Interior Trials: Part VI
We cannot avoid or conquer the “Dark Night of the Soul”. We rely on our spiritual routines to no avail. Prayer provides little comfort. Mediation is nearly impossible. “Solitude is even worse” — although we also find it painful to be around people. But we can endure the “Dark Night” and better understand God’s work during this difficult time. Drawing from Teresa of Avila’s Sixth Mansions of the Interior Castle and Thomas Merton’s book Contemplation, lets look closer at the Dark Night of the Soul.
We cling to our “own individual and self-directed activity”. We try to maintain spiritual control through well-established routines in what Merton calls our “perfect autonomy in perfectly familiar realms”. But God shatters our attempts to control our spiritual life and purifies our souls through the “Dark Night”.
Loosening Our Grip
Merton writes, “Misplaced effort in the spiritual life often consists in stubbornly insisting upon compulsive routines which seem to us to be necessary because they accord with our own short-sighted notions. St. John of the Cross maintains that this stubborn insistence cannot be cured by our own activity, and needs to be ‘purified’ by God himself in the ‘night’ of contemplation. He teaches that these misplaced efforts, and the faults of character and nature from which they spring, can only be removed by the secret purifying action of grace in the ‘dark night’. . . . [It] is precisely this attachment to their own ways of prayer and meditation that hinders their growth in the spiritual life”.
Merton continues, “God brings these people into the way of life by depriving them of the light and the consolation they seek, by impeding their own efforts, by confusing and depriving them of the satisfactions which their own efforts aim to attain. Thus blocked and frustrated, unable to carry on with their accustomed projects, they find themselves in a very painful state in which their own wishes, their self-esteem, their presumption, their aggressivity and so on are systematically humiliated.”
When God works with souls this way “[He] weans them from the breasts of these sweetnesses and pleasures, gives them pure aridities and inward darkness, takes from them all these superficialities and puerilities, and by very different means causes them to win the virtues.”
The Darkness is Really Light
But our “Dark Night of the Soul” is really light. Merton says, God will “fill them with a higher and purer light which is ‘darkness’ to sense and to reason. The darkening is therefore at the same time enlightenment. God darkens the mind only in order to give a more perfect light. The reason that the light of faith is darkness to the soul is, says St. John, that this is in reality an excessive light. Direct exposure to supernatural light darkens the mind and the heart, and it is precisely in this way that, being led into the ‘dark night of faith,’ one passes from meditation . . . to contemplation, or a deeper and simpler intuitive form of receptivity . . . by receiving the light with passive and loving attention.
While We Wait
We cannot get rid of our “Dark Night” through our usual spiritual practices. In fact, that is not even desirable since God is doing a purifying work in our souls. As we wait upon the grace and mercy of God we must go about our ordinary life, avoid offending God, and practice loving others. When the time is right, God will reveal how great a light the “dark night” really is.
*The Thomas Merton material is from: Contemplation by Thomas Merton (Copyright: The Merton Legacy Trust. Published by Doubleday Religion)
*This post is based on material from The Interior Castle: Sixth Mansions: Chapter One (Teresa of Avila).
* “Dark Night of the Soul” is a phrase from St. John of the Cross. St. John of the Cross was a contemporary and close friend of Teresa of Avila. He was also a Carmelite reformer.