Understanding the ‘dark night of the soul’

When the world looked at the face of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, it saw pure, simple joy. Then, in 2007, 10 years after Blessed Teresa’s death, a collection of her private letters was published. Suddenly, the joy that the tiny sister from Albania once radiated seemed anything but simple.

As the letters revealed, for the entirety of her public ministry, the founder of the Missionaries of Charity endured unceasing feelings of desolation and abandonment by God.

“I am told God lives in me,” she wrote in 1957, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

For some, the letters became a source of scandal. But for those familiar with the stages of spiritual growth, they served as a profound testimony to Blessed Teresa’s sanctity. In those decades of desolation, she lived what St. John of the Cross termed, the “dark night of the soul,” which was the title of a poem he wrote.

The timing and duration of Mother Teresa’s dark night was unusual — and markedly so. But the fact that she encountered a dark night wasn’t. Every Christian, on their way to God, must pass through his or her own dark night. So, what is (and isn’t) the dark night of the soul?

It is necessary

Every fallen human being has disordered desires and attachments. We love what we shouldn’t love, or we love what we should but in the wrong way. We seek our own comfort, our own pleasure, our own will. We value what we want more than we value what God wants. We do wrong, even if only in our hearts.

But we can’t do wrong and stand before God. We can’t even want to do wrong and stand before God. A prerequisite for seeing God face to face is that every attachment to sin, both in our lives and in our hearts, must be broken. If we want to become saints, we have to desire only God’s will. And we have to desire God’s will not out of fear of hell, but rather out of love for heaven, out of love for God. Some of that breaking we do, as we learn to avoid vice and pursue virtue. But some of that breaking only God can do. The dark night of the soul is, in part, how he does that. By seemingly withdrawing all spiritual consolations — all the little comforts and supports that typically come from pursuing a relationship with him — and allowing an almost crushing sense of abandonment to descend upon us, he purifies our desires and prepares us for heaven.

It is unique

The dark night of the soul looks different in different lives. Laypersons don’t necessarily experience the dark night the way religious do. Nor do active religious necessarily experience the dark night the way contemplatives do. Some people experience it primarily through external circumstances. They find themselves persecuted or afflicted. In the midst of those afflictions, all calls for help go unanswered. To the person passing through this type of dark night, it feels like God has left them to deal with their cross on their own.

Others experience the dark night through temptations: Temptations to pride, vanity, anger, sexual sin, and even unbelief assail them. Then, there are those who experience the dark night of the soul mainly through inner desolation: The gates of heaven seem barred against them, and no matter how much they pray, no consolation seemingly comes. Lastly, there are those who experience the dark night as a combination of all three: trials, temptations and abandonment.

Likewise, for some, the dark night comes but once. For others, it comes many times. Usually, it lasts for only a short while. Occasionally, it lasts much longer. But when it finally ends, it ends for good. A definitive work has been accomplished in the soul.

It is unpredictable

The dark night of the soul doesn’t come at the beginning of one’s journey to God. Traditionally, spiritual directors identify three primary stages (or ways) of growth in holiness. The first is the purgative way, where we break habits of vice, acquire habits of virtue and learn to live a Catholic life. The second is the illuminative way, where we grow in virtue, charity and the life of prayer. And the third is the unitive way, where our wills and hearts move in perfect harmony with God’s.

Near the end of the purgative stage, we experience a type of dark night — a time of trial and affliction where it feels as if God no longer loves us. This dark night, however, is not the dark night of the soul. Rather, it’s the dark night of the senses.

In the dark night of the senses, God purifies us of our attachments to the things of the world — physical comfort, physical pleasure, material success, popular acclaim — as well as of our consolations in prayer. Sorrows afflict us, and things that used to comfort us — food, sex, shopping, compliments, even the liturgy — no longer do. Through this dark night, God prepares us for the illuminative way and a deeper, more contemplative life of prayer.

The dark night of the soul occurs at the end of the illuminative way, as we prepare to enter the unitive way. During this dark night, God roots out our deepest attachments to sin and self, and the desolation that accompanies that rooting out is overwhelming and crushing. More than just a lack of consolation, this dark night plunges a soul into an abyss of darkness and nothingness, essentially revealing to us what we are without God and preparing us to not only carry our crosses, but to love our crosses and carry them joyfully in union with Christ.

It isn’t depression

From the outside, depression and the dark night of the soul bear a striking resemblance to one another. And they’re not entirely separate things. As St. John of the Cross noted long ago, depression (or as they called it in the 17th century, melancholia) can go hand in hand with a dark night, whether by exacerbating it or resulting from it.

But while clinical depression is triggered by an objectively sad event (losing a loved one, fatal illness, etc.) or by a biochemical problem, the dark night of the soul is purely an act of God; it is God working in our souls to draw us closer to him.

Likewise, while depression weighs down both body and soul, eventually rendering those who suffer from it unable to go about the normal business of their life, throughout the dark night, the spirit stays strong, and those suffering through it can perform great works of charity and service. They remain active and don’t experience the same temptations to total self-loathing or suicide that those struggling with depression suffer, nor do they lose their faith in the midst of the dark night. Belief remains.

It isn’t evil

The dark night of the soul is not an evil to be endured; it’s a good for which we should be grateful. Of course, it doesn’t always seem that way. The thought of plunging into a spiritual abyss and losing all the sweetness in our relationship with God strikes few as appealing. But neither does surgery. Having cancer removed from our bodies isn’t a fun process. Nevertheless, we submit to the surgeon’s knife readily and quickly, knowing that the sooner we have the surgery, the sooner we can live a healthy, full life.

What’s true on the natural level is true on the supernatural level. If we want to become the people God made us to be and live the lives he made us to live, we must let him excise sin and unhealthy attachments from our souls. There’s no getting around it. Before we can enter heaven, it has to happen. It can happen in this life or it can happen in the next — in purgatory. But here is better. For the sooner we let God root out unhealthy attachments, the sooner we can get on with the business of being saints.

And there’s no better business than that.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Additional Resources
Through the centuries, the Church’s saints and scholars have illuminated the concept of the dark night of the soul, as well as the other stages of growth and purgation through which men and women must pass on their way to God. To learn more about the Church’s rich teachings regarding that journey, as well as to make better sense of your own journey, check out the following resources: