Often when I hear people talk about the dark night of the soul it’s usually described as a form of depression, without much attention given to the euphoria of the experience. The concept comes from an untitled poem by Saint John of the Cross, written in the sixteenth century. The poem emphasizes the act of turning inward during an existential crisis in order to align the soul with the Divine. In fact, the poem describes the dark night as joyous and repeatedly praises it for its transformative power! The dark night of the soul is a cathartic (and ecstatic) experience and deserves further examination beyond the crisis point.
Have you ever cried because you were happy? There’s an emotional tension that arises between yearning and joy in those moments, which is the essence of the dark night of the soul. It’s the emotion I associate most with beauty. It’s also the part of the poem that gets lost when we only focus on the pain of the dark night.
I first encountered the poem when I was teenager. I was struck by the sensuality of the verses, and have always interpreted “The Dark Night of the Soul” as a love poem to the Divine. The poem begins with the speaker aroused by a longing, during a spiritual crisis. The obscurity of the crisis is a catalyst for them to look for answers in the one place where no one else can enter– within themselves. Guided by the light of their heart and soul, they enter into ecstatic union with the Divine, as they completely relinquish their egoic self.
It is likely many of us will experience some sort of existential crisis at some point in life. And looking externally for reprieve is a fool’s errand. We’re meant to grow and evolve. And moments that push us to do so might be painful but essential to bring us more in alignment with what we honestly desire, on a soul level. Turning inward allows us to be quietly intimate with ourselves and our personal connection to the Divine. A dark night of the soul is an invitation to completely lose oneself in rapture! So let’s embrace the opportunity to deepen our relationship with ourselves and welcome the beauty of the dark night.
Below is a translation of the poem by E. Allison Peers.[i]
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
[i] Saint John of the Cross. “Dark Night Of The Soul.” Poet Seers. Accessed July 15, 2019. https://www.poetseers.org/spiritual-and-devotional-poets/christian/the-works-of-st-john-of-the-cross/dark-night-of-the-soul/.