A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, The

Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, The

Stork, Priscilla

The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. By Gerald A. May, MD. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 10 E 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022, 2004. Pp. 216. Hardcover. USA $23.95, Canada $36.95.

The writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, both Doctors of the Church, are well summarized in a very readable style by Dr. May. He uses the psychological lens of his background and experience to remove confusion about the spiritual life. One of the misunderstandings the author clears for the reader is that the dark night of the soul is not a once-in-a-life-time event. We get a glimpse of the dark night from the experiences of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, since Dr. May refers to these original sources frequently.

The dark night is seen as a time in one’s life over which there is no conscious control, according to the author. It is not a continuous time of unrelenting hopelessness, though suffering has its peaks and valleys in every life. The results of this darkness, which most people likely experience, means spiritual growth. Any fears associated with the dark night are unfounded, says Dr. May, though one cannot evaluate oneself or see progress clearly.

Teresa suffered from illness and from poor spiritual direction for about twenty years, says the author, until she met Peter of Alcantara, who assured her of her authentic spiritual experiences. It was also Peter who encouraged her reform of convents and monasteries. Though these efforts met with resistance, Teresa felt confident.

Dr. May indicates that the prayerful Teresa felt the need of a friar to help in the reform work in which she was engaged. When she met John of the Cross, his learning and prayerfulness were obvious signs that he might well be the friar to assist. In due time, his quick mind in spiritual matters combined with Teresa’s practicality supplemented any lack in the other. Their striving was not without suffering-John was cast into the monastery prison and eventually had to be hospitalized, suffering from malnutrition. In an isolated dark cell, he mentally and joyfully produced the poetry we have come to know. In spite of the suffering of these two giants, they were not without God’s guidance and peace, a mark of the dark night: “Everyone always has been and always will be in union with God…. This union with the Divine is our human nature” (p. 43); “[It] is neither acquired nor received; it is realized” (p. 47); “Love is the core of everything in the theology of Teresa and John” (p. 50).

The obscure “unconscious dimension of the spiritual life” (p. 67), giving it the name “dark night,” sparks an awareness of attachments and idols that hinder God’s love, says Dr. May: “The dark night is a person’s hidden life with God…. [It’s] an inflow of God into the soul” (p. 95). Freedom in the spiritual life makes one more trusting, empty and free for love especially once earthly attachments are cast aside.

John speaks of the dark night of the senses, imagination included, and the night of the soul, specifically of the intellect, memory, and will as active and passive, asserts the author. Teresa indicates that active contemplation feels more like our effort, as in meditation. Passive prayer seems more like God’s effort that leads to contemplation. We can pray for and desire the prayer of contemplation, but God’s gift of grace is not achieved by our effort, states May, nor can this loving experience be put into words: “The one essential quality of contemplation that all the mystics affirm, and that must come as sheer gift, is love” (p. 111).

Teresa uses the image of an interior garden where God dwells. She considers meditation as symbolic of watering the garden with a bucket. The waterwheel image indicates using less effort as in the prayer of quiet. Using spring water takes less effort still, since God provides the watering with occasional help from the gardener. At this point, a precious longing for God is enkindled, says the author. Lastly, the rain waters the garden abundantly and the prayer of union continues to flourish.

There is no precise sequence for the varied experiences of individuals, which, therefore, defies attempting to express them with words, assures Dr. May. Some struggle, seemingly doing nothing, or may even doubt that they are praying. Perseverance in prayer in time brings surprise moments of union and contemplation. The process continues effecting a deeper relationship with the Divine and “leads us into more contemplative territory” (p. 79). John assures that the beginning of contemplation is “secret and hidden from the very person who experiences it…. It is like air, which escapes if one tries to grasp it in one’s hands” (p. 136).

Since we cannot be sure of the mystery of the dark night in ourselves, a spiritual director is recommended. The director chosen ought to be academically and scripturally learned and personally prayerful, suggests the author. Regardless of the spiritual director, God is the primary guide and “guides the blind soul, taking it by the hand to the place it does not know” (p. 171). Without awareness of what is happening, there is the temptation to believe that sin or laziness exists.

Dr. May indicates that signs of the dark night include dryness in prayer, lack of desire to pray in the same way as before, and a simple desire to love God. Three troublesome spirits may “come from God” (p. 143), accompanying transition and refining the intellect, memory, will, and senses in a time when there is a lack of satisfaction both in life and in prayer. The spirit of fornication buffets with temptations. The spirit of blasphemy inclines one to rage against God, expressing abandon and a lack of satisfaction in one’s life. The spiritus vertlginis or “dizzy spirit” (p. 148) is a fruitless effort to determine what is happening in one’s life and finally giving in to not knowing, says the author. Distressing as these three spirits are, they refine and purge, causing healing and finally equilibrium (pp. 142-149).

Depression is sometimes confused with, but is never a part of, the dark night. However, both often occur simultaneously, according to Dr. May. Symptoms of insomnia, sadness, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless and pessimistic, overeating or losing weight, and ideas of suicide are some aspects of depression to be treated medically. Personality and gender differ but the basics of the spiritual journey are the same. God respects our uniqueness. John and Teresa inspire these words of the author: “Do what brings you most to love…and let God do the rest” (p. 166).

Daybreak is never as fully light as it will be an hour later. The mystery of the dark night recognizes in the dawn the soul’s need for respite in between its sieges. Whether or not we’re aware of the night, it continues with us. Occasional awareness comes to the fore in the process of our journey, as well as intermittent dawns. We trust the instances to be transformative as the nights and dawns continue.

These seven chapters condense the essentials of the dark night as gleaned from the works of John and Teresa, interpreted by Gerald May, and cemented with his psychological insights. With Teresa, we admit our mixed desires and spiritual frailty: “God deliver me from people so spiritual that they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation, no matter what” (p. 32).

Priscilla Stork, OSF, is a Sister of Saint Francis from Dubuque, Iowa, and a retired hospital chaplain.

Copyright Spiritual Life Spring 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved