My House, At Last, Grown Still

It is three in the morning. There is no sound but the house creaking. A siren in the distance. Somewhere monks are rising for Vigils. In Catholic spirituality this hour is associated with St. John of the Cross and the "dark night of the soul." It is a time of nothingness, when life's futility is foremost in the mind. It is Jonah's time in the whale. Where is God? asks the soul.

John of the Cross was a 16th-century Spanish mystic and Carmelite priest. He grew up in abject poverty in an itinerant family. The Carmelites offered to educate him if he joined the priesthood, which he did. Eventually, he joined a movement led by Teresa of Avila to return the Carmelites to a simple life of prayer and service. For this he was imprisoned and tortured by his fellow priests. The story goes that it was near 3 a.m. when he escaped from his prison cell and collapsed in the archway of Teresa's chapel, weeping to hear the nuns singing.

John is remembered because of his poetry about the soul's progress toward God and his commentary on the poetry—collectively called Dark Night of the Soul. (Mirabai Starr's new translation is accessible and profound.) He describes two stages of spiritual desolation that some souls go through. The first is the "night of the senses," followed by the "night of the spirit."

I think many serious Christians have woken up in this "night of the senses" at one time or another. This is when all perceptions of God have fallen away. We keep our spiritual practices, but we feel spiritually arid. There are no more emotional highs in our prayer life. Occasionally we get a little burst, but soon we are back to the emptiness.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2003
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