Monday, May 11, 2009

The Dark Night Of The Soul

One of the greatest spiritual literature jewels is the poem Dark Night, written by a the Spanish mystics, Juan de Yepes Alvarez, also known as Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Carmelita monk who worked closely with Therese of Avila, another important mystic.
He wrote this poem after enduring tortures and a nine month incarceration, for disobeying his superiors and wanting to make reforms in his order:
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with longings
Oh happy chance!
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
Oh happy chance,
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest,
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
Save that which burned in my heart,
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday,
To the place where he
Who I knew well! was awaiting me
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.
The expression "dark night of the soul" is very used in the mystic literature and it sometimes refers to states of emotional distress and existential ordeals. However, in this poem, the dark night indicates a state of silent stillness (hesychía) in the depths of oneself.
Saint John of the Cross wrote abundantly on the experience in two wonderful books, The Dark Night of The Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel. The poem basically describes the spiritual surrender and profound inner stillness -My house being now at rest- which led John to the realisation of divine oneness inside, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover.
The experience of this sacred night beyond "ordinary" thoughts and perceptions after his moments of suffering entail the transcendence and integration of those moments, which served as part of the purification process, the defeat of the selfish personality.
This inspired mystic explained the spiritual purification as having two stages: the purification of the senses, which is the cleansing of our ordinary perceptions, and the spiritual catharsis, which deals with the hurdles of sloth, self-pity, envy and lack of faith: the dark night of the soul is the arising of God inside the soul, which is stripped of her ignorance and imperfections: habitual, natural and spiritual; being summoned by contemplations saturated with divine knowledge. Thus, God teaches her secretly and instructs her in his perfection of love, without doing anything or without understanding the nature of the contemplations (The Dark Night of the Soul).
Spiritual purification takes place by going through, and digesting, emotional suffering such as deep sorrow, despair, boredom, sourness; symptoms which arise before and during the process of inner growth. They are even experienced by yoguis and monks. The solitary and ascetic Fathers of the Desert, for instance, talked about acedia, a sort of sloth and boredom which was considered a kind of sin, a manifestation of the false ego.
As for the importance of dwelling in silent stillness, beyond the distraction of the senses, St.John wrote: the way in which these souls [the spiritual seekers] are to conduct themselves in this night of the senses [beyond sense perceptions], is to devote themselves not at all to reasoning and pondering, since this is not the time for it, but to allow the soul [psyche] to remain in peace and quietness, although it may seem clear to them that they are doing nothing and are wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything.
The truth is that they will be doing quite sufficient if they have patience and persevere in prayer, without making any effort. What they must do is merely to leave the soul free and disencumbered, and at rest from all knowledge and thought, troubling not themselves in that state, about what they shall think or meditate upon, but contenting themselves with merely a peaceful and loving attentiveness towards God and in being without anxiety, without the ability and without desire to have experience of him or to perceive him. For all these yearnings, disquiet and distract the soul, from the peaceful quiet and sweet ease of contemplation which is here granted to it (The Dark Night Of The Soul).
This ability to remain immersed in pure awareness and stillness is considered to be the higher level of prayer by the mystics. Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46, 10).
The hesychast master St.Theophan the Recluse taught that there are three levels of prayer: the prayer of the mind, the prayer of the heart and the prayer of the body, which integrates the previous ones in the pure space of awareness; it's not a simple physical sensation, but a consciousness that integrates mind, feeling and body in quietness. This is an extremely clarifying teaching, in so far as it dispels all those pseudo-mystic misinterpretations that preach an absolute annihilation of mind and feeling in higher states of being.
There are higher degrees of feeling and thinking which must be actualised in order to tap into infinity. These degrees of objective knowledge (divine contemplations, says St.John) include what we could call "causal mysticism", where the seeker leaves the ordinary senses behind and plunges into the feminine side of reality, a dark vastness of potentialities devoid of form. The Sufies call it Alam i Imkan, the world of possibilities. That might be what St.John seems to be hinting at.
Althought this causal state is only one side of the cosmic equation. Our task is experiencing it and make this infinite energy flow into the world of multiplicity. For the form is emptiness and emptiness is form (Sutra of the Heart).

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