Saint John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish monk who famously conceived of ‘the dark night of the soul.’ The phrase has come into common usage generally to mean any time of deep despair or personal tragedy. Saint John meant something more subtle. The dark night of the soul was this great monks description of the soul’s journey into divine union with the love of God. This black night consisted of three distinct parts.
The first part of the dark night was that time when the light of day was fading and evening was bringing the darkness. This represents the loss of our attachment to the life that we were living. As our hearts are pulled toward holy union we move into the mysterious darkness and leave the sensual world behind. At this point the light that brightened on our previous life fades like the light of day and we are directed forward more by pushing away from what had previously been known to us than by any vision of where we are going.
The second part of the night occurs when the light of day has disappeared completely and the new dawn is far from arrival. We see nothing here. Our old world is dead to us and yet nothing new has emerged to replace it. We are blind; and during this part of the night the only thing that can possibly guide us is the fire of our own hearts love of the divine. To progress beyond this point requires a blind trust in the passion of our spiritual heart.
In the third part of the night the new day is beginning to dawn. The light of the sacred beloved begins to reveal itself before us. Yet this light is not like that of our previous life. It is not a light that we can see with our eyes. It is the light of God, which cannot be seen by the senses, and yet it can be seen by an emerging spiritual perception. We are still blind, but we have begun to develop the ability to see anyway.
This is an outline of Saint John’s brilliant metaphor for the soul’s journey into the divine love of God. I would also say that it is a beautiful metaphor for any evolutionary journey of transformation. As we evolve from who we are now to who we will be tomorrow we must travel similarly through a dark night. No transformation can occur that does not involve a disillusion.
We can grow without passing through the loneliness of the dark night. We can develop. We can get stronger, smarter, and more compassionate and never have to leave the light of day. But if we are to transform, if we are to in some fundamental way move from the person we are now to the person we will become, then we must let go of who we are and we must pass through the blindness of not knowing. It takes tremendous strength and courage to transform. To deeply let go of who we are so that we can open up to the unlimited possibilities of being different.
Saint John was writing in a sixteenth century medieval Christian context, but he was outlining a path of transformation that many of us can relate to. Those of us who have traversed a transformative journey will recognize the stage of forgetfulness as the person we had been begins to fade from awareness. We remember the stage of darkness when we didn’t know who we were and had no direction forward. At this time we felt loss and despair and had only faith to guide us. And we also know the feeling of beginning to see again – to have the barest, inconceivable glimpses of our unknown self coming into manifestation.