John lived between 1542 and 1591, and worked tirelessly for reform within the Catholic Church. In fact, this work was written during a time in his life when he had been arrested by fellow Carmelite monks who opposed his attempts at reform. A biographer writes of this time: "On the night of 2 December 1577, a group of Carmelites opposed to reform broke into John’s dwelling in Avila, and took him prisoner.... He was jailed in the monastery, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring ten feet by six feet, barely large enough for his body. Except when rarely permitted an oil lamp, he had to stand on a bench to read his breviary by the light through the hole into the adjoining room. He had no change of clothing and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salt fish. During this imprisonment, he composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle (Dark Night of the Soul) as well as a few shorter poems."
If you are going through a time when you've been struggling to understand why God feels so distant and withdrawn, I trust that his words (which show immense wisdom and insight) might challenge you to consider the truth he seeks to convey: That God's purpose in your life, is, out of His love for you, to use those dark, dry, spiritually numb or difficult times to purify your soul. Enjoy.
I. God's purpose: To Purify the Soul.
"At a certain point in the spiritual journey God will draw a person from the beginning stage [of their Christian walk] to a more advanced stage... At this time such souls will likely experience what is called 'the dark night of the soul.' The 'dark night' is when those person's lose all the pleasure that they once experienced in their devotional life. This happens because God wants to purify them and move them on to greater heights.
After a soul has been converted by God, that soul is nurtured and caressed by the Spirit. Like a loving mother, God cares for and comforts the infant soul by feeding it spiritual milk. Such souls will find great delight in this stage. They will begin praying with great urgency and perseverance. They will engage in all kinds of religious activities because of the joy they experience in them. But there will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous pleasure and consolation from the soul in order to teach the soul virtue and prevent it from developing vice -- the vice of being proud, coveting, misusing or idolizing the consolation God gives, thus explaining why God must take his consolations away to purify the soul."
II. The Seven Sins God Seeks to Cleanse from the Soul through the Dark Night
1.) Secret Pride. Beginners in the spiritual life are apt to become very diligent in their exercises. The danger for them will be to become satisfied with their religious works and with themselves.... Such persons become too spiritual. They like to speak of 'spiritual things' all the time. They would prefer to teach rather than be taught. They condemn others who are not as spiritual as they are... The devil knows that all their works and virtues will become valueless and, if unchecked, will become vices. Pride makes them begin to do these spiritual exercises to be esteemed by others. They want others to realize how spiritual they are. They will also begin to fear confession of their sins to another for it would ruin their image. They will beg for God to take away their imperfections, but...do not realize that if God were to take away their imperfections from them, they would probably become prouder and more presumptuous still. But those who are at this time moving in God's way will counter this pride with humility. They will learn to think very little of themselves and their religious works and instead focus on how great and deserving God is and how little they can do for Him.
2.) Spiritual Greed. These beginners begin reading many books and performing many acts of piety in an attempt to gain more and more spiritual consolation. Their hearts grow attached to the feelings they get from their devotional life. They focus on the effect, and not on the substance of devotion... Yet those who are on the right path will set their eyes on God and not on outward things or inner experiences. They will enter the dark night of the soul and find all of these things removed. They will have all pleasure taken away so that the soul may be purified. For a soul will never grow until it is able to let go of the need it has for such things.
3.) Spiritual Luxury. A soul which is deep in prayer may experience profound temptations and find itself powerless to prevent them... The first cause is the physical pleasure the body takes in spiritual things. The lower part of our nature, the flesh, is sometimes stirred up during times of devotion. But it cannot possess (or hold on to) the experience, and so, it begins to stir up what it can possess -- namely, the impure and sensual. The second cause is the devil. In order to disturb and disquiet the soul, the devil will try to stir up impurity within the soul, hoping that it will give heed to these temptations. The soul will begin to fear these temptations, and if they persist, it may even give up on prayer all together. The third cause is an inordinate fear of impure thoughts. Some souls are so tender and frail that they cannot stand such thoughts and live in great fear of them. This fear itself can be their downfall. But when the soul enters the dark night, all these things are put under control... In the dark night God takes away all sensory pleasure, and the soul is purified in the absence of it.
4.) Spiritual Wrath. When the soul begins to enjoy the benefits of the spiritual life, and then has them taken away, it becomes angry and embittered... When their delight comes to an end, these persons are very anxious and frustrated, just as an infant is angry when it is taken away from its mother's breast. There is no sin in this natural disappointment, but if it is left to itself, it may become a dangerous vice. There are some who become angry with themselves at this point, thinking that their loss of joy is a result of something they have done or have neglected to do. They will fuss and fret and do all they can to recover this consolation. They will strive to become saints in a day! They will make all kinds of resolutions to be more spiritual, but the greater the resolution, the greater is the fall. Their problem is that they lack the patience that waits for whatever God would give them and when God chooses to give it to them. They must learn the spiritual meekness which comes about in the dark night.
6.) Spiritual Envy. People who fancy themselves as spiritual are quite often not pleased to hear about the spiritual growth of others. Their chief concern is to be praised themselves, and thus they are not pleased when such attention is given to others. They prefer to be thought of as the most spiritual of all. This too can be cured by the dark night, where they see their spiritual poverty revealed to them through the lack of all spiritual help, interest and consolation.
7.) Spiritual Sloth. Spiritual sloth happens when pleasure is removed from the spiritual life and such souls become weary with spiritual exercises because they yield no consolation. Thus they abandon them. They become angry because they are called to do that which does not fit their [perceived] needs... Such souls are too weak to bear the crosses they are given to help us grow -- crosses we face in the dark night of the soul.
Let it suffice to say that God perceives the imperfections within us, and because of his love for us, urges us to grow up. His love is not content to leave us in our weakness, and for this reason he takes us into a dark night. He weans us from all of the pleasures by giving us dry times and inward darkness.... Through the dark night pride becomes humility, greed becomes simplicity, wrath becomes contentment, luxury becomes peace, gluttony becomes moderation, envy becomes joy, and sloth becomes strength. No soul will ever grow deep in the spiritual life unless God works passively in that soul by means of the dark night."
John's words bring me back to different junctures in my own spiritual walk where I learned the same lessons -- most often while going through times of spiritual dryness or numbness when God felt a million miles away.
In those times God taught me the lesson he speaks of: That in the spiritual life we can often do all the right things, for all the wrong reasons, and thus turn a virtue into a vice.
And though we detest times of spiritual coldness, it seems that in many cases it is not until we trudge through the spiritual wastelands of the dry and arid desert, or walk alone through a night so dark it seems akin to death itself, that we realize we were pursuing the pleasures God gives (or better yet, the pleasures that spiritual pride and greed and luxury and gluttony can give) more than we were pursuing God Himself.
It seems every believer must at some point learn to desire God more than the gifts He gives, lest we be guilty of using the Christian faith to commit spiritual idolatry!
With you in the struggle to grow, Pastor Jeff