The Dark Night of the Soul: A Devotion from the Life of John of the Cross

St John was born in Spain in 1542 out of a love marriage between an upper class silk merchant and the daughter of a weaver, resulting in disownership. Though he had a great intellect, he went to a poor school and received a rudimentary education for his father’s choice. As he grew older he moved to Medina Del Campo, a bustling metropolis of Spain, and began to work in a hospital. He often read and studied the classics at night when he was off duty, and his sharp intellect and giftedness did not go unnoticed. After turning down an opportunity to have a safe and secure position as the hospital’s chaplain, he became a Carmelite monk, ensuring a life of simplicity with many opportunities to study and seek God.[1]

St john of the Cross felt drawn to the contemplative life, and met Teresa of Avila –another great Spanish mystic—as she looked for friars to share her visions of a simple life grounded in pursuing a return to ones origins, poverty, fasting, silence, enclosure, and most importantly: prayer. [2] John would later write his greatest work “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” which expounds on his poem “The Dark Night of the Soul” describing in metaphor the soul’s mystical journey toward union with God. The “dark night” is a concept coined by St John of the Cross, in which a person is spiritually detached from everything—possessions, relationships, or even pleasures— that distracts them from God. John calls these things darkness, for even the good in them is darkness compared to the “light” of immanent unity with our transcendent God. He also uses this term to speak of the soul’s spiritual journey toward unity with God.[3]

What John of the Cross desired for all was nothing less than transformation in God; free of materialism and baggage. His greatest contribution to the faith, and to me personally, was a simple understanding that when times are good we often stop paying attention to our relationship with God. Yet when times are dark, we seem to have no trouble at all staying connected. He even went so far as to say that when we feel God’s presence we are actually farther from Him because we forget how desperate we are for His grace and our need for a Savior. An analogy of this would be if your spouse was gone for a lengthy period of time and all you had was your wedding ring to remind you of your relationship. How precious that ring—often forgotten on the finger— would be! How reminding of the faithful promise it symbolizes in the absence of time together .

Often people who understand this will refer to bleaker, more trying times as a “dark night of the soul” experience. When people say this, what they often mean is that they were able to find God’s grace in this stripping away, and that their relationship was stronger for it despite their suffering. In this place of waiting and uncertainty, with financial insecurity, and a great many frustrations in my life at present I know I need John’s reminder. In many ways I am rich beyond my wildest dreams, but at times my circumstances are taxing, my path seemingly unsustainable. It’s like I am dancing in a desert and it is taking its toll. I find myself looking once again to John’s example, and allowing my thirst to point me right back to God.

[1] John of the Cross: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Kieran Kavanaugh,  (New York City: Paulist Press, 1987) p. 8-12

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid p. 33, 65.


St. John of the Cross. John of the Cross: Selected Writings. Edited and translated by Kieran Kavanaugh. New York City: Paulist Press, 1987


About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

3 responses to “The Dark Night of the Soul: A Devotion from the Life of John of the Cross

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