Climbing the Ladder of Sanctity…Entering the Dark Night!

Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

So here we have come at last!  After spending time looking at the purgative and illuminative ways, we have come to see how the Lord is forming us to grow more in union with Himself.  We spoke in our last blog about the development and growth in our prayer life…now we are entering into the topic of the Dark Night.

Now when I say Dark Night…I do not want you to think of Halloween, or monsters in the closet, or even Batman!  I want you to look at the Dark Night as a necessary step on the ladder of sanctity.  It is not something to be afraid of, or even to despair about, rather the Dark Night is something to really be grateful for!  In a sense, Jesus also underwent His dark night when He went through His Passion and Death.  We read in the Scriptures how our Lord suffered: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)   Jesus knows suffering!  He knows the Dark Night…but Jesus also gives the example of how one is to go through it: with surrender and trust in the help of God.

I was taking a course a few summers ago on Christian Asceticism in St. John of the Cross.  Most of the information that I will be giving you is from my notes of the course, and it has helped me so much, so I want to share it with all of you!  The professor there gave probably one of the most heart-moving definitions of the Dark Night that I have ever heard.  He said, “The Dark Night is an inflow of God into the soul who teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in perfection of love…it is a moving towards greater and greater love.”

So we begin in the soul.  The soul has certain faculties and powers…the ultimate object being God Himself.  When we deny ourselves and offer ourselves, our prayers, works, actions etc…it is possible at times, to experience a sort of darkness.  We can think of St. Mother Teresa who completely poured herself out for other especially the poor, but she herself was living in what she describes as a type of darkness.  Yet, she continued to pour herself out, no matter how she felt.

The path of faith is the road which the soul travels to God.  Faith is a dark night!  If we take a certain dogmatic teaching such as the Holy Trinity (one God, three persons) it is not possible to fully understand that teaching…we can say that our intellect is in darkness.  The Goal of the Dark Night is to put us in union with God who is, as St. John of the Cross puts it, an “unapproachable light.”  Love is what leads us…it draws us like a magnet to the object, and you become what you love.  As our love grows, our intellect becomes swept by our intimate union with God.  Our intellect may be in darkness, but our love for God confirms that the dogmatic truths professed by the Church are true…because God is truth.

There are different levels of purgation which we will take some time to go through in detail in the upcoming weeks.  But today, we will go through the ways in which the purgation comes which we call modalities and the levels of purgation briefly.  The first modality is an active purgation: what the soul can do by working on itself with God’s grace.  For example, someone can work on having more self-control…God supports the person in this resolution, but the person is very much involved in cutting away certain attachments that they have had before whether it be people, addictions and obsessions. In this type of purgation, the soul can also strive to root out certain vices that have been holding them imprisoned, for example making acts of courage when they feel fear…trying to be more patient when they are tempted to impatience and the list can go on.

There is also the passive purgation which involves God’s work…what God does to the soul through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This can be done through mystical activity where God is working directly on the soul.  God is cleaning the house, purging it out, and taking the roots of our faults and purging it out of us!  I don’t know if you have ever done spring cleaning…I have… and sometimes you find things hiding around the house that you did not even know were there!  That is what is happening in a sense with the passive purgation…God is removing those hidden attachments that are in us.  This can be painful…but necessary for our union with God.

My professor also said, again using the Dark Night by St. John of the Cross, that there are certain phases or levels that the soul can go through when experiencing the dark night.  There is the sense level which involves a purification of the senses through the internal senses and the appetites.  Then you have the phase of the spirit where intellect, memory and will are all purified.

There are four divisions of the purgation:

Active night of the senses: We are at work with God, cooperating with Him.  This is the stage where we are attentive to His Word, and where we are captivated by His Beauty and Majesty.  We are learning to mortify our passions, emotions, memory in order to be more conformed to God.  We are trying to root out vices and start practicing virtues such as self-control and patience as described earlier…

Active night of the spirit:  We are at work with God through mortification of our intellect and will.  We strive to mortify ourselves, with the help of God through curbing our curiosity and by learning to submit to the will of another person.  Hard to do!!

Passive night of the senses: God is very much at work…and now He must complete the good work that has begun!  Wishing you to move forward and in a more intense love for Him, you do not feel with your senses the presence of God.  This is to ensure that your relationship with God is centered on God and not on yourself.  You may begin to lose the capability to meditate, aridity in prayer becomes a norm.  You may lose the wish to work in service to others, but you do it anyway for the sake of loving God.

Passive night of the spirit: Again, God is very much involved!  As a lover who is in pursuit of the one He loves, God is like a mad lover looking for union with us.  He is so close to us at this stage!  This is the stage where God is strengthening us, and so he permits us to have doubts against faith, feeling abandoned by Him.  At this stage most especially, receiving the Sacraments frequently is so important as well as finding a good and wise spiritual director.  This is the time to strengthen our love for God!  God is permitting it to strengthen our love for Him, and to allow us to enter the transforming union with Him!

Okay talk about brain overload!!  I hope this is making sense.  We are next going to go through why the dark night is necessary, what are some signs that you could be going through the dark night, and then we will discuss some other key important factors in the dark night such as the purgation of the seven deadly sins!


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