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Two problems with the Dark Night of San Juan de la Cruz

San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross) is perhaps the first person ever
to write systematically about a phenomenon which he called “the dark night of
the soul.” I contend that this so-called “dark night” is a natural archetypal
spiritual phenomenon which appears in a number of spiritual traditions in one
form or another.

In this essay I am immodestly taking issue with the great San Juan. I will
claim that for the reasons I give, he may have failed to describe how to make use
of the complete potential inherent in this archetypal spiritual treasure.

San Juan very effectively presents the psychological brutality of the Dark
Night, but notably he also gives the reader the assurance that final salvation from
the Dark Night, and final salvation after life, can both be finally obtained. These
two natural human desires, wanting to escape death and meaninglessness, are
closely related psychologically.

The archetypal Night is a common experience for the mystic of any authentic
tradition; it results after attaining freedom from the conventional and restrictive
ways which human beings normally employ to give meaning to their lives and
cope with fear of death. Radically freed from the limitations of these mental
devices, the mystic’s cognitive and emotional defenses crumble, and she
obtains a raw experience of the death fear and the consequent fear of
meaninglessness. The Night is an undiluted experience of disabling terror before
these daunting foes. In the night the mystic fears that her existence and her
world have become completely absent of meaning and all is unsavable.
According to Juan, true deliverance and mystical ecstasy come after experiencing
and surviving the night. His work ingeniously and clearly details the process that
occurs and the mystical know-how needed to deal with the dark night.

But with Juan’s inclusion of a firm assurance of an ultimate deliverance from


the Night, that is to say the existence of a hereafter1, the mystic who is
experiencing the Night may say to herself: “Well, Juan went through this horror;
he felt as hopeless as I do now, and he successfully was delivered from it by a
Supreme Force. So even though I cannot completely believe it now while I am
enduring this exquisitely painful suffering, there is ultimately assurance of a final
escape for me. I have hope here now, because Juan who speaks with the
authority of someone who has been in this very same emotionally distraught
condition, assures me that if I maintain fortitude, the night will pass and I will be
finally delivered.”

Problem number one:

The potential problem for the hope-retaining mystic is that she might
indefinitely fail to achieve her aim; she might indeed not experience ecstatic
deliverance during her life, or for that matter ever. She may get stuck endlessly
patiently waiting in the Night because of being attached to the hope of ultimate
escape; the problem here is that this "patience" actually amounts to a refusal to
surrender and completely let go of all hope. In my experience the devastating
power of the Night is most effectively reigned in only after one has undergone a
complete lack of hope, a full letting go of any faith that there is a means of escape.
It seems that one cannot fully climb out with a sense of spiritual wholeness until
one holds nothing back, and is purged of the idea that one can be certain of
finally getting out.

If one simply waits hopefully during the dark suffering, hopeful that one will
get out some day, that one will ultimately be saved, this continual not yet fulfilled
hope may endure to the extent that one ends up spending one’s entire life in
misery. The misery results from not fully believing, on a subconscious level, that
one will be saved, but yet consciously attempting to assure oneself that one will.
In this case we could say that one is punished (punished by oneself) for not
allowing oneself to consciously have honest doubts.

Problem number two:

By religiously adhering to San Juan’s paradigm, retaining hope in a hereafter,


a mystic might fail to notice an alternative path, one that might prove to be more
auspicious. This alternative way is to provisionally assume that it is quite
possible that there will never be an escape from what will be ultimate doom. In
other terms, the provisional assumption made in this case is that there might not
exist a “finally saving God.”

Strangely enough, even with this gloomy possibility kept in mind, despite the
quite reasonable assessment of hopelessness, one is able to discover that one can,
profitably surrender to an encounter with something one discovers in the ground
of our being. This discovery is love. In Book Two, Chapter 24, section 3 of “Dark
Night of the Soul,” San Juan tells us the when the desires and natural faculties
(domésticos de potencias) have been put to sleep (poniéndolos en sueño) the soul
experiences an ecstatic possession by love (posesión de amor). I submit that the
natural existential desire to live forever is one of the most important desires to
put to sleep.

One might call this archetypal phenomenon the love dynamic. A person can
decide to surrender to this love without needing to count on any kind of future
benefit for so doing; one can surrender to it and experience the profound
immediate joy of it, joy for no provably rational reason. In this case one is
surrendering to unconditional love, not out of hope, but purely for the intense
pleasure derived from the immediacy of the experience. It is hard to surrender
everything which I had willed my future to be, most importantly my own
continuing existence; but if I choose to, the immediate reward is an astonishingly
compelling sense of ecstasy. It is compelling enough to keep many of us quite
satisfied with our lives.
This unreasonable surrender to love appears to be a more profound surrender
than a surrender that retains a degree of future oriented hope. And perhaps this
comprehensive surrender is the reason it turns out to be a more intensely ecstatic
experience for some of us. Having the threat of meaninglessness and doom
constantly available appears to paradoxically increase the endurance and
intensity of ecstasy.

The intensity of mystical ecstasy seems to be more effectively prolonged to the


extent that the mystic stays always near the threat of the Dark Night, continually
remaining an inch away from the hell of nihilism With the constant threat of
damnation available, some of us inexplicably do quite well, or at least have done
so far. We tend to fall in love with everyone and everything we meet. Amazing
grace! By the way, I am not claiming that there is no afterlife, only that for the
time being none is apparently needed for those of us who radically surrender.

1. San Juan de la Cruz, The Dark Night (La Noche Oscura) Book Two, chapter 23,
section 10: “…; Because these spiritual visions more often are those of the other
life than this one, when they are seen they prepare one for the one to come (the
life hereafter) (“…; porque estas visiones espirituales más son de la otra vida que
de ésta, y, cuando se ve una, dispone para otra.)