Friday, February 15, 2013

The Night of the Senses

St. John of the Cross authored the poem Dark Night a within a couple years of his escape from Toledo.  The Ascent of Mount Carmel is the first of two spiritual treatises that take the form of commentaries on this poem.   The other treatise is entitled Dark Night (sometimes Dark Night of the Soul).  In both treatises "night" refers to a spiritual threshold through which the soul must cross.  Deeper intimacy with Christ requires entering into a new territory of the heart, horizons of our humanity with which we are not familiar, the frontiers where our misery finds its limit in the limitlessness of divine mercy.  

His use of night in relation to contemplation is paradoxical.   Contemplation involves a kind of seeing, a beholding.  He speaks of a dark and obscure contemplation where our heart searches not what it understands about God but what it does not understand.  The mind is drawn beyond its need for satisfaction, security and comfort into a place of pure vulnerability.  Naked before the truth of God, the Lord is able to renew the mind completely until one's whole life is transformed.

The night refers to experiences that we do not understand, that are not satisfying, that are not comfortable.  Neither the natural light of reason nor the supernatural light of faith seems useful.  Instead, especially in those nights related directly to union with God, love alone suffices.  

This faith imbued love involves our effort, but is more characterized by a mysterious work of God.  This is especially true as concerns two principle thresholds or nights the Lord entrusts to the soul.
The first night, St. John of the Cross calls "the night of the senses" and the second, he calls "the night of the spirit."   He discusses what we need to do to enter the night of the senses and the night of the spirit in Ascent to Mount Carmel.  Book One pertains to our activity to enter the night of the senses and Book Two and Three concern our activity in relation to the night of the spirit which he also refers to as the dark night.  In the Dark Night he treats of what God does in the night of the senses (Book One) and what God does in the night of the spirit (Book Two).  

The night of the senses pertains to a re-ordering of our sense perception of the world.  We must pass through this night if we are to aquire a greater stability and peace in our following of Christ.   In the beginning we lack stability and consistency because we are too vulnerable to the world and not vulnerable enough to the Lord.   Indeed, to enter into this night we must act against our tendency to relate to the world as a resource for self-preservation, gratification and the acquisition of power.   Instead, through renunciation out of devotion to Christ and in imitation of Him, the night of the senses can only be entered into by those resolved to do everything for the glory and honor of God.  Our efforts filled with devotion and love for Christ dispose us to something God wants to do in us regarding the way we relate to the world.  What God wants to do is beyond our power to do ourselves, so we must surrender to His action humbly accepting that He is really working in our prayer even when we feel we are wasting our time.  This kind of contemplation is described as a ray of darkness but also as a divine inflow for our eyes are not strong enough in the beginning to behold the radiant splendor of God but our spirits are meant to be filled with His presence.  As He draws us away from our self-serving preoccupations (not only with material goods but spiritual as well), our hearts are vulnerable to this inflow and become pure enough to begin to glimpse His glory.

The Night of the Spirit will be treated in the next post.  This is the threshold that must be passed by those whose spiritual life is stable and consistent but not yet perfect in love.   Christ wants to make us perfect in love and to achieve this, another more difficulty night must be entered into - the obscurity the Lord permits the soul to suffer in this night is so intense, St. John of the Cross calls it "Dark Night."

I have developed the ecclesiological perspective of this journey here and certain anthropological insights here.

No comments: