To my knowledge, an Integral and Unitive exposition of St. John of The Cross’s poem (and his mysticism), The Dark Night of The Soul has never been done. The last five stanzas were never explained by St. John. I offer it here, using the perspectives of Evelyn Underhill and Ken Wilber, and living it as a write it.
My motive in attempting it is simple: keep St. John of The Cross in the canon of Christian Mysticism. Typical Apologist, right? Deciding what they think before and then looking for ways to back it up? Not exactly. I spent a fair amount of time experiencing the state-stages of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory and connecting with the experiences and words of Evelyn Underhill‘s Mysticism. The learning process has been both experiential and theoretical, both heart and head. At some point it gets harder and harder to lie to oneself. It just becomes counter-productive. I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing St. John of The Cross a first-place trophy without him actually winning anything. I think he “won,” and by this, I mean, I think he came to an extremely advanced state-stage awareness, what Buddhists would call Enlightenment and what Hindus might say surpasses moksha. He left five of his eight stanzas not explained. But the poem that is the basis of it, is here. And a part of me likes to think he kept it unexplained on purpose. In the interest of reinforcing his relevancy, any effort to lend 21st century mystical validity to the saint serves a vital purpose for Christianity as a whole.
While I have never believed in any literal apocalyptic theories, Revelations or otherwise, I do think there is a danger of an intellectual holocaust of Christian thought. Not that it will outlawed, not that nightmarish events will occur – that’s not what is being emphasized. The danger is that the intellectuals and universal mystics of the world will begin to agree that Christianity is “less evolved” than other religions. Already, the word ‘evangelical’ has been losing ground as a “word,” so much so that even Timothy Keller, the apologist that is, ironically, sometimes called “the Evangelical Pope,” doesn’t consider himself an evangelical. Why? Probably because he’s pretty smart and he wants other smart people to take him seriously, especially in NYC where the word ‘evangelical’ might earn you a dunce’s cap and a seat in the corner. Please don’t misunderstand: this is not an essay to analyze or criticize Christianity; this is an attempt to preserve our tradition’s relevance . I am not only talking to people in 2017; I am talking to people twenty years into the future. This is why St. John of The Cross is a saint: It wasn’t just an institutional honor when the Church made him a saint. His famous poem mirrors the Integral Spirituality process of Waking Up state-stage development.
But enough and on to the poem.
There are eight stanzas. I go through them, brick by brick.
“On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
Stanzas 1 to 3
This is what is summarized in the books The Ascent To Mt. Carmel and The Dark Night of The Soul. In Integral terminology, this is the gross to subtle all the way through the “death of the soul” up to the switch-point to and beginning of the causal realm, or in Underhill’s words, Awakening and the Purgative Way. The archetype of Jesus Christ now rests as one with the poet. It may come as a surprise to some, but the two aforementioned books of St. John of The Cross are only “one-third” of the Christian journey to Divine Union, which is the three-part purgation-illumination-union. Likewise, where the Mt. Carmel and Dark Night series ends, the purgative way ends and illumination is entered.
More on stanza 1 and 2
Dark night of sense. Dark night of soul. Gross, Subtle. “The house that comes to rest” at the end of stanza one is the death of the ego. For Wilber, this is where the gross realm ends and the subtle begins. “The house that comes to rest at the end of two” is the soul. It frees itself of attachments, addictions, and allergies, and it begins to transition into the next level, the causal realm.
More on stanza 3:
Subtle to Causal. End of Purgation. Stanza three is in fact where the narrator leaves his soul behind. It had freed itself of all attachments and sins at the end of stanza two “my house being now at rest,” and in stanza three Awareness Itself sheds the soul “without light or guide,” “where none saw me,” for the higher self, the self-sense of the causal realm, or the state of one’s being in illumination. The higher self (causal, world of archetypes, Imitation of Christ) continues in verse four until it gets to another transition: then passage into true Emptiness.
The “soul” for Christianity often means the part of us that is immortal and eternal and cannot be destroyed. This more aligns with “Spirit ” in Integral Theory, and soul would be the aspect of Spirit, or the self-sense of Spirit in the subtle realm which would die at the end of the expositions of Dark Night of The Soul and end in stanza three in the poem. Stanza three is in fact where the narrator leaves his soul behind. It had freed itself of all attachments and sins at the end of stanza two “my house being now at rest,” and in stanza three Awareness Itself sheds the soul for the higher self. The higher self (causal, world of archetypes, Imitation of Christ) continues in verse four until it gets to another transition, the passage into true Emptiness: the “place where none appeared.”
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.
Causal To Emptiness. The “light” that guides more surely than noonday inside is the primal light of creation, or at least, where the Spirit becomes manifest and the space-time matrix of “this world” begins, the cross-over in involution which is met by the individual path of evolution when one’s higher self dies. Remember at the end of stanza 3, the only light is the one that burns within, meaning Awareness has become archetype. What were before archetypal gods circling in the ether are now inside, burning, right at the switch-point between life and death, between time-space and timelessness.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Emptiness to Pure Subjectivity. When you are really “transformed in the Beloved,” you are really transformed. It is very different. This is a big step: it involves the death of you, the you that has formed thoughts, memories, and even has a physical shape in the time-space dimension that you live in. Put another way, this the tunnel between life and death. The word “night” is emphasized. One almost thinks dark, or dark tunnel, or black hole, or (oh yes!) Void. The Primordial Void that scares so many people – that so many Christians have a pre-conditioned aversion to – is actually the emptiness of the Sunyata that shifts us into the true eternal. But it’s not just Christians that become scared of the concept of emptiness and the Void, it’s many people. We are shaped by survival drives and do not want to die. Of course, the Void is scary, but one can pass through it and still be you and still be a Christian and still have Jesus Christ. The difference here, in regards to Jesus Christ, is that while so long as one is in the first three stages of Waking, gross-subtle-causal, one has some sort of “external” Jesus in their conscious mind. Whether he appears to looking at you from high above, floating in the midst of you, a mystery “way outside” of you, or a cross on the wall – He is object, and you are subject. At the end of the causal realm and Stanza 6, subject and object become one, which means your Awareness then shifts into Pure Subjectivity, or only the first side of the subject-object polarity or the singular-plural polarity. Put another way, this is now the Christ Within, or Christ-consciousness. You do not have to do anything to keep this Christ Within at this point. Some Christians may feel like if you go through the void into complete emptiness you will lose Jesus. You will not lose Jesus. Ever. You don’t have that power. Luke 17 notes that “the kingdom of God is within you,” and indeed this is true. It is in fact so true that you cannot help but avoid it eventually, or right now. (You will arrive there, it’s just a matter of when. A part of all of us is in the Inner Kingdom all the time. Are you noticing yourself reading this right now?)
So where are we at this point? Do you know? We are Pure Subject. Watching these words, watching yourself read them. What else do you see? No, not intellectually. Do you see yourself reading these words?
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
Witness/Mirror-Mind. This is the Witness of all. The Beloved is “sleeping,” meaning, passively on the inside, on the breast, chest, near the heart. Christ is in your heart and asleep, meaning dissolving into the total emptiness that is inside you and outside —wait, what is actually outside you now? What is outside? You are pure subjectivity watching all the territories you have so far traveled. A helpful phrase may be Mirror-Mind, allowing yourself to be transparent, all-reflecting, all passing through, “the fanning of the cedars made a breeze” as a clear lightless light reflects in all directions, and the breeze of emptiness washes away thoughts and words and spots on the Mirror-Mind. It feels good, clean. There is only the here now. Time is something you can watch now. Rather than watching in time, you’re are watching time-space in all its complexity, but if you’re too ungrounded, strange collisions of the physical and meta-physical can occur, which may explain some of the dream-like image quality of the Beloved sleeping on the breast, and the narrator caressing him.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
Death Of Authentic Self. End of Illumination Into Divine Union. What a breeze blowing through! The gates opened up! Nothing here. Nothing here, but me, and I AM THAT I AM. whole, without thinking about wholeness, without thinking. I am automatically The I Am, as everything else blows from the turrets, from up high and all the way through! Oh, how lovely. I am watching everything. I am watching, just watching. I am watching my way into becoming what I am watching and….
The “neck gets gently wounded” and causes “all my senses to be suspended.”
Into All That Is. That was The Beloved who pinched the jugular of my True Self, who killed me for the final death . This is the poem by Hafiz where you know if you jump into the bed, God will kill you…but that’s kind of the point.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
Non-Dual. Enlightenment. Divine Union. The Unitive Way. “The sky turns into a blue pancake and falls on your head,” in the words of Rinpoche, a quote Wilber repeats too much for his own good. But it’s true, and clear. In the final stanza, again, we have the Christian Mystical Tradition’s equivalent of enlightenment. “The face reclining on the Beloved” is not unlike the feeling of “the sky shooting down through your face,” letting the final vestiges of the True Self go, when “all ceases” and all merges into all, as you leave yourself, “forgotten among the lilies.” Rumi has lots of poems where he is “forgotten among the lilies” in his own way.
The final death has occurred. The death of the True Self. You are without head, headless, in Wilber terminology. St. John of The Cross describes the point at which you become headless the point at which the narrator reclines his head on The Beloved, becoming “faceless.” Who is the Beloved? (Christ, for Christians. Is it just Christ? Is this an exclusive relationship with Jesus? A possessive one? Do those terms even apply now? And yet, yes, this is actually the Christ, the same Jesus Christ we knew all along.
“This is your world Beloved. This is your flesh that I wear.”
–Leonard Cohen, Avalanche.
To clarify: Wilber’s five stages are gross/subtle/causal/Witnessing/Non-Dual. Underhill’s are Awakening/Purgative Way/Illumination/Dark Night/Unitive Way. The Christian tradition of CAssian and St. Benedict usually focuses on three: purgation/illumination/union. The point of the stages is to help guide you, you can be in more than one at once. There is no need to obsess about where you are, etc.