|This week I’m reading The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May, subtitled: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. The book explores the dark night through the writings of two of the best known Christian mystics: John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and addresses some of the misconceptions of the process.
Many people used to think the dark night of the soul only applied to hardcore mystics and saints. More recently, the phrase has been used to describe almost any difficult time in someone’s life, from major tragedies to minor upsets. But Gerald May believes both these ideas are wrong. The dark night of the soul doesn’t only happen to holy people, but there is more to it than feeling a bit depressed. As he explains:
The gifts of the dark night include developing greater equanimity towards the ups and downs of life, as well as letting go of the things you can’t control and learning to live with uncertainty. Every dark night that you experience will leave you feeling freer than you were before and give you a greater capacity for gratitude and compassion.
Your darkest moments are necessary parts of an authentic spiritual path and not a sign that something has ‘gone wrong.’ Letting go of the past and your old ways of doing things can be painful, but that’s not why the night is called ‘dark.’ It’s described that way because the process of liberation is mysterious and happens outside of your control. Your ego might not like it much, but your soul has other ideas.
The book looks at the deeper meaning of prayer and contemplation by exploring the lives and words of John and Teresa. He also goes into the psychology of the process by looking in detail at the signs of the dark night. The three signs as described by John of the Cross are:
The book also makes an important distinction between depression and the dark night of the soul. It can be hard to tell them apart, and sometimes you can experience both together, which makes the whole thing more confusing and difficult to navigate. But he explains that in the dark night, your sense of humour and compassion for others tend not to be impaired as they are in depression. Deep down you know that what you’re experiencing is part of a process that is meaningful even if you can’t understand that meaning right now.
This compassionate and thoughtful book makes an excellent companion for any dark night journey.
More on the Dark Night of the Soul on my website.
More Book Reviews