Zoe's Reading List

Book Review: Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross

This week Zoe is reading a mystical classic by the man who coined the term: Dark Night of the Soul. St John of the Cross wrote this poem and commentary after being tortured by the Catholic Church because he wanted to reform the Carmelite Order to which he belonged. They disagreed with his ideas and he was imprisoned, but he later escaped and found sanctuary in a nearby convent. Once free, he fell into ecstasy and wrote Songs of the Soul, the basis for his commentary on the mystic path.

This book is Mirabai Starr’s translation of Dark Night of the Soul and is the first by a scholar from outside the Church. Much of the extreme religious language has been toned down and all references to evil, sin, hell and the devil have been replaced with more psychological terms. This makes it easier to follow the text and brings the reality of the mystical experience closer to home.

Dark Night of the Soul is divided into two books: the Night of Sense, and the Night of the Spirit. In the Night of Sense, the soul is stripped of all perceptions of God, while in the Night of the Spirit, all ideas of God fall away. The first night is sensory and the second is spiritual. John explores the nature of the Dark Night and points out that although the soul believes she’s in darkness, she is actually being illumined by God. In the fierceness of that light, the soul sees its imperfections more clearly and so knows how far from perfection she is.

“The joining of two extremes – divine and human – is excruciating. The divine is the purifying contemplation and the human is the soul herself. The divine lays siege upon the soul in order to make her new and to make her divine, stripping her of habitual affections and attachments to the old self to which she had been reconciled. The divine disentangles and dissolves her spiritual substance, absorbing it in deep darkness. In the face of her own misery, the soul feels herself coming undone and melting away in a cruel spiritual death.”

John explores the Songs of the Soul in relation to each Night and shows how the soul is supported throughout the process. Despite the torments and anguish, you’re never truly abandoned, even if it feels as though you are. It’s a journey from despair to blissful union, where the soul finally realises the truth: she is free.

This is a spiritually transforming book which I’ve found both consoling and chastening, but mostly illuminating. It is a book to return to time and again, and to live with as an aid to contemplation. If you find yourself struggling with a Dark Night of the Soul, this book will provide welcome support and inspiration. You don’t need to be Catholic or Christian, or even to believe in God, to benefit from John’s timeless wisdom.

>Read a longer version of this review here

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