Dark Night of the Soul serves as a difficult but masterpiece example of refined Christian Mysticism. The good passages are many. For this entry, I will use one in particular to discuss contemplative transformation.
In Book II, chapter 6 of Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross lends the following advice for the pain that can arise in “the substance of the soul both in sense and in spirit” The images is dark, perhaps even horrifying to some. It is taken from Ezekiel:
‘Set it[the soul] also empty upon the coals, that its metal may become hot and molten, and its uncleanness may be destroyed within it, and its rust may be consumed.’ -Ezekiel 24:11
It is this section of the saint’s expositions that scholar and translator E Allison Peers regards as part of the mystical heights of the saint’s own personal experience. No doubt, purification is often painful. While the Holy Spirit may be the loving fire that purges us, the pain of the release can hurt tremendously. Is it a good hurt? Well, it can be. Or, it can be a horrifying one. In my experience, embracing suffering allows room for it, thereby easing the cleaning out past trauma and egoistic adaptations. Embracing the fire, with a resolve of metal serves as the surest way through this darkness and creates space for the darkness to flow freely. Darkness, here, of course can represent the many internal dynamics and sensations that we once thought were bad, and the shadows of unknowing can transmute into the Divine Darkness of Pseudo-Dionysus. After all, St. John of The Cross does exclaim: Oh dark night! Sweeter than the dawn! This darkness is something he loves: it is of God.
Faith, in times of personal transformation can help motivate us to make our suffering sacred and holy. And while some may not like the concept of extolling suffering, remember: we are not creating it. Suffering, it appears, is the natural process of what happens to love in the world; after all, God’s Eternal love was nailed to a cross. That’s not to say that love has to hurt or that this contemplative path of love is more painful than it is blissful. In my experience, the reward and gratitude for a life fully lived far outweighs the suffering that is necessary. Before we can fully open us up to the mystery and miracle that is each new day and each passing moment, we must pay our dues in blood. Or, as the character of C.S. Lewis says in the movie Shadowlands, “the pain now is part of the happiness then.” Of course, ultimately, pain is part and parcel of all true Joy: past, present and future : in the beginning, and in the end.
Yet this particular Dark Night of many dark nights, is principally a section about inner process and the mystic theology of ascent to divine union. A certain analogy could be made between the process of internal transformation and living through a difficult ordeal in the external world and finding peace on the other side. Yet, it is not exactly that. Or, put another way: St. John of The Cross speaks from the contemplative trials within, and he does so in a way that can metaphorically apply to all of Christian living, even trials that are more social and external in nature.
The work of St. John of The Cross is vast in scope and profundity. And then…the pervading image…the soul in the fire….