Friday, August 27, 2010

Comments on the Dark Night

I have been reading in recent days regarding certain aspects in the lives of well-known Catholic saints that have long fascinated me.

For example I came across an account of St. Paul of the Cross (who founded the Passionists) and who apparently from documentary evidence spent most of his latter years (45 in all) enduring a continual dark night experience.

Perhaps, largely due to his close namesake St. John of the Cross, an unduly limited view of the dark night is sometimes taken. So the dark night process (especially with respect to the passive nights of sense and spirit) is often viewed as an intermediate stage for advanced contemplatives on the way to transforming union. However this can mistakenly imply that somehow the process has no longer any strict relevance during the ensuing unitive life (in what I refer to as the radial stages of development).

However this would be very mistaken. One of the great limitations that I have frequently pointed to is the possible restricted view of contemplation taken (even for one destined to attain its sustained spiritual expression).

Initially in the contemplative life we often see an undue emphasis on the merely personal dynamics of spiritual transformation (largely divorced from the lives of those involved with more secular concerns).

Indeed I have made an analogy with Relativity Physics. Here due to Einstein we can now appreciate how a very small amount of material mass can give rise to a considerable amount of physical energy. In the same manner one can take a similar view of the traditional contemplative life where the spiritual aspirant becomes intensely focused on the transformation of psychological mass (in the form of previous life experience) into pure spiritual energy. And when this task is completed (to the necessary extent) the state of transforming union can indeed be reached.

However often at this stage the focus now turns outwards, in one destined to be a great saint, from the more limited goal of attaining personal sanctity to concern for the wider salvation of all humanity.

Thus when in genuine compassion such a person identifies deeply with the problems and suffering of a sinful world, this can entail a more extended dark night process where both active (conscious) and passive (unconscious) loss is profoundly experienced. So when the willingness to go out to others is especially marked, this can entail a continual and intense dark night for the soul (which may scarcely ever be relieved).

Again an extension of our simple analogy can help to illustrate. Where a limited amount of material is involved it can be completely transformed into energy in a relatively short period. In like manner with a narrow focus on transforming union one may convert the psychic material of one's previous life into spiritual energy at a comparatively early stage of development.

However if we increase a fire by throwing more and more material on it, though the flames may certainly deepen, at any given stage material will remain at the top (that has not yet been transformed into energy).

Likewise in the unitive life where one takes on the problems of the wider world - though this may indeed lead to a deepening of contemplative life - it coincides with much psychic material not yet transformed. Thus the need for conversion of this material may therefore require a continual purgation with respect to the soul.

So in the case of extremely generous individuals this can lead to an almost permanent deprivation of surface light (though at a deeper level the personality will remain at peace in total commitment).

I would suggest that such extended dark nights during the unitive life are far more common than is generally admitted.

Perhaps the two most famous Catholic "saints" - as popularly accepted - of the last century were Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Padre Pio.

It has now become known - due to the unsought for publication of her letters - that contrary to accepted opinion Mother Theresa spent virtually the whole of her active ministry undergoing a very profound dark night. There is mention of some relief in 1958 from this state (which however only lasted a few weeks). So she spent virtually the last 40 years of her life in total darkness which would entail in affective terms feeling deeply abandoned by God (while striving to maintain faith at a pure volitional level).

Indeed this makes considerable sense to me. I often wondered why Mother Theresa never seemed to engage in any of the pleasantries and "small talk" that characterise normal social intercourse. Well, if one is undergoing a continual dark night little notice will be taken of the phenomenal happenings on the surface of life! Rather one will remain intensely rooted in the deeper and permanent "now" underlying all of these events. So this constant immersion in the present moment, behind an impenetrable wall of faith (as Gay Byrne so well described it) would have become completely natural to her through continual contemplative absorption (facilitated by this permanent dark night experience).

It is also apparent that Padre Pio spent most of his adult life in a similar dark night (imitating the sufferings of Christ) accentuated in his case through enduring great physical as well as psychological pain.

And when we look at the life of another very popular saint of the last century in Therese of Lisieux (The Little Flower) we again find evidence of an unrelieved dark night (though also in this case reflecting in some measure debilitating physical illness).

And even when we turn to - perhaps - the best known of all Christian saints viz. Francis of Assisi again we can see that he suffered considerable depression (again in the form of a prolonged "dark night experience) in his later life.

So the reality of the lives of great saints is often very different from popular conception. Through living at the highest level of spiritual commitment they display great willingness to imitate the suffering of Christ through endurance of awful privations (psychological and often physical). Not surprisingly this then can lead to a painful and continual "dark night" throughout most of their ministry.