Review: The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May

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:

“It can happen to anyone. I believe that in some ways it happens to everyone. Yet it is much more significant than simple misfortune. It is a deep transformation, a movement toward indescribable freedom and joy. And in truth it doesn’t always have to be unpleasant!”

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:

  1. Dryness and impotence in prayer and life – the soul “finds no consolation in things of God, nor in any created thing either.”
  2. Lack of desire for the old ways – the soul “turns to God with painful concern, thinking it is not serving God but turning away.”
  3. A simple desire to love God – the soul desires “to remain alone in loving attentiveness to God…in inward peace, quietness and rest.”

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.

“I would love to be able to make practical suggestions about how to identify and claim the transformative qualities of the dark night in your own life. I yearn to offer something that would really make the hard times easier and bring a definite sense of meaning to the unavoidable sufferings of life. It would be so wonderful to be able to prescribe effective methods or understandings that could help us all get a grip on our destinies. But the nature of the dark night does not permit that. It comes as gift and in obscurity, as and when it will, taking us where we would not and could not go on our own. And though in truth we say yes to it, we have little or no control over it. The reason for the obscurity, John says, is to keep us safe, so we don’t stumble because we think we know where we’re going.”

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.

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