Juan de Ypes y Álvarez, who took as his reformed religious name Juan de la Cruz, or John of the Cross, wrote his Dark Night of the Soul near the end of his life as a fourth part of a previous book, La subida del Monte Carmelo (1578-1579; The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1864, 1922). Much of what is obscure in Dark Night of the Soul is clarified by reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel, though the metaphysical nature of the subject matter makes understanding inevitably difficult. Nevertheless, Dark Night of the Soul is a systematic description of John’s actual experience, not a theoretical work.
The general religious-historical context for all of John’s work is Saint Teresa of Avila’s reform of the Carmelite order. John’s participation in Saint Teresa’s reform contributed to his spiritual and theological development, though it led to political dangers within the Carmelite order. By representing a higher ideal, a stricter observance of the rule of the Carmelite order established three hundred years earlier, John and others like him posed a threat to the rest of the order, who seemed lax by comparison. Even within the reform movement (known as the Discalced, or “without shoes,” a reference to the ideal of poverty), disagreements arose. The Discalced reformers called for a more active missionary role in the community for Carmelite priests, and John defended the exclusively contemplative life.
These disagreements were not just academic: They led to John’s brief imprisonment in 1576 and again for some nine months in 1577. It was in this period of crisis that John wrote some of his most powerful poetry, especially “The Spiritual Canticle.” One key to understanding the thought of John is that all of his theological works began as poetry, and only later, at the request of nuns and priests attempting to understand the thought and experience behind them, did he work out a systematic theology as prose commentaries to these poems.
It was in this manner that John wrote Dark Night of the Soul. In 1578, a year after his imprisonment, John was named superior of the monastery of El Calvario in Andalusia. There he wrote the poem beginning “En una noche oscura,” or “On a dark night”—the kernel of Dark Night of the Soul. In his talks with the nuns of El Calvario, John began to see the value of writing down his commentaries on his poems. If Christian theology originates in commentaries on Scripture, which in many cases is poetry, then commentaries on Christian poetry might be almost as valuable.
John’s commentaries on the Dark Night of the Soul poem, however, did not begin until 1585. At that time he was prior of the Discalced monastery of Los Martires in Grenada, which benefitted from the generosity of a wealthy lady, Señora Ana de Peñelosa. It was Ana who asked John to write his commentaries on his poems, for her edification. Among them was Dark Night of the Soul, completed by 1585.
The structure of thought in Dark Night of the Soul is an extension of that of the previous work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, basically a fourfold pattern representing the progress of the soul in contemplative prayer. Because John’s contemplative prayer progresses by two modalities, active/passive and spiritual/sensual, four combinations are possible. The four different types of “night” in his spiritual experience are, in sequence, the active night of sense (described in the first book of The Ascent of Mount Carmel), the active night of spirit (The Ascent of Mount Carmel , books 2 and 3), the passive night of...
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sense (Dark Night of the Soul, book 1), and passive night of spirit (Dark Night of the Soul, book 2).
Dark Night of the Soul, then, deals exclusively with the passive form of the spiritual darkness John called “night.” The passivity is considered a progression from the active nights discussed in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, because in the passive nights described in Dark Night of the Soul, the soul has learned to submit to God’s will, realizing that further illumination is up to God and is not subject to any action on the part of the individual. This passivity must be understood in that context, however, for it does not imply inactivity. In fact, the image that John uses is a concentration of the mental faculties into the “single act” of union with God.
Before discussing the passive night of sense, which is the subject of book 1, John describes the soul of the individual contemplative just before entering that night. The contemplative at this point John calls a “beginner,” and he describes the purgation of many imperfections in the beginner (chapter 1). The next six chapters each deal with one of the seven capital sins purged by this dark night: pride, avarice, luxury, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Chapter 8 begins the explication of the poem by expounding the first line. Chapter 9 describes the signs by which the soul knows it is making progress in the “dark night,” and chapter 10 offers advice on enduring the deprivations of that night. The remaining four chapters explicate the rest of the first stanza of the poem, and list the spiritual benefits of the passive night of sense.
By “passive night of sense,” John refers to a withdrawing of sensual images in prayer that would have, before this night, appeared as consolation to the contemplative. The presence of images in prayer is associated with the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary with whom John corresponded. It is also a staple of the Roman Catholic practice of praying the rosary: Each decade of beads represents a specific event in the lives of Mary and Jesus, on which the individual contemplates while reciting the prayers. The sensory images that appear in this type of contemplation are seen by the individual receiving them as gifts from God. When these gifts are withdrawn in the passive night of sense, the individual feels abandoned by God. Moreover, because of a heightened discrimation, the individual is aware of spiritual imperfections previously hidden from view, and so feels that such apparent abandonment is justified. Thus, spiritual progress paradoxically leads to feelings of isolation and spiritual “dryness.”
In book 2, before going on to the second stanza of the poem, John revisits the first stanza from the point of view of the last stage of contemplation, the passive night of the soul. He follows the same pattern he employed in the first book, beginning by analyzing the imperfections of the soul about to enter this final night. Because the soul has already passed through the purgation of the passive night of sense, it no longer suffers the imperfections mentioned in book 1. It does, however, experience other imperfections (chapter 2) and other pains and griefs (chapters 5-8). John assures the reader, however, that the pains of this dark night are merely purgative, preparing the way for the divine illumination to follow (chapter 9). In chapter 15, John begins explicating the second stanza of the poem, which expresses much more of the illumination following the passive night of spirit. The fundamental image in this section is that of a ladder by which the soul climbs to God (chapter 18). The image is not original with John, as he acknowledges with references to Saints Bernard and Thomas Aquinas (chapter 19). The rest of the book is an exposition of the remainder of the poem.
Although John implies a progression through the four steps mentioned (and the Dark Night of the Soul concentrates on only two of them), they are not as clearly distinguished in John’s writings as they are in this outline. Although book 1 of Dark Night of the Soul studies the passive night of sense, for example, we find descriptions of the same phenomenon in books 3 and 4 of The Ascent of Mount Carmel under the rubric “active night of spirit.” This is only apparently a contradiction: It is the passivity of the senses that allows for the enlightenment of the spirit, so that passive night of sense and active night of spirit are rather two ways of speaking about the same contemplative experience. John’s interest is in describing as accurately as he can what he experienced in prayer, not in developing a system. In fact, an attempt to systematize too much what happens in prayer works against the ethos of grace that John stressed throughout his writings: The dark nights, whether active or passive, sensual or spiritual, come at God’s will, not the contemplative’s. This insistence on an important doctrinal issue of the day, the role of individual efforts in salvation, reflects the influence of the Council of Trent, which defined the doctrine of Justification for Catholics in 1547.
The approach to contemplative prayer espoused by John is part of a tradition of Western spirituality known as the via negativa, or negative way to union with God. It is “negative” not in an evaluative sense but in a logical one: The “positive” way of contemplation involves images associated with God. However, because God is greater than any image, which involves the limitations of human senses, some thinkers advocate approaching God by means of eliminating all images, which can become a barrier to full contact with God. Twentieth century commentators on John have observed the affinity of his “negative way” with forms of contemplation in eastern religion, such as the Zen koan, or the use of a mantra or chant to disengage the mind from discursive thought. There is, however, a long tradition of the via negativa in Western thought going back to Plotinus.
The influence of the mystical theology of John is still felt not only in the Roman Catholic Church but also in intellectual circles outside of that faith, particularly in the field of the psychology of consciousness. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, several fruitful scholarly studies comparing John’s spirituality with Jungian psychology have enriched the understanding of the Spanish mystic among modern readers. Among Catholic thinkers, John’s preeminence among the Church’s teachers has been assured not only by his beatification in 1675 (a preliminary declaration of a holy person’s worthiness of veneration, often a prelude to canonization) and his canonization in 1726 but also by his being declared in 1926 a doctor of the Church. That declaration makes John one of only three dozen spiritual writers in the two-thousand-year history of the Church whose teachings have been designated especially worthy of note, and of particular authority to the faithful.
John’s influence on Western culture, particularly in Spain, also includes his poetic influence. By adapting the lira form of his predecessor Garcilaso de Vega to the Hebrew poetry of the Song of Songs, John explored the relationship of erotic imagery to the union of the soul with God. The relationship of the contemplative to God is essentially that of a passionate love. Although it transcends the merely sensual (hence the dark night of sense precedes the dark night of spirit), it is no less intense a passion than that of the worldly lover for the beloved: In fact, it is more intense, for God’s love for people is infinite, in a way that no human lover’s can be. This notion is played out in the works of many Christian poets after John.