dark night by which the imperfection of anger (among many others) can be quelled. This makes sense, since the goal of spiritual contemplation, union with God, can be accomplished only by grace; i.e., as a gift from God. It follows that the means to achieve this end must also be gifts. I believe that, whatever the case may be with spiritual contemplation, it is possible that a similar phenomenon occurs generally in the practice of virtue, or in the acquisition of some habit or skill or the accomplishment of some goal. In any case, this should be enough to show that the 'dark night' to which John refers has nothing to do, at least of necessity, with depression (although John will refer to the effect the dark night can have on those whose temperament makes them prone to depression). Rather, it is a stage in the process of accomplishing the end which one has set. Attend also to the image John uses of removing the infant from the breast; this is a metaphor he employs frequently, and were it not for the fact that the poem with which John began this treatise uses the image of the dark night, the master metaphor of the work, as it were, could have been that of weaning, for in many respects this is what the dark night is a process of.
Now that we have an idea of what the dark night of the soul is, and why it is necessary for people to undergo it, let's see what it looks like.
Since the conduct of... beginners in the way of God is lowly and not too distant from love of pleasure and of self... God desires to withdraw them from this base manner of loving and lead them on to a higher degree of divine love. And He desires to liberate them from the lowly exercise of the senses and of discursive meditation, by which they go in search of Him so inadequately and with so many difficulties, and lead them into the exercise of spirit, in which they become capable of a communion with God that is more abundant and freer of imperfections. ... [I]t is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and spring of the sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired. ... God now leaves them in such darkness that they do not know which way to turn in their discursive imaginings; they cannot advance a step in meditation, as they used to, now that the interior sensory faculties are engulfed in this night. He leaves them in such dryness that they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter. [p. 312; I.8.3] First, a word on discursive meditation, since, at least in the Dark Night of the Soul, John does not explain what it is (remember, he would have expected readers of the Dark Night to be familiar with the practise, or he may have discussed it at length in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. It seems that discursive meditation is a form of meditation in which one focusses on a symbol or image of the Divine. Thus, in John's account of the soul, discursive meditation requires the participation of the sensory part of the soul, because using an image requires being able to 'see' it, as it were, in the mind's eye. Because the first night, the night of sense, which is what we are looking at, is the purgation of the sensory part of the soul (so John's account goes), discursive meditation must needs fail because, as John puts it, 'the interior sensory faculties are engulfed in... night.' In John's account the dark night is a gift because in order for beginners of spiritual devotion to proceed to union with God, they must not be satisfied with the pleasure and good feeling which their initial forays into spiritual devotion provide. So, when the dark night comes, the pleasure and satisfaction which novice contemplatives got from their spiritual exercises dries up. How this image of a dark night applies to the acquisition of a virtue or a good habit or a skill can be illustrated by looking at learning to play the piano. It is enjoyable and fun when one first begins to play the piano. You plonk around, and derive pleasure from the random sounds you are able to create from the instrument. By contrast, learning proper fingering and practising simple pieces repetitively is not much fun, and one does not derive satisfaction from such things initially. Such things are, to use John's word, 'dry'. (Obviously this differs slightly from what John is talking about, for the spiritual exercises would not change, only the pleasure one gets from them; it is more of a change in one's interior disposition.) In order to proceed to learning to play better music on the piano, one must no longer find pleasure in plonking around, and one must work through the 'dry' stuff of practising fingering and simple pieces (and so on). You won't learn to play the piano if, because they are distasteful to you, you don't practise fingering and all the rest of the 'dry' stuff. And it is reasonable to posit, when it comes to almost any skill, habit, &c., that there is a plateau one reaches as a beginner, at which point, after having learned the initial and easy steps, that the exercise is no longer immediately fun. Many people upon reaching this plateau stop trying to learn whatever it is they were working on. Think of the person who takes up jogging and enjoys it for a little while, but then stops because 'I'm not getting anything out of it'. I myself have fallen into just this kind of habit, to be honest. So in this way, John's 'dark night' has a kind of application to a broader range of disciplines than spiritual devotion, although with respect to spiritual devotion in particular the dark night of sense is 'passive' (it is bestowed by God and one works through it without having any real control over how long it lasts), while with acquiring a skill (and the like), ascending from the plateau is an active measure. Even so, I think the analogy is clear.
John points out that there are other phenomena which could account for the sensation of being in a 'dark night', so he points out some signs that indicate its true nature. Most of these signs are particular to the 'dark night' as an aspect of spiritual devotion, but in his discussion of the second sign that one is undergoing the dark night of sense, John describes things that can be seen to apply to a wider range of disciplines:
The reason for this dryness [of the sensory part of the soul] is that God transfers his goods and strength from sense to spirit. Since the senory part of the soul is incapable of the goods of the spirit, it remains deprived, dry, and empty, and thus, while the spirit is tasting, the flesh tastes nothing at all... . But the spirit through this nourishment grows stronger and more alert... . If in the beginning the soul does not experience this spiritual savor and delight, but dryness and distaste, it is because of the novelty involved in this exchange. Since its palate is accustomed to these other sensory tastes, the soul still sets its eyes on them. And since, also, its spiritual palate is neither purged nor accommodated for so subtle a taste, it is unable to experience the spiritual savor and good until gradually prepared by means of this dark and obscure night; the soul rather experiences dryness and distaste because of a lack of the gratification it formerly enjoyed so readily. [p. 314; I.9.4] With respect to what John is discussing, this is an account of the ordo amoris. That is, the proper 'order' of desiring and loving. For John, so long as we attend to the gratification of our sensory soul, we experience the delights proper to the spirit (that part of the soul which does not deal with the sensory faculties) as distasteful. But the delights proper to the spirit are better than those proper to sense, thus, for John, we must be purged of our desire for and satisfaction with sensory delights, in order that we may be able to take pleasure in spiritual goods. (Eventually there is a 'dark night of the spirit' in which we move beyond the delights of the spirit so that we can experience union with God). With respect to the broader application of the image of the 'dark night', you might say that if we are trying to learn a skill or habit, we have to become dissatisfied with our initial forays into whatever we are trying to learn in order to proceed to improve. If you are happy enough to plonk around on the piano, you won't be motivated to reach the more refined pleasure in playing more complicated pieces which can only be done if you practise fingering and other exercises. Or, you won't be able to run even a short 5K race, let alone a half-marathon, if you don't grow dissatisfied with running around the block. But, to tie this back to the previous section, because we aren't at first accustomed to taking delight in the more difficult but more accomplished goals of whatever it is we are trying to learn, our experience of it becomes 'dry'. Our 'palate' is accustomed to the easy first steps, so we don't 'get' how the more difficult stuff can be more 'fun' (as it were) than what we are presently doing.
So much, then, for the signs of the dark night. John then discusses the sort of conduct which those undergoing the dark night of sense should strive to undertake.
Spiritual persons suffer considerable affliction in this night, owing not so much to the aridities they undergo as to their fear of having gone astray. Since they do not find any support or satisfaction in good things, they believe there will be no more spiritual blessings for them and that God has abandoned them. They then grow weary and strive, as was their custom, to concentrate their faculties with some satisfaction upon a subject of meditation, and they think that if they do not do this and are unaware of their activity, they are doing nothing. ...
They consequently impair God's work and do not profit by their own. In searching from spirit, they lose the spirit which was the source of their tranquility and peace. They are like someone who turns from what has been already been done in order to do it again, or one who leaves a city only to re-enter it... . It is useless then for the soul to try to meditate, because it will no longer profit by this exercise.
If there is no one to understand these persons, they either turn back and abandon the road or lose courage, or at least they hinder their own progress because of their excessive diligence in treading the path of discursive meditation. They fatigue and overwork themselves, thinking that they are failing because of their negligence or sins. ...
The attitude necessary in the night of sense is to pay no attention to discursive meditation, since this is not the time for it. They should allow the soul to remain in rest and quietude, even though it may seem very obvious to them that they are doing nothing and wasting time, and even though they think that this disinclination to think about anything is due to their laxity. Through patience and perseverance in prayer, they will be going a great deal without activity on their part. ... They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, and live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel Him. [pp. 316-7; I.10.1-2, 4] While I think I have shown (at least in part) that an experience akin to the dark night is evident in the practise of acquiring new habits, virtues, skills, &c., it is clear that the more we explore the dark night (of sense), the more its applicability diverges from a direct analogy and the more it becomes a metaphor. One of the primary reasons is that the dark night, as John describes it, is (as I think I have probably mentioned somewhere above) a passive experience; being given by God it is not something spiritual practitioners can achieve for themselves. Moreover, as John's directions for conduct indicate, once one is in the dark night, one is not supposed to try harder, or to think that when one is meditating and nothing is coming to mind for discursive imagining, that one's spiritual exercises are a waste of time. The kind of 'letting go' of expectations for achievement which John calls for are not universally applicable to the acquisition of virtue or a skill, although it may be said that an equivalent would be that it is not helpful, when trying to learn a new skill, to try too hard to get ahead of one's self. If it is your first time going to the gym to lift weights, don't try to bench press 300 lbs.! The most evidently applicable segment of this passage is John's statement 'If there is no one to understand these persons, &c.'. With respect to the deprivation of the interior faculties used for discursive meditation in spiritual practise, what one going through the dark night needs is a spiritual director. It is important that one does not try to go through the dark night alone, without someone to identify, for example, that that is what is happening. Likewise, it is exceptionally difficult for us to motivate ourselves to change, to learn a new skill or habit or to grow in virtue, if we do not have the encouragement, support, and, sometimes, expertise, of others. The more difficult the skill or habit we are trying to acquire, the more we need the help of others to achieve it, particularly when the habit we are trying to acquire (or, conversely, the one we are trying to shed) relates to our moral or psychological well-being - very few people are able to quit drinking, for example, unless they are part of a programme like AA. My own belief is such that no change (for good and, for that matter, for evil) is possible for us without the help and support of others, although this help or support may take many and various forms (sometimes a 'hands-off' approach is best, for example). The dark night of spiritual practise is a very interior and mysterious experience, and so is hard to describe to others (although John was able to write treatises about it); generally it is not as difficult to communicate effective ways of acquiring new skills or habits.
John concludes his discussion of the first night, the 'night of sense', by exegeting a few verses of the first stanza of the poem on which his meditation upon the dark night is based, as well as by elucidating some of the first night's benefits. I will focus on some of those benefits. Incidentally, reading the Dark Night of the Soul has provided me with a brief lesson in poetics (see, e.g., I.11.1-4). I have discovered that the stanza is 'the unit of structure in a poem' and is 'a group of lines of verse', whereas a verse is (properly), a 'line of metrical writing'. (These meanings of those terms, which are how John uses them, I owe to the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory.) I had always thought that what is properly called a 'stanza' is a 'verse', because of my experience with songs; one talks about hymns (say) with seven 'verses', for example, but it would be more accurate to call them 'stanzas', and to call each 'line' of a 'verse' a 'verse', instead. (On the other hand, 'next stanza, same as the first, except a little bit louder and a little bit worse' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.) Anyway, on we go to some benefits of the dark night:
The first and chief benefit that this dry and dark night of contemplation causes is the knowledge of the self and of one's own misery. Besides the fact that all the favors God imparts to the soul are ordinarily enwrapped in this knowledge, the aridities and voids of the faculties in relation to the abundance previously experienced, and the difficulty encountered in the practice of virtue make the soul recognize its own lowliness and misery, which was not apparent in the of its prosperity. ...
As a result the soul recognizes the truth about its misery, of which it was formerly ignorant. When it was walking in festivity, gratification, consolation, and support in God, it was more content, believing that it was serving God in some way. Though this idea of serving God may not be explicitly formed in a person's mind, at least some notion of it is deeply embedded within him owing to the satisfaction he derives from his spiritual exercises. Now that the soul is clothed in these other garments of labor, dryness, and desolation, and that its former lights have been darkened, it possesses more authentic lights in this most excellent and necessary virtue of self-knowledge. It considers itself to be nothing and finds no satisfaction in self because it is aware that of itself it neither does nor can do anything.
God esteems this lack of self-satisfaction and the dejection a person has about not serving Him more than all former deeds and gratifications, however notable they may have been, since they were the occasion of many imperfections and a great deal of ignorance. ...
First, a person communes with God more respectfully and courteously, the way one should always converse with the Most High. In the prosperity of satisfaction and consolation the beginner did not act thus, for that satisfying delight made him somewhat more daring with God than was proper, and more discourteous and inconsiderate. ...
... [A]nother benefit resulting from this night and dryness of the sensory appetite... [is that God gives] illumination by bestowing upon the soul not only knowledge of its own misery and lowliness but also knowledge of His grandeur and majesty. When the sensory appetites, gratifications, and supports are quenched, the intellect is left limpid and free to understand the truth... . ... God also, by means of this dark and dry night of contemplation, supernaturally instructs us in His divine wisdom the soul that is empty and unhindered... which He did not do through the former satisfactions and pleasures. ...
In the dryness and emptiness of this night of the appetite, a person also procures spiritual humility... . Aware of his own dryness and wretchedness, the thought of his being more advanced than others does not even occur in its first movements, as it did before; on the contrary, he realizes that others are better.
From this humility stems love of neighbor, for he will esteem them and not judge them as he did before, when he was aware that he enjoyed an intense fervor while others did not. ...
In relation to the imperfections of the [vices of anger, envy, and sloth], the soul is also purged in this dryness of appetite, and it acquires the virtues to which these vices are opposed. Softened and humbled by aridities and hardships and by other temptations and trials in which God exercises the soul in the course of this night, a person becomes meek toward God and himself, and also toward his neighbor. As a result, he will no longer become impatiently angry with himself and his faults, nor with his neighbor's, neither is he displeased or disrespectfully querulous with God for not making him perfect quickly.
As for envy, the individual will also be charitable toward others. For if he does have envy, it will not be as vicious as before, when he was distressed that others were preferred to him and more advanced. Now, aware of how miserable he is, he is willing to concede this about others. The envy he has - if he does have any - is a holy envy that desires to imitate them, which indicates solid virtue. ...
Besides these benefits, innumerable others flow from this dry contemplation. In the midst of these aridities and straits, God frequently communicates to the soul, when it least expects, spiritual sweetness, a very pure love, and a spiritual knowledge which is sometimes most delicate. Each of these communications is more valuable than all that the soul previously sought. Yet in the beginning one will not think so because the spiritual inflow is very delicate and the senses do not perceive it. ...
These aridities, then, make a person walk with purity in the love of God, for he is no longer moved to act by the delight and satisfaction he finds in a work, as he was perhaps when he derived this from his deeds, but by the desire of pleasing God. He is neither presumptuous nor self-satisfied, as was his custom in the time of his prosperity, but fearful and disquieted about himself and lacking in any self-satisfaction. This is the holy fear which preserves and gives increase to the virtues. [pp. 321-4, 326-7; I.12.2-4, 8; I.13.7-8, 10-11] The more and more John of the Cross goes into detail about what the dark night is and does, the more and more particular it is to the practise of Christian spiritual devotion and the less generally applicable it is. The discussion of benefits of the night of sense, then, is a good place to stop, because the night of the spirit is by definition incomparable to other forms of striving, not least because characteristic of the latter dark night is that those who seek union with God must desist striving of any kind (although presumably they are to continue to practise regular spiritual exercises). In any event we have seen enough to know that the dark night which is an element of spiritual devotion has nothing to do with the psychological phenomenon of depression. That said, at one point John discusses of the effects of the dark night on people with a melancholic humour, and from what he says we can suppose that depression of a sort is likely to occur in those experiencing a dark night who by temperament are prone to melancholy. John lists benefits relating to all of the imperfections pertaining to the capital vices which he described earlier in the work, but I have omitted the majority of the benefits, just as I omitted most of his description of the imperfections themselves. For John the imperfections, you may recall, resulted from their inordinate focus on their sensory faculties when committing themselves to spiritual devotion; thus, because the first dark night has to do with purging the soul of using its interior sensory faculties to imagine God or of experiencing divine favour in any perceptible way, the imperfections are gradually purged because the soul no longer attempts to experience God sensibly (obviously I do not mean this in the 'be sensible' kind of way). For John, of course, the chiefest benefit of the first dark night is that the spiritual person who undergoes it is capable of receiving spiritual knowledge of God and the gift of divine illumination, where before he or she could not. And as John is discussing a phenomenon of Christian spiritual practise, we should agree that divine illumination and such things are greatly to be desired, seeing as they are goals of said devotion. As for how the benefits John enumerates relate to the acquisition of virtue more generally, things are less obvious. One might suppose that as one becomes more practiced in, say, playing the piano, one realises that he or she has a lot to learn, but there is no guarantee that a proficient piano player who has made it through the equivalent to the 'dark night' will not be envious of better pianists, or humble about his or her own ability. But we should not expect such a thing, for the 'dark nights' of acquiring skills, habits, and virtues will differ in the benefits they provide than the 'dark night' of spiritual devotion. Probably the most important benefit of a more generalised phenomenon akin to the 'dark night' is that those who experience it are no longer content with being beginners of whatever skill or habit they are trying to acquire. The easy gratifications and satisfactions of starting out pall once someone enters the 'dark night'. Those who are unable to let the 'dark night' run its course, and just keep plugging away until they gain proficiency in whatever it is they are attempting to learn to do, are those who fall away. The would-be pianist who is forever trying to recapture the fun of just beginning without practising every day is the one who will eventually stop playing the piano altogether. The runner who wouldn't run unless he felt 'up to it' and unless the weather was sunny is never going to run a half-marathon, let alone a 10K race on a windy, cold, wet Saturday morning in May. To advance in any venture, one must be able to move beyond the pleasures, gratifications, and satisfactions that were attractive in the first place to different kinds of satisfaction. The 'dark night' occurs once the demands of the skill or habit being acquired become greater than the initial gratification can compensate for, but before all the practice, hard work, and effort pays off. This, then, is how I understand John's dark night (at least the first dark night, the night of sense) to be applicable to a broader range of achievement than that of Christian spiritual devotion.
So ends my marginal commentary on Dark Night of the Soul.

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