For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substance alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment preceding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.
St. John of the Cross
As far as I can tell, there are two distinct meanings to these words, depending on the depth of spiritual work.
The first is the admonishment against attachment to ritual and sacred material objects, over the substance of those things. It is extremely easy to get lost in spiritual materialism as it distracts from the difficult and painful parts of the path. Those who become too focused on the symbols, as ends in and of themselves, end up reducing spirituality (and the quest for real liberation) to religion and indoctrination. Ritual can be helpful, to focus the mind and intention, to set aside dedicated time and space for the work, but perfecting rituals it is not the goal of the work.
The second meaning is significantly deeper. Given St. John’s writings about the second dark night, and the excruciating purgations of the spirit which take place there, these same words take on a deeper meaning. It is an instruction to the monastic-level practitioner, and echos quite a bit of the buddhist teachings on this subject as well.
It has to do with the internal separation from egoic investment in mystical experience – the substance of the experience is representative, a reflection, symbolic. It is not ultimate truth. It is personal truth, intended to further the discovery work.
Getting attached to the content of mystical experience, using the experiences themselves to feed self-worth or status, turning the content into vanity is also a distraction. We must utilize the content, understanding that it is purely personal, and then detach from the content. We must come to understand the mystical experiences as a visit to a house of mirrors – reflecting for us, in grand design, our own hidden selves, so that we might see ourselves more clearly. To mistake the symbol for the substance, to mistake the experience for the truth, is in fact an error.
Killing off the aspects of ego that cling and attach to mystical experience is part of the process of perfection and purification.
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.