The Mystic Way 11: Forms of the Dark Night

Last time we introduced the fourth phase of the Mystic Way, that of the Dark Night of the Soul. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism to explore some of the forms which the dark night can take during this process of the purification of the self:

“(A) To those temperaments in which consciousness of the Absolute took the form of a sense of divine companionship, and for whom the objective idea ‘God’ had become the central fact of life, it seems as though that God, having shown Himself, has now deliberately withdrawn His Presence, never perhaps to manifest Himself again. “He acts,” says Eckhart, “as if there were a wall erected between Him and us.” The “eye which looked upon Eternity” has closed, the old dear sense of intimacy and mutual love has given place to a terrible blank.

“That which this anguished soul feels most deeply,” says St. John of the Cross, “is the conviction that God has abandoned it, of which it has no doubt; that He has cast it away into darkness as an abominable thing … the shadow of death and the pains and torments of hell are most acutely felt, and this comes from the sense of being abandoned by God, being chastised and cast out by His wrath and heavy displeasure. All this and even more the soul feels now, for a terrible apprehension has come upon it that thus it will be with it for ever. It has also the same sense of abandonment with respect to all creatures, and that it is an object of contempt to all, especially to its friends.” …

“When this total privation or ‘mystic death’ is fully established, it involves not only the personal ‘Absence of God,’ but the apparent withdrawal or loss of that impersonal support, that transcendent Ground or Spark of the soul, on which the self has long felt its whole real life to be based. Hence, its very means of contact with the spiritual world vanishes; and as regards all that matters, it does indeed seem to be ‘dead.’”

“(B) In those selves for whom the subjective idea ‘Sanctity’ – the need of conformity between the individual character and the Transcendent – has been central, the pain of the Night is less a deprivation than a new and dreadful kind of lucidity. The vision of the Good brings to the self an abrupt sense of her own hopeless and helpless imperfection: a black ‘conviction of sin,’ far more bitter than that endured in the Way of Purgation, which swamps everything else. “That which makes her pain so terrible is that she is, as it were, overwhelmed by the purity of God, and this purity makes her see the least atoms of her imperfections as if they were enormous sins, because of the infinite distance there is between the purity of God and the creature.”

“This,” says St. John of the Cross again, “is one of the most bitter sufferings of this purgation. The soul is conscious of a profound emptiness in itself, a cruel destitution of the three kinds of goods, natural, temporal, and spiritual, which are ordained for its comfort. It sees itself in the midst of the opposite evils, miserable imperfections, dryness and emptiness of the understanding, and abandonment of the spirit in darkness.”

“(C) Often combined with the sense of sin and the ‘absence of God’ is another negation, not the least distressing part of the sufferings of the self suddenly plunged into the Night. This is a complete emotional lassitude: the disappearance of all the old ardours, now replaced by a callousness, a boredom, which the self detests but cannot overcome. It is the dismal condition of spiritual ennui which ascetic writers know so well under the name of ‘aridity,’ and which psychologists look upon as the result of emotional fatigue. It seems incredible that the eager love of a Divine Companion, so long the focus of the self’s whole being should have vanished: that not only the transcendent vision should be withdrawn, but her very desire for, and interest in, that vision should grow cold. Yet the mystics are unanimous in declaring that this is a necessary stage in the growth of the spiritual consciousness.”

“(D) This stagnation of the emotions has its counterpart in the stagnation of the will and intelligence, which has been experienced by some contemplatives as a part of their negative state. As regards the will, there is a sort of moral dereliction: the self cannot control its inclinations and thoughts. In the general psychic turmoil, all the unpurified part of man’s inheritance, the lower impulses and unworthy ideas which have long been imprisoned below the threshold, force their way into the field of consciousness. … Where visual and auditory automatism is established, these irruptions from the subliminal region often take the form of evil visions, or of voices making coarse or sinful suggestions to the self.

“Thus St. Catherine of Siena, in the interval between her period of joyous illumination and her ‘spiritual marriage,’ was tormented by visions of fiends, who filled her cell and “with obscene words and gestures invited her to lust.” She fled from her cell to the church to escape them, but they pursued her there, and she obtained no relief from this obsession until she ceased to oppose it. She cried, “I have chosen suffering for my consolation, and will gladly bear these and all other torments in the name of the Saviour, for as long as it shall please His Majesty.” With this act of surrender, the evil vision fled; Catherine swung back to a state of affirmation, and was comforted by a vision of the Cross.”

“(E) There is another way in which the self’s sense of a continued imperfection in its relation with the Absolute – of work yet remaining to be done – expresses itself. In persons of a very highly strung and mobile type, who tend to rapid oscillations between pain and pleasure states, rather than to the long, slow movements of an ascending consciousness, attainment of the Unitive Life is sometimes preceded by the abrupt invasion of a wild and unendurable desire to ‘see God,’ apprehend the Transcendent in Its fullness; which can only, they think, be satisfied by death.

“As they begin to outgrow their illuminated consciousness, these selves begin also to realize how partial and symbolic that consciousness – even at its best – has been, and their movement to union with God is foreshadowed by a passionate and uncontrollable longing for ultimate Reality. This passion is so intense, that it causes acute anguish in those who feel it. It brings with it all the helpless and desolate feelings of the Dark Night, and sometimes rises to the heights of a negative rapture, an ecstasy of deprivation.”

“The intense and painful concentration upon the Divine Absence which takes place in this “dark rapture” often induces all the psycho-physical marks of ecstasy. [Teresa of Avila explains:] “…You will say perhaps, that there is imperfection in this desire to see God, and ask why this soul does not conform herself to His will, since she has so completely surrendered herself to it. Hitherto she could do this, and consecrated her life to it; but now she cannot, for her reason is reduced to such a state that she is no longer mistress of herself and can think of nothing but her affliction. Far from her Sovereign Good, why should she desire to live? She feels an extraordinary loneliness, finds no companionship in any earthly creature; nor could she I believe among those who dwell in heaven, since they are not her Beloved. Meanwhile all company is torture to her. She is like a person suspended in mid-air, who can neither touch the earth, nor mount to heaven. She burns with a consuming thirst, and cannot reach the water. And this is a thirst which cannot be borne, but one which nothing will quench: nor would she have it quenched with any other water than that of which our Lord spoke to the Samaritan woman; and this water is denied her.”

“All these forms of the Dark Night – the ‘Absence of God,’ the sense of sin, the dark ecstasy, the loss of the self’s old passion, peace, and joy, and its apparent relapse to lower spiritual and mental levels – are considered by the mystics themselves to constitute aspects or parts of one and the same process: the final purification of the will or stronghold of personality, that it may be merged without any reserve “in God where it was first.”

“The function of this episode of the Mystic Way is to cure the soul of the innate tendency to seek and rest in spiritual joys; to confuse Reality with the joy given by the contemplation of Reality. It is the completion of that ordering of disordered loves, that trans-valuation of values, which the Way of Purgation began. The ascending self must leave these childish satisfactions; make its love absolutely disinterested, strong, and courageous, abolish all taint of spiritual gluttony. A total abandonment of the individualistic standpoint, of that trivial and egotistic quest of personal satisfaction which thwarts the great movement of the Flowing Light, is the supreme condition of man’s participation in Reality.”

“In Illumination, the soul, basking in the Uncreated Light, identified the Divine Nature with the divine light and sweetness which it then enjoyed. Its consciousness of the transcendent was chiefly felt as an increase of personal vision and personal joy. Thus, in that apparently selfless state, the “I, the Me, the Mine,” though spiritualized, still remained intact. The mortification of the senses was more than repaid by the rich and happy life which this mortification conferred upon the soul. But before real and permanent union with the Absolute can take place, before the whole self can learn to live on those high levels where – its being utterly surrendered to the Infinite Will – it can be wholly transmuted in God, merged in the great life of the All, this dependence on personal joys must be done away. The spark of the soul, the fast-growing germ of divine humanity, must so invade every corner of character that the self can only say with St. Catherine of Genoa, “My me is God: nor do I know my selfhood except in God.”


Next we’ll continue to explore ego death in the dark night

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