Recently one of my friends on facebook did a 10 day juice cleanse. Now, I’m always a bit sceptical about this whole concept of a cleanse because I want to believe that I can eat all the chemical food I want, in moderation and be just fine. Plus I’m really, really bad at fasting so it must be unnecessary and probably bad for you, right? But I know a lot of people swear by them.
Anyways, while doing the cleanse my friend felt pretty crappy for a while. First she was achy and tired like she had the flu. Then she had such awful sinus congestion that she thought she might have developed a sinus infection. And she lost her voice. By the end of the 10 ten days though she said she felt fit as a fiddle and was glad that she had persevered through the whole thing.
The reason she felt so awful during the first week of her cleanse, the theory goes, was because during this time her body was releasing all of the toxins which had accumulated over the decades. While the whole cleanse concept seems a bit dubious to me, this rang true. Because it’s exactly what I and many others who have or are walking through the dark night of the soul have experienced – spiritually anyways. In fact, following along with her cleanse induced suffering and redemption made me think this was a pretty darn good way of understanding the dark night of the soul experience.
The dark night of the soul is a phrase coined by John of the Cross who wrote a poem by that name and a book explaining it back in the 16th century in Spain after experiencing it himself. Today the phrase gets tossed around a lot to describe almost any particularly difficult spiritual phase – particularly one which involves spiritual dryness or a sense of separation from God. According to John, there are actually two dark night experiences which some Christians may experience.
The first is the dark night of the senses. During this experience, any sensual experience of God is removed from the person. That “Spirit raining down/God moved/presence” experience which many of us have during worship, prayer or particularly profound moments just disappears. And it takes comfort, peace and security with it. (I wrote about this experience here.) This is very confusing for many people because no matter what you try – more prayer, worship, fasting, service, confession, spending time in nature, meditation, fellowship, etc – it doesn’t help the person going through it to re-connect with any sense of God’s presence or Spirit moving.
The dark night of the senses is a weaning process which prevents a person from being dependent on and greedy for spiritual experiences which bring pleasure and comfort. This happens so that we can learn to receive and experience God more directly. When a person comes out of the dark night of the senses, they are left with an ability to sense God’s movements in a more subtle, refined and interior way, even in the absence of any sensual experience of God.
The second, far less common experience is the dark night of the soul is best understood as a process of purification and purgation of the soul. John of the Cross says, “The dark night is a certain inflowing of God into the soul which cleanses it of its ignorances and imperfections; habitual, natural and spiritual.” It’s like a juice cleanse for the soul. And it will make you just as sick.
In his explanation of the dark night of the soul, John goes into great detail about the process of this inflowing of God and the cleansing of the soul. The end result is that the soul is perfected and purified to such an extent that it is able to be united completely with God. Being united with God is the ultimate goal of any serious spiritual seeker. Yet the dark night of the soul, properly understood, is granted to relatively few people. Most likely because there are relatively few people who are willing and able to endure it.
By all accounts it is one of the most horrible, desolate, hopeless experiences any human can walk through. In fact, when John explains how to discern if someone is having a dark night of the soul experience, the checklist of symptoms can basically be summed up as “are you seeking God desperately yet weak in spirit, faith and body, completely crushed, desolate, without hope, unable to be comforted and so miserable that you would rather that God allowed you to die than to continue going through this . . . and do you still want God desperately despite all of it?” Spiritually speaking, it is as close to experiencing the journey of the cross as any human can have.
The reason for this, it seems to me, is much the same as the reason my friend’s juice cleanse made her sick; while being fed only what is good and pure, the soul releases its toxins and makes you miserable and sick. John puts it this way: “the divine fire of contemplative love . . . expells [the soul's] impurities, blackens it and obscures it, and thus its condition is apparently worse than it was before, more impure and offensive. For while the divine purgation is removing all the evil and vicious humours, which because so deeply rooted and settled in the soul, were neither seen nor felt, but now. . . are rendered clearly visible . . . the soul – though not worse in itself, nor in the sight of God – seeing at last what it never saw before, looks upon itself as not only unworthy of His regard, but even as a loathsome object and that God does loathe it.” In other words, the person going through the dark night experience becomes extremely spiritually sick.
Like the toxins being purged from my friend’s body when she did her cleanse, every dark and ugly thing in the soul is exposed and pushed to the surface during the dark night of the soul. The common experience of thinking that we are suffering because God is angry with us or disapproves of us is intensified. A soul going through the dark night experience is already suffering and now, seeing so clearly their faults, limitations and sin nature, they can hardly imagine that God wouldn’t and hasn’t utterly rejected them.
When my friend did her juice cleanse, the release of toxins which made her feel so sick happened when her body was deprived of anything except nourishment which was completely natural, healthy and pure. If she had cheated and snuck in a snickers bar, her body would have absorbed the refined sugars, chemicals and hydrogenated fats to replenish their stores and re-establish a more comfortable equilibrium. She would have felt better in the short run. But her body would not actually be able to rid itself of its toxins completely enough to no longer be dependant on them. It is very much the same thing with the dark night of the soul.
One of the characteristic traits of a dark night of the soul experience is that nothing brings comfort or life to the person having it. It’s as if the person going through it is deprived of any spiritual sustinence except for that unsatisfying, dull manna that I wrote about last week. Often this happens because every creature and worldly comfort is withheld from the person due to circumstances – ie life just goes all to hell. (John of the Cross was locked in a tiny room with a small window, too high up to look through, with no change of clothing or light and fed a starvation diet for 9 months when he had his dark night of the soul experience.) When things which would normally bring comfort and a sense of life to the person do appear, they are unable to take any comfort or joy in them.*
It’s a perfectly miserable experience. And generally not one which we can get through without some “cheating”. As John explains, people going through a dark night of the soul will sometimes experience a reprieve from the suffering. It feels like being able to breathe fresh air after being locked in a stuffy, humid room or feeling sunlight on the face after years in the dark. In their excitement at their release from the dark night, the person usually thinks (and hopes) that they have reached the end of their suffering. That God has completed his work in them. But really, this reprieve is a lot like being allowed a Snickers bar and a ham sandwich with an extra serving of manna.
Some people who have suffered through all the purgation they are capable of enduring and consenting to will not go back into the dark night. They will be much improved by their experience, but the work will remain incomplete. Their union with God will be partial and still subject to the vagaries and frustrations of life. Other people who are able and willing and who God has determined to purify completely will be put back on their manna diet and plunged back into the suffering of purgation.
My friend was apparently able to de-toxify her body in 10 days, without cheating. But it seems that our souls carry a lot more toxins than even the average American’s body does. The dark night of the soul experience can take decades to complete, although it’s often measured in mere years. Most people who enter into the dark night never do complete it in this life time. But for those who are able to endure to the end, the promise is the soul’s most ardent desire: complete union with God, complete peace and joy and our full restoration to our true identity.
*A dark night of the soul experience should not be confused with clinical depression. Nor should clinical depression ever be explained away as a dark night of the soul experience. An inability to enjoy good things in life can be a sign of both depression and the dark night of the soul. In fact, sometimes they can happen at the same time. In my experience, on of the main ways to tell the difference is that clinical depression is almost always accompanied by distorted thinking and obtrusive, unwanted thoughts. In a dark night of the soul, the thinking is so clear that every blemish is seen and every excuse is wiped away. There is an absence of obtrusive, unwanted thoughts and instead one’s ability to think things through or reach conclusions is often quite diminished. Clinical depression can and should be treated. The dark night of the soul can only be endured.