December 14 is the feast day for St. John of the Cross. John lived during brutal times. Christian practice in Spain at the time typified much of the superstition, exploitation, and meanness that led to religious reformation in other parts of the world and eventually to reform in Spain. Teresa of Avila was a frontrunner in reform, cleaning up and establishing new Carmelite communities of religious, both men and women. Soon after being ordained a priest, Juan de Yepes joined one of Theresa’s houses of friars. John was a gifted priest, spiritual guide, theologian, and poet. For his mysticism, simplicity of life, and for being friendly to religious reform, he was often mistreated and persecuted by religious officials.
John is famous in popular religious culture for his “dark night of the soul,” which is sometimes trivialized. John’s “dark night” was not just a bad day. Nor was it a tendency to be moody or negative. The dark night is not what we would understand as depression, which can be treated with therapy and medicine.
Instead, John’s “dark night of the soul” is a place of spiritual crisis in which one has no sense that God is listening any more. Prayer, worship, sacraments—all the tools that a person of faith might employ, seem to fail. John described the dark night in a poem and then reflected upon it in a more extended way. He suggests that the dark night can be a place of purgation, a place in which one is stripped of all that usually helps. Though it may feel like abandonment, God is still there. God has not abandoned us. It may be dark out, but the stars are still there.
John’s poem describes the darkness and night as being the bond with the beloved. Through the darkness, longing moves one closer into the love of God.
O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
A lover and loved one moved in unison.
(Translation by Loreena McKennitt. Full poem here.