THE DARK NIGHT: What To Do—The Teaching Of Saint John Of The Cross by Thomas Merton

dark night

From The Inner Experience

Saint John of the Cross explains in great detail how the soul should behave in order to accept this great gift of God and make use of it without spoiling his work.  It is very important to have competent guidance and instruction in the ways of contemplative prayer.  Otherwise it will be almost impossible to avoid errors and obstacles.  The reason for this is that no matter how good the intentions of the soul may be, its natural coarseness and clumsiness still prevent it from sensing the full import of the delicate work performed by God’s love within its most intimate depths and cooperating with his action.

The most important thing of all is to get some realization of what God is doing in your soul.  Learn the tremendous value of this obscure and sometimes crucifying light of faith, which darkens and empties your mind with respect to all natural convictions and leads you into realms without evidence in order to bring you to the threshold of an actual experimental contact with the living God.  In fact, Saint John of the Cross does not hesitate to say that this darkness is caused by the presence of God in the intellect, blinding our finite powers by the brightness of his unlimited actuality and truth.

This Dark Night is the inflowing of God into the soul which purges it of its ignorances and imperfections, natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation. Herein God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in perfection of love without its doing anything or understanding of what manner is this infused contemplation. (Dark Night, II, v,1)

And so you will see that, in order to cooperate with this great work of grace in your soul, you must not desire or seek the things which God’s immense light is striving to drive out of you, that he may replace them by his own truth.  Do not therefore lament when your prayer is empty of all precise, rational knowledge of God and when you cannot seize him any longer by clear, definite concepts.  Do not be surprised or alarmed when your will no longer finds sweetness or consolation in the things of God and when your imagination is darkened and thrown into disorder.  You are out of your depth; your mind and will have been led beyond the borders of nature and they can no longer function as they used to because they are in the presence of a reality that overwhelms them.  This is precisely as God wants it to be, for he himself is that reality and he is now beginning to infuse into the soul his own light and his own love in one general confused experience of mute attraction and peaceful desire.  Do not seek anything more precise than this for the moment.  If you attempt by your action to increase the precision of your knowledge of God or to intensify the feeling of love, you will interfere with his work and he will withdraw his light and his grace, leaving you with the fruit of your own misguided natural activity.

The natural appetite of your mind and will for their own particular kind of satisfaction will suffer and rebel against this seemingly hard regime: but remember that, as the saint says: “By means of this dark and loving knowledge God is united to the soul in a lofty and divine degree.  For this dark and loving knowledge which is faith serves as a means to divine union in this life even as in the next life the light of glory serves as an intermediary to the clear vision of God.” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, ii, 24)

Do not, then, stir yourself up to useless interior activities.  Avoid everything that will bring unnecessary complications into your life.  Live in as much peace and quiet and retirement as you can, and do not go out of your way to get involved in labors and duties, no matter how much glory they may seem to give to God.  Do the tasks appointed to you as perfectly as you can with disinterested love and great peace in order to show your desire of pleasing God.  Love and serve him peacefully and in all your works preserve recollection.  Do what you do quietly and without fuss.  Seek solitude as much as you can; dwell in the silence of your own soul and rest there in the simple and simplifying light which God is infusing into you.  Do not make the mistake of aspiring to the spectacular “experiences” that you read about in the lives of great mystics.  None of those graces (called gratis datae) can sanctify you nearly so well as this obscure and purifying light and love of God which is given you to no other end than to make you perfect in his love.

Passing beyond all that can be known and understood both spiritually and naturally, the soul will desire with all desire to come to that which cannot be known, neither can enter into its heart.  And leaving behind all that it experiences and feels both temporally and spiritually and all that it is able to experience in this life, it will desire with all desire to come to that which surpasses feeling and experience. (Ascent of Mount Carmel, ii,3)

Do not be too anxious about your advancement in the ways of prayer, because you have left the beaten track and are traveling by paths that cannot be charted and measured.  Therefore leave God to take care of your degree of sanctity and of contemplation.  If you yourself try to measure your own progress, you will waste your time in futile introspection.  Seek one thing alone: to purify your love of God more and more, to abandon yourself more and more perfectly to his will and to love him more exclusively and more completely, but also more simply and more peacefully and with more total and uncompromising trust.

Here is a letter written by Saint John of the Cross to one of his penitents who was afflicted with anxiety and fear in the darkness of her contemplation, wondering if she were deluded, and tempted to turn back:

While you are walking in this darkness and in these empty places of spiritual poverty you think that everything and everyone are failing you; but that is not surprising, for at these times it seems to you that God too is failing you.  But nothing is failing you, nor have you any need to consult me about anything, nor have you any reason to do so, nor do you know one, nor will you find one: this is merely suspicion without cause.  He that seeks naught but God walks not in darkness, in whatever darkness and poverty he may find himself; and he that harbors no presumptuousness and desires not his own satisfaction either as to God or as to the creatures, and works his own will in naught soever, has no need to stumble or to worry about anything.  You are progressing well: remain in quietness and rejoice.

Never have you been in a better state than now, for never have you been humbler or more submissive nor have you ever counted yourself and everything in the world as of such little worth, nor have you ever served God so purely and disinterestedly as now, nor do you any longer go, as perchance you were wont, after the imperfections of your will and your own interest. (Letter xviii, to Doña Juana de Pedraza)

Here we have all the things one needs to remember in traveling by the dark path of contemplation: to leave everything in the hands of God; to cease from all worries and anxieties; to believe and trust in him, and look at him alone, not turning aside to examine your own pleasures and pains, or to seek your own satisfaction in anything.  Above all you give up your own will and your own whims and act not according to your own desires, but according to the objective will of God and the promptings of that grace which leads us always in the ways of emptiness and peace.

For the graces and inspirations of the Holy Spirit do not come to the contemplative soul in the form of strong and ardent desires for some personal satisfaction or achievement.  When such things arise in us and oppose themselves to obedience, we must always suspect them.  The grace of contemplation leads always in the path of humility, obscurity, and emptiness.

That man will not be able to attain to perfection who endeavors not to be satisfied with nothing, so that his natural and spiritual concupiscence may be content with emptiness; for this is needful if a man would attain to the highest tranquility and peace of spirit; and in this way the love of God is almost continually in action in the simple and pure soul. (Maxims, 51)

If you are sincere in following this path, you will be glad to welcome the trials and crosses God sends you, and although they may cause intense and baffling pain to your soul, you will take them in all peace and meekness and interior joy, realizing the love that comes with them from God and resting in the assurance that he is using these instruments to renew his likeness in your soul.

Sanctity and contemplation are only to be found in the purity of love.  The true contemplative is not one who has the most exalted visions of the Divine Essence, but one who is most closely united to God in faith and love and allows himself to be absorbed and transformed into him by the Holy Ghost.  To such a soul everything becomes a source and occasion of love.

Even as the bee extracts from all plants the honey that is in them and has no use for them for aught else save for that purpose, even so the soul with great facility extracts the sweetness of love that is in all things that pass through it.  It loves God in each of them, whether pleasant or unpleasant. (Spiritual Canticle, xxvii)

To such a soul the pleasant or unpleasant accidents of things and events gradually fade away and disappear from sight.  The only thing that matters is to please the Beloved, and since in all things we can please him by appreciating the love he sends to us in them, the contemplative finds equal joy in the pleasures and pains of mortal existence, in the sorrows as well as the delights of daily life.  “For the soul knows naught but love, and its pleasure in all things and occupations is ever the delight of the love of God.” (Spiritual Canticle, xxvii)

Saint John of the Cross uses strong words to tell us of the value of contemplation:

Let those that are great actives and think to girdle the world with their outward works take note that they would bring far more profit to the church and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half this time in abiding with God in prayer.  Of a surety they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and that with far less labor. (Spiritual Canticle, xxix, 3)

And he adds:

A very little of this pure (mystical) love is precious in the sight of God and of greater profit to the church than are all works together. (Spiritual Canticle, xxix 3)

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