From the Dark Night, Chapter 16, No. 1:
We already said that the darkness the soul mentions here relates to the sensory, the interior, and the spiritual appetites and faculties, because this night darkens their natural light so that through the purgation of this light they may be illumined supernaturally. It puts the sensory and spiritual appetites to sleep, deadens them, and deprives them of the ability to find pleasure in anything. It binds the imagination and impedes it from doing any good discursive work. It makes the memory cease, the intellect become dark and unable to understand anything, and hence it causes the will also to become arid and constrained, and all the faculties empty and useless. And over all this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud that afflicts the soul and keeps it withdrawn from God. As a result the soul asserts that in darkness it walks securely.
Does this description of a soul in deep purification by God frighten you? It appears to be a paragraph full of negatives. However, those of us in Carmel know that the teachings of St. John are not filled with doom and gloom. They are words of wisdom filled with light and beauty.
The soul described here is being led from attachment to pleasure of the senses and the pleasure and delight that come from spiritual consolations. One who is suffering through this dark night is a blessed soul indeed. You may ask, "How can one who suffers darkness, dryness, and spiritual abandonment be so blessed?" If you suffer these things, be mindful of our Lord's words: "Many are called, but few are chosen." Yes, indeed, we only need to look at our society and see that few indeed are chosen to follow Him in intimate friendship and spiritual union, yes, even to the heights of spiritual marriage.
This purification involves all of the powers of the soul: the intellect, the memory, the will. We can read in this passage that the intellect becomes unable to understand anything and the memory ceases to function! What is happening? The poor frightened soul experiencing this spiritual purification may run to their doctor and say, "I'm getting Alzheimer's!" It will take a wise and knowledgeable spiritual director to help the soul through this purification.
How do we know one is experiencing a true "dark night?" Many spiritual people love to call any inconvenience or trial a "dark night." A person in a divinely led dark night will remain faithful to their Catholic faith. Nothing, not even the gates of this living hell of purification will separate them from being faithful to the Church and their vocation in life. They will remain faithful to prayer, no matter how difficult it becomes.
Another genuine sign one is experiencing a true dark night is that no one around this person will know about it! Wow! Go figure! How is that possible? Haven't we encountered spiritual people who are quick to tell us about every spiritual ache and pain they suffer. We only need to look at the lives of the saints to understand the life of one living in a true dark night. St. Therese is one example. Many people do not know that she suffered a frightful trial of faith many years before she died. She was so petrified of losing her faith and knowledge of heaven that she wrote the Creed with her own blood; her small effort to show herself and God that she was living by faith and love alone.
Another example in our time is that of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. A book was written recently, detailing her spiritual dark night that lasted for years upon years. And who would have known? She exuded love and peace to all she met. Yet, she traveled this dark night alone in her heart, yet not alone, for she was led by the One whom we know loves us, as St. Teresa would say. This was not hypocrisy on her part as some have claimed. This is a true Christian embracing the cross of her spouse in an intimate union of mystery that we should not even try to comprehend. This secret and hidden love between the soul and the Bridegroom is not to be shared. She did not reveal the "secrets of the King." This love of the soul and the Bridegroom reflects the love between Jesus and the Father. A mystery we will never comprehend.
In this year of faith, let us keep in mind this teaching of St. John of the Cross. The dark night is full of light, because we are led by faith alone. If we suffer dryness and feelings of being abandoned by God, do not lose heart. He is beginning a good work in us that He will see through to completion. Are we willing and trustful enough to be led by the hand through the dark night of this earthly life?
One Dark Night,
fired with love's urgent longings
--ah, the sheer grace!--
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
Excerpt from the poem "The Dark Night"
by St. John of the Cross
Let us pray for each other.
Peace be with you!