A Closer Examination of the First Cause of the Dark Night
In the previous section we examined the 3 primary reasons why the journey of the soul to Divine Union is called night. Here we will examine with more precision the first cause which St. John of the Cross calls “the privation of desire in all things.”
Upon first reading this a person may think this is a spirituality peculiar to St. John. Perhaps John is exaggerating a bit, or being somewhat extreme. After all, he was imprisoned by his own brethren and anything but an ordinary Christian. Yet, the Word of God not only confirms what John writes here but communicates it in a way that is quite challenging.
Let’s begin with the Gospel of Mark,
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 1
When John speaks of the dark path by which the soul must travel by faith to union with God this is what he means – death to self, otherwise known as mortification. Our Lord tells us above that if any man would follow Him that he must deny himself to the point of giving up his very life.
And who can forget what Our Lord said in respect to the lust in one’s heart?
I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 2
Are we to not take Our Lord at His Word, that the eternal life of the soul is of incomparably greater value than the completion of a pleasure that is sought for its own sake? Mortification doesn’t seem here to be something that makes one extra holy, but rather the essential graced activity of one seeking first the Kingdom of God.
We would be remiss if we didn’t visit the words of St. Paul to the Romans,
…for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. 3
… and to the Colossians,
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 4
… and finally to the Galatians,
…those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 5
The list above is by no means exhaustive but these examples each illustrate how integral the type of mortification St. John is talking about the Christian life as a life that seeks Divine Union, i.e. ever closer intimacy in this life and eternal beatitude in the Holy Trinity with the communion of saints. Living according to the flesh brings death, not just temporal death, but eternal death, death of the soul. Considering this should open up the eternal horizon of this life more fully and awaken us from our slumber.
For we are to put to death all that is earthly in us because those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Crucified means just that, nailing our desires to the Cross. Mortification is intrinsic to belonging to Christ.
St. John describes the path of mortification as night because in the same way that vision is unemployed in total darkness, the mortified soul that no longer takes pleasure or refuge in outward things is in a sense unoccupied – as the eyes would be in a room without light, where sight weren’t possible. There is no longer the movement of the soul to outward or visible things, it is left in interior nakedness and poverty.
John is not talking here merely about abstaining from sin, but the mortification of desire as such.
But aren’t we to desire good from God? Not in any way that would take us away from the path of faith, hope and love in Christ. For John the path to divine union is not through the desires of the flesh obviously but it also isn’t through the sensual desires of the soul, which can desire spiritual consolations, other comforts and pleasures, visions, special insight etc.. Any of these, according to St. John, have the potential to undermine Christian faith and lead the disciple of Christ astray.
John isn’t talking about the mere absence of created things but rather the interior mortification that leads to true detachment. He writes,
It is not the things of this world that occupy or injure the soul, for they do not enter within, but rather the wish for, and desire of them which abide within it (the soul).6
It is not things that are the problem but the wish and desire for them that leads the soul astray and can indeed harm it.
1. Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994), Mk 8:34–36.↩
2. Ibid, Mt 5:28–30.↩
3. Ibid, Rom 8:13.↩
4. Ibid,Col 3:5.↩
5. Ibid, Ga 5:24.↩
6. Saint John of the Cross, Benedict Zimmermann, and David Lewis, The Ascent of Mount Carmel (London: Thomas Baker, 1906), 15.↩