Intro, Bk I, 1-7
Intro: This work is John’s explanation of the passive purification of the senses and the spirit. Different in style, this work is complementary to The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, the active purification of the senses and the spirit. Both kinds of purification are necessary to attain union with God. Try to articulate the difference between active and passive purification with personal examples. Both works are based on the poem, The Dark Night, this one following the stanzas more closely. The poem describes two fundamental conditions in the spiritual process, the painful passage through purification or night in the first two stanzas and the unspeakable joy of encountering God in the remaining six. However, John concludes this work, perhaps abruptly, after commentary on only the first two stanzas. Read the poem. John’s commentary ends with the first line of stanza three. Consider why he may have chosen to stop there.
The main topics of the work are: 1) the experience of the night, 2) the theological principals underlying its causes and purpose, 3) analyses of the soul before during and after purification, and 4) the fruits of love and illumination. The first book explains the passive night of the senses and the second book treats the passive night of the spirit. What is really at stake in the spiritual journey to union with God is an ongoing work of purification of all that is contrary to God’s holiness. The purity necessary is impossible without personal effort which, however intense, is not sufficient to achieve the radical stripping demanded by this union. God’s intervention is required through a spiritual communication that works passively beyond what is humanly possible. Human effort disposes the soul for divine action. They are parallel and simultaneous beginning with mostly human and ending with mostly divine. John distinguishes various aspects and stages along the continuum ending with the high point of the dark night, the spiritual betrothal, during the passive night of the spirit.
The passive night of the senses and the active night of the spirit often work together and comprise the bulk of the experience described by souls in this process. The experience of the passive dark night is a painful lack or privation; darkness in the intellect; aridity in the will’s exercise of love; emptiness of all possessions in the memory; and a general torment and affliction. Such persons receive a vivid understanding of their own misery and helplessness to escape resulting in a dread filled experience of being abandoned by God by one who longs for God with utmost love. This experience is attributable to contemplation, an inpouring of God into the soul in an obscure and hidden manner; purifying and illumining knowledge. John describes an attitude of personal and complete receptivity before God who is communicating divinity. This night darkens only to give light; humiliates only to exalt; impoverishes only to enrich.
It is important to remember that all of this takes place amidst the experience of the rest of life according to the grace, state of life, and individual circumstances which, for John, included his imprisonment in Toledo. The sufferings and privations, whatever they may be, bring about a growing response of faith, hope and love. John relates on both personal and doctrinal levels. He uses his own experience as a paradigm for others who must find their own way through the Night to union. He has experience directing souls and knowledge of theology and Scripture. Look for evidence of these as you read this work.
Book One is to be a description of the dark night. In the first stanza, the soul speaks of the way it departed from love of itself and things, dying to itself through a method of true mortification. Here dark night signifies purgative contemplation which passively empties the soul. The soul is aware of and freely declares its good fortune in its journey to God through this night. Nothing could impede the soul since all of its passions and appetites were subdued by this contemplation. God is here drawing the soul out of the state of beginners where meditation is necessary to that of proficients where contemplation is infused in order to lead them to perfection or divine union.
John pauses the commentary to consider the characteristics of beginners. This is a very important section for we all are or have been or know beginners. His stated purpose is to relate the helplessness of this state and to stir up the courage and desire to surrender to the work of God in the dark night in order to progress in virtue and be fortified for the delights of the love of God. He begins by describing the tender consolations first conveyed to the soul. Begin reading Book 1 through chapter one. What are the two allegories he uses to describe God’s purifying action in the soul? Use each of these in your prayer to better appreciate God’s action in your soul. John does not lay out a regimen of asceticism but rather focuses on surrendering to God’s action. Compose an act of surrender to begin your day and your prayer.
John then provides a wonderful examination of conscience as he describes the imperfection of virtue in the beginner using the seven capital sins. Read chapters 2 through 7 carefully and prayerfully, no more than one chapter per day to consider the nuances and implications. Allow John to reveal yourself to you. Allow God to purify, enlighten, wound and heal. Be prepared to come back to these chapters again and again (perhaps annually during Lent) for further action of God’s grace. The chapters are not only about the sins and imperfections. John also relates signs of progress and growth as the soul experiences variousl levels of purification. Identify God’s action in your soul and end each chapter with a prayer of thanksgiving and praise.
ch 2. pride…compare spiritual pride to pride in appearance or abilities. How/why has the concept of pride become distorted in our society?
ch 3. avarice…why is this so common among beginners? What does John condemn here? Does this always involve objects? Give other examples from your own experience.
ch 4. lust…this discussion is the longest and becomes difficult for us. Why? John points out that the “lower part feels sensory gratification and delight because it is ignorant…and takes whatever is nearest, which is the impure sensory satisfaction.” He does not avoid the issue and neither should we. He points out that it is as dangerous to avoid prayer or a sacrament because of such feelings as it is to pray or receive a sacrament for them. Why does God give beginners consolations? Our sexuality and sensuality is from God. Psalm 139:14. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. The dark night is about purification. What is purity?
ch 5. anger…recall the heightened sensitivity you had to a situation upon returning from a particularly good retreat. Good makes us more sensitive to evil. The anger we feel about evil, injustice, etc. is God’s gift to motivate us to combat these things. Where does sin enter the picture and how does this figure in the spiritual realm?