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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.)