How the Dark Night of the Soul Is Like a Juice Cleanse

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.

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19 thoughts on “How the Dark Night of the Soul Is Like a Juice Cleanse

  1. This is so beautiful. And I am glad you made a clear distinction between clinical depression and the dark nights. I have struggled with depression most of my life, and it’s a mistake to spiritualize it away, just as it’s a mistake to assume it’s the result of sin. Mental illness is real! But so is God’s pruning of our hearts, which is also painful but different. I’d never thought of it as a cleanse before in that way. Reminds me of Saint Therese’s decades-long dark night.

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  4. We’ve been studying The Dark Night of the Soul at my church. We’re reading Dark Night of the Soul by Dr. Gerald May. I copied your article and shared it. Everyone really enjoyed it! Thank-you!

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  5. Hi Rebecca, this is a wonderful post on the Dark Night of the Soul. Though I am not Christian I found that the origins of the phrase and the symptoms you detail in your post to be fascinating, and it resonated with me completely.

    I’ve written a post on my own Dark Night of The Soul on my blog, https://hersabbatical.wordpress.com/, and I hope you don’t mind but I have referenced this article in my further reading list at the end of the article.

    I’ve also signed up to follow your blog and will be very interested to read more.

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    • Sharyn, welcome! I’m so glad you found the blog and that this spoke to you. I am of the opinion that if my faith is true, then it will speak to people whether they happen to share the Christian faith or not. So I hope you enjoy following along and that you continue to find it interesting and, hopefully, enlightening from time to time. 🙂

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      • Hello everyone! Yesterday I googled Dark Night of The Soul and found this website. The first time I read about this “experience” (the St John version) a little over 3 yrs ago was the first time I felt any kind of comfort or reprieve. An explanation as to what was happening to me and that I wasn’t losing my mind. It has been the most miserable experience in my life yet so necessary and it is still going on. I know the father is with me every step of the way but it is dark and he seems so distant. Finding this website has given me a little break once again (there have been a few since the first). I was so blessed as I was browsing around. Rebecca the way you dare to think outside the box as well as my other sisters and brothers (been reading many of the responses). I really needed some nourishment and encouragement in this dry landscape. Just knowing there are others who have similar thoughts is comforting to me since I have been kind of isolated for some time not having people around me to share these topics with. Thank you all! There is much to say on the subject at hand but Im sort of at a loss for words right now. To anyone else out there experiencing a dark night: “Be still and know that I am God” Psalm 46:10.

        Blessings!

        Phoebe

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      • Welcome, Phoebe! I’m glad you found my little corner. And you are not alone! Others have walked this path before and are walking it even now. I’m not writing much now, but if you are in a desert place, I want you to know that I’m well on my way out of this long, dark night I write so much about here. There were times when I honestly thought I would die in a dark dry place or that God would never show up to keep his promises. So allow me to testify to the fact that God does show up and as hard as it is, we are perfectly safe along this hard path we’re one. Peace! -R

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  6. Thank you for answering R. I am stunned, still trying to digest the fact that somehow God led me to your website. Been reading some more and all I can say is that I cant believe there actually is someone out there who raises the same questions as myself and has a similar way of thinking. Im truly in chock. I have been so deprived of any humanbeing to feel any kind of spiritual connection with. You see, as I have been going through all this I have lost ALL my closest friends as well as some family members because they couldnt deal with what was happening to me much less understand it. Just been God and myself in the dark. I have wished for death so many times, had so many doubts but I just cant let go of my faith, its just such a deeprooted part of me. Even though I cant see it I truly believe (at least somedays), that yes, God will see me through this madness. So thank you again for encouraging words. Thank God for your honesty and keen perception which I have been seeing in your writing. Actually feeling a little joy and excitement which is hard to come by these days. Happy to hear that you are on your way out of the abyss. My thoughts are with you. Peace to you as well 🙂

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    • Hopefully sometime soon, I’ll be ready to write more about what I’ve learned about all of this, but for now, just know that there is a process at work here. There are reasons we are going through this and it’s for our redemption. And, if you want to, you are welcome to follow me on facebook or even send me a friend request personally.

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    • I should also be sure to add that if you are able to access medical and therapeutic treatment for depression, please do so. Depression and the dark night of the soul can overlap and there are no brownie points for enduring more pain than you absolutely must. And the distorted thinking that comes with depression is not helpful. Anyhow, I just wanted to be sure to add that.

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  7. Thanks for your post … truly it’s hard to find someone actually writing about the dark night who is actually experiencing it. I’ve been in mine for nearly 2 years now … and I too get all the weird unknowing looks from friends and even my husband. They want to love me through it but truly just don’t get it. Having your words distilling St John of the Cross is helpful too. I have been reading his work this spring and have received much encouragement … it is nice to know what it all is and what it is for. I will be following along with you.

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    • Aimee, I’m glad you found me! And I am also glad to finally be in a position to offer some encouragement and witness to the fact that even the darkest night doesn’t last forever. There’s always the possibility that I’ve just been given a reprieve, but over the last year God has used my dark night to bring me to a place of profound healing that I hardly even knew I needed. And looking back now, I can see that even when I felt completely hopeless and like I would die in the darkness, God was very carefully tending to my every need. So hang in there! God has you and WILL be faithful to complete the good work he has begun in you! ❤

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