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 poetrycollectively 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.
We begin to think that the vibrancy of spirit that we felt in our youth or as a new Christian is lostand we won't ever get it back. We are embarrassed to talk about it, because by now we are acknowledged as a good and dedicated Christian. We keep up the pretense because there is nothing else to do. "The soul sits helpless amid the spiritual wreckage," writes Mirabai Starr, "and simply breathes in the darkness." If one can persevere, says John of the Cross, and keep fidelity even without the benefit of sensory gratification, then the soul becomes lighter, emptier, more open to God.
INTO THIS FORMLESS void comes the "night of the spirit." The soul can do nothing. It can only be. All ideas of God are destroyed. All belief systems, ideologies, creeds, and theological frameworks turn to dust. Everything is ash. In time, something begins to hover and brood over the wreckage. It has no name. It is experienced only as union and lightness of being.
The caress from the Other is barely perceptible because the soul is so wounded and raw. The pain of this touch can be excruciating. The soul is vulnerable to many temptations. There may be a false sense of power or transcendent hubris. The sorrow one feels for the sin-sickness of the world can be overwhelming. The "night of the spirit" is also a process of burning away dross. Soon the suffering caused by the closeness of the human and divine is seen as a path, as a way of walking in the world.
"Undetected I slip away," writes John. "My house, at last, grown still." The soul at 3 a.m. can slip away to meet her lover. No one can derail her plans. The houseall the things of the worldis still and can be left behind.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. She blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com.