dark night of the soul

The Dawning of the Light

 

Back in the summer of 2015, I suddenly formed an unusual interest in prayer. First, it was an intellectual sort of curiosity, (someone suggested that I take a look at it with my new spiritual eyes), and then shortly thereafter, it became a most incredible daily practice.

When I was in grade school, we had morning prayers every single day. If I remember correctly, it would go on for about half an hour, sometimes even longer. I had no interest in anything religious back then, and so I quickly learned how to go through all the motions, while splitting off the focus of my attention to other more interesting things. Forcing prayer on someone who doesn’t understand it, and doesn’t want it, is not only pointless, but offensive to the sanctity of prayer itself. (I am, however, still really good at this internal attention multi-tasking, although I’m not sure it’s especially helpful these days.)

In 2015, prayer seemed almost like a foreign concept. With my developing spiritual philosophy, I didn’t see there being anything to pray for. All the stuff one might consider praying for are desires and attachments. Prayer is often used to request divine help in alleviating suffering. But in my view, to alleviate suffering is not the way of spirit. (I don’t love suffering, but the acceptance and understanding of suffering is a huge pillar of my work).

It didn’t make any sense to me to use prayer as a request for something. Everything comes to us exactly as it should. Assuming that prayer as a request would even work (I’m not convinced it would), why would I (with my ego mind) meddle in the beautifully orchestrated plan of my life? To me, that would be sort of like a child trying to instruct the teacher on her lesson plans. 

This is of course a matter of personal belief, and one of those things I keep revisiting and re-evaluating. I’m not entirely solid in this view. (I’m not entirely solid on any view these days…). My reasoning capacities are a little fuzzy. 

I did have one experience, a long time ago, where I was intuitively lead to pray for someone, who was in a great deal of pain. It wasn’t about words exactly; I don’t think I used words. It was just a feeling of pure intent, sent up, without any rational explanation. After I did it, I received an intuitive confirmation that my prayer was heard, or received, I suppose. I haven’t been able to make much sense of that experience, or to put it into any kind of context. And it hasn’t happened to me since that time, so the jury is still out on prayer-as-request.

So, if not to ask for something, if not to alter my condition, what then could be the point of prayer?

I turned this question around in my head a lot. Prayer and/or meditation is a core teaching in just about every spiritual and mystical tradition there is. Surely there must be a reason. What wasn’t I getting? I read a bunch of stuff that didn’t really resonate, and then I found a somewhat satisfactory answer – prayer quiets the mind, like meditation does, but it focuses the attention on the love of God; it’s not about asking for anything, but rather about communion with the divine. Hmmmm. This became interesting to me, as I considered setting aside time each day specifically to spend time with God.

After looking up a bunch of different types of prayer, I found an ancient form of devotional mantra chanting, set in a somewhat contemporary way to celestial harps, pianos, and guitars. I really liked it. It wasn’t the boring rote repetition of my childhood. This instead was an opportunity to sing along to something beautiful. I love singing! (I’m also tone deaf, so I really try never to inflict my singing on other people. Lots of apologies to my neighbors).

What I’ve learned about prayer is that you have to really find what speaks to you. There are so many different ways to pray, so many different traditions, but in order for it to “work,” you really have to find something you like. (Not something you like because it’s fancy or trendy or exotic sounding, but something you actually like. Something that makes you feel something in your gut.)

I really don’t remember what my mantras mean anymore, and that’s good, I think. I focus my attention entirely on God (or the Divine Mother) while making sounds that sort of resemble the mantras. It’s not a particularly serious effort on my part. It’s not supposed to be serious; it’s supposed to be fun. Well, in a sacred sort of way…

Prayer must not be done out of obligation, or duty, or sacrifice. It has to be something you really really enjoy, something that makes you want to do it, rather than feeling like you should. It can take a little time to find the right “thing,” but once you do, it really can become something you love.

So, with all that out of the way, I tried it.

And then things started to get strange…

First I went through a two month phase where every time I prayed it would induce a trance state. I would be taken away into mystical realms, and lose complete awareness of the room, or my surroundings, or time. (Each trance experience would show me different things or take me to different spiritual places).

Then that period ended and new things started to happen with prayer. It wasn’t every single time, I don’t think, but it would happen more often than not. As I’d start praying, at some point, without any specific intent on my part, I’d become instantly and wholly connected to divinity. There is no way for me to describe how this feels, except that it feels like being suddenly plugged into something. It just comes on out of nowhere. I can’t ever make it happen. It’s just a sudden flash, and this state of union would overtake me.

Sometimes it would only last for a few seconds, sometimes for longer. The moment I would divert my attention and focus on something else (like thinking, or forming words, or reflecting on what’s happening) the connection would break. It takes some training of the attention to be able to maintain it. What would fill me in those moments is such bliss and ecstatic feelings that tears of joy would start streaming down my face. Almost immediately my body would be moved to dance, and I would feel like I’m swimming in something amazing. Really gentle waves of joy would come washing over me more and more, and this incredible feeling of peace and perfection always accompanied it.

These mini-ecstasies used to happen almost every day. Sometimes they would happen multiple times a day. The intensity would vary, as would the time actually spent in prayer. I remember more than once walking the dog and listening to my chanting music when these ecstatic feelings would come, and I would cry and dance all the way home (without a single thought of concern about the judgey looks from the four lanes full of traffic).

Anyway, these experiences became sort of a regular thing for me, and I suppose I started to take them for granted. It was just my every day life, for probably over a year. Then I went through a phase where the ecstatic episodes tapered off a little, but were replaced with more significant shifts in consciousness (more intense magical things), and so I didn’t really miss them.

That all came to an abrupt end this past November, when my dark period began.

When the darkness arrived, there was nothing at all that could make me feel better. No matter how much I tried, no matter how long I prayed, nothing would happen. Suddenly prayer didn’t feel good anymore. It didn’t produce any ecstatic states. It felt empty, and I think made me feel even worse. So I stopped trying. Resigned to the fact that nothing was going to pull me out of my pain, I grieved the loss of my divine levels of happiness and focused on the day to day healing work. It’s one thing not to know the feeling of divine love. But to know it, to have it available to you anytime, and then to lose it, for no apparent reason, is devastating. It’s like the worst sort of heartbreak, multiplied by ten. 

It’s been this way for months now. Dark. No God. No joy, save for the very very occasional blissful episode, lasting just long enough to motivate me to keep on going…

And just two days ago a minor miracle happened.

I was intuitively guided to try praying again. With great hesitation, and fear of disappointment, I put on my chanting music and tried. And OH MY GOD, literally. The ecstatic state had returned!

For the first time in what feels like an eternity of sadness and pain, my happiness came back. I felt the connection to God, the joy, the tears, the dancing… all of it. It only lasted for a short time (as my attention is all over the place these days), but it happened. And then yesterday morning, it happened again! And again I cried, first with joy and then with relief, and gratitude, and this feeling I know really well but don’t have a name for. I felt like God had returned to me. And that this awful purgation period is indeed coming to an end. Perhaps not fully, but the worst of it has passed.

And then of course, a few hours later, I open the very next chapter of St John’s book (which is becoming my favorite piece of writing ever), and it says this of the dark purgation phase:

BUT there is another thing here that afflicts and distresses the soul greatly, which is that, as this dark night has hindered its faculties and affections in this way, it is unable to raise its affection or its mind to God, neither can it pray to Him, thinking, as Jeremias thought concerning himself, that God has set a cloud before it through which its prayer cannot pass. For it is this that is meant by that which is said in the passage referred to, namely: ’ He hath shut and enclosed my paths with square stones.’ And if it sometimes prays it does so with such lack of strength and of sweetness that it thinks that God neither hears it nor pays heed to it, as this Prophet likewise declares in the same passage, saying: ‘When I cry and entreat, He hath shut out my prayer.’ In truth this is no time for the soul to speak with God; it should rather put its mouth in the dust, as Jeremias says, so that perchance there may come to it some present hope, and it may endure its purgation with patience. It is God Who is passively working here in the soul; wherefore the soul can do nothing.

Book 2, Ch 8, St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul

I had no idea that this was so. The inability to pray, or to access the divine connection, during the purgation period, is exactly as it’s supposed to be. Another beautiful confirmation. Thank you, St. John! I could have used this information in November, but keeping me in the dark (no pun intended) was part of the plan, I guess.

During this purification process, the soul is taken down into the depths of a living hell on purpose. It is denied anything that might bring comfort or emotional consolation. It is in that place, devoid of God, devoid of love, devoid of anything but pain, and shame, and turmoil, that the soul can be truly cleansed. It sounds really awful, and it is, (I told you this energy was ruthless), but I can see now why it had to be that way. I can see why it strips you entirely of everything to really show you the core of your being. It’s amazing the stuff that comes out at the bottom of a pit of the worst kind of despair. (I hope I got everything squeaky clean in there – I don’t ever want to have to do any of that again!)

Taking a small logical leap from St. John’s apropos explanation, the return of the ability to connect with God, and to pray, signals to me that perhaps this period is finally finally coming to a close! Yay. I had a feeling that this phase was indeed ending. I have been feeling much much better in the last week, nearly back to some form of normal.

I guess we’ll see what comes next.

 

Dark Night of the Soul: Purgation of Spirit

 

After months of darkness without any sense of guidance, I have finally come across a most comforting piece of mystical literature: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. It shouldn’t be comforting; it’s rather horrifying reading. But I’m comforted to find it. (There’s also a tiny bit too much religious emphasis for my taste, but he is a Christian mystic, so naturally that will be his framework).

For all of this time I’ve been operating on faith and intuition alone; trusting the inner knowing that kept telling me it’s all ok. And just now, when I feel most exhausted (the last two days have been really difficult), I am synchronistically lead to this book.

It turns out that everything I’ve been going through is perfectly “normal,” as these things go on the mystic path. It is in fact a blessing, if one cares to see it that way.

Lots of spiritual seekers go through a Dark Night experience (sometimes multiple times). St. John distinguishes this common “purgation of the senses,” in all its permutations, from what I’m going through (which is a much rarer and more advanced stage of development) called “purgation of the spirit.” It can last for a long time, but it’s said to be the precursor to Divine union (the final stage of mystical development).

It is a small, but much needed, feeling of relief to find some ground and context for this process. Every time I find writing like this, which resonate so deeply, tears come flooding out from the depths of my soul.

Below are some of the excerpts from the book describing this Purgation of Spirit.

It’s probably important to note here that these thoughts and feelings arise from deep deep within. And no amount of will power or control has any effect on them. Meaning, you can’t just think happy thoughts and feel better. None of the spiritual or meditative practices work. Even witness or observer consciousness works only in short bursts. The weight of this is deeper and heavier than any form of depression I’ve ever experienced. It turns you inside out, and there’s nowhere to turn, and no way to make it stop.

The only way through it is with ever-deepening surrender, constant awareness/inquiry work, and wisdom (which are the healing techniques I mentioned a few posts ago). With the proper spiritual training, watching this unfold within, you can see its logic and design. There is a definite pattern and progression, and the results can be profoundly felt. There is a truly divinely magnificent intelligence at work.

It took me a while to stop freaking out and trust it. Then the deeper understanding emerged and I got the hang of it. Now it’s just a matter of getting through it.

 

  • THIS dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation, or mystical theology. Herein God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in perfection of love without its doing anything, or understanding of what manner is this infused contemplation. Inasmuch as it is the loving wisdom of God, God produces striking effects in the soul for, by purging and illumining it, He prepares it for the union of love with God. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • [B]ecause the light and wisdom of this contemplation is most bright and pure, and the soul which it assails is dark and impure, it follows that the soul suffers great pain when it receives it in itself,… And when the soul suffers the direct assault of this Divine light, its pain, which results from its impurity, is immense; because, when this pure light assails the soul, in order to expel its impurity, the soul feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God. This causes it sore grief and pain, because it now believes that God has cast it away… For, by means of this pure light, the soul now sees its impurity clearly (although darkly), and knows clearly that it is unworthy of God or of any creature. And what gives it most pain is that it thinks that it will never be worthy and that its good things are all over for it. This is caused by the profound immersion of its spirit in the knowledge and realization of its evils and miseries; for this Divine and dark light now reveals them all to the eye, that it may see clearly how in its own strength it can never have aught else. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • [Another] way in which the soul suffers pain is by reason of its weakness, natural, moral and spiritual; for, when this Divine contemplation assails the soul with a certain force, in order to strengthen it and subdue it, it suffers such pain in its weakness that it nearly swoons away. This is especially so at certain times when it is assailed with somewhat greater force; for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • Beneath the power of this oppression and weight the soul feels itself so far from being favoured that it thinks, and correctly so, that even that wherein it was wont to find some help has vanished with everything else, and that there is none who has pity upon it. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • THE third kind of suffering and pain that the soul endures in this state results from the fact that two other extremes meet here in one, namely, the Divine and the human. The Divine is this purgative contemplation, and the human is the subject—that is, the soul. The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus to make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death, even as if it had been swallowed by a beast and felt itself being devoured in the darkness of its belly, suffering such anguish as was endured by Jonas in the belly of that beast of the sea. For in this sepulchre of dark death it must needs abide until the spiritual resurrection which it hopes for. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • A description of this suffering and pain, although in truth it transcends all description, is given by David, when he says: ‘The lamentations of death compassed me about; the pains of hell surrounded me; I cried in my tribulation.’ But what the sorrowful soul feels most in this condition is its clear perception, as it thinks, that God has abandoned it, and, in His abhorrence of it, has flung it into darkness; it is a grave and piteous grief for it to believe that God has forsaken it… It feels, too, that all creatures have forsaken it, and that it is contemned by them, particularly by its friends. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • For indeed, when this purgative contemplation is most severe, the soul feels very keenly the shadow of death and the lamentations of death and the pains of hell, which consist in its feeling itself to be without God, and chastised and cast out, and unworthy of Him; and it feels that He is wroth with it. All this is felt by the soul in this condition—yea, and more, for it believes that it is so with it for ever. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • The fourth kind of pain is caused in the soul by another excellence of this dark contemplation, which is its majesty and greatness, from which arises in the soul a consciousness of the other extreme which is in itself—namely, that of the deepest poverty and wretchedness: this is one of the chiefest pains that it suffers in this purgation. For it feels within itself a profound emptiness and impoverishment of three kinds of good, which are ordained for the pleasure of the soul which are the temporal, the natural and the spiritual; and finds itself set in the midst of the evils contrary to these, namely, miseries of imperfection, aridity and emptiness of the apprehensions of the faculties and abandonment of the spirit in darkness. Inasmuch as God here purges the soul according to the substance of its sense and spirit, and according to the interior and exterior faculties, the soul must needs be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness. For the sensual part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions and the spirit is purified in thick darkness. All this God brings to pass by means of this dark contemplation; wherein the soul not only suffers this emptiness and the suspension of these natural supports and perceptions, which is a most afflictive suffering (as if a man were suspended or held in the air so that he could not breathe), but likewise He is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted in its whole life. Since these are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul, it is wont to suffer great undoings and inward torment, besides the said poverty and emptiness, natural and spiritual… Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • Wherefore, because the soul is purified in this furnace like gold in a crucible, as says the Wise Man, it is conscious of this complete undoing of itself in its very substance, together with the direst poverty, wherein it is, as it were, nearing its end, … Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that He may afterwards greatly exalt it; and if He ordained not that, when these feelings arise within the soul, they should speedily be stilled, it would die in a very short space; but there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity. At times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened. Of such are they that in truth go down alive into hell, being purged here on earth in the same manner as there, since this purgation is that which would have to be accomplished there. And thus the soul that passes through this either enters not that place at all, or tarries there but for a very short time; for one hour of purgation here is more profitable than are many there. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

I told you it was horrifying… It goes on like this for many more chapters, in case you’d like to read further. It’s available for free online here.