Evelyn Underhill on The Dark Night

As her consciousness of God was gradually extinguished, a mental and moral chaos seems to have invaded Madame Guyon and accompanied the more spiritual miseries of her state. “So soon as I perceived the happiness of any state, or its beauty, or the necessity of a virtue, it seemed to me that I fell incessantly into the contrary vice: as if this perception, which though very rapid was always accompanied by love, were only given to me that I might experience its opposite. I was given an intense perception of the purity of God; and so far as my feelings went, I myself became more and more impure: for in reality this state is very purifying, but I was far from understanding this. . . . My imagination was in a state of appalling confusion, and gave me no rest. I could not speak of Thee, oh my God, for I became utterly stupid. [….]

This world as well as the next seemed leagued against her. Loss of health and friendship, domestic vexations, increased and kept pace with her interior griefs. Self-control and power of attention were diminished. She seemed stupefied and impotent, unable to follow or understand even the services of the Church, incapable of all prayer and all good works; perpetually attracted by those worldly things which she had renounced, yet quickly wearied by them. The neat edifice of her first mystic life was in ruins, the state of consciousness which accompanied it was disintegrated, but nothing arose to take its place. [….]

“It is an amazing thing,” says Madame Guyon naively, “for a soul that believed herself to be advanced in the way of perfection, when she sees herself thus go to pieces all at once.” [….]

So, too, Suso, when he had entered the “upper school” of the spiritual life, was tormented not only by temptations and desolations, but by outward trials and disabilities of every kind: calumnies, misunderstandings, difficulties, pains. “It seemed at this time as if God had given permission both to men and demons to torment the Servitor,” he says. This sense of a generally inimical atmosphere, and of the dimness and helplessness of the Ego oppressed by circumstances, is like the vague distress and nervous sensibility of adolescence, and comes in part from the same cause: the intervening period of chaos between the break-up of an old state of equilibrium and the establishment of the new. The self, in its necessary movement towards higher levels of reality, loses and leaves behind certain elements of its world, long loved but now outgrown: as children must make the hard transition from nursery to school. [….]

“Thou hast been a child at the breast, a spoiled child,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso. “Now I will withdraw all this.” In the resulting darkness and confusion, when the old and known supports are thus withdrawn, the self can do little but surrender itself to the inevitable process of things: to the operation of that unresting Spirit of Life which is pressing it on towards a new and higher state, in which it shall not only see Reality but be real. [….]

The Dark Night, then, is really a deeply human process, in which the self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind. Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful and departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his “spiritual” side, can Divine Humanity be formed: and the formation of Divine Humanity—the remaking of man “according to the pattern showed him in the mount”—is the mystic’s only certain ladder to the Real. “My humanity,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso, “is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest.”  [….] The self in its first purgation has cleansed the mirror of perception; hence, in its illuminated life, has seen Reality. In so doing it has transcended the normal perceptive powers of “natural” man, immersed in the illusions of sense. Now, it has got to be reality: a very different thing.

In some temperaments it is the emotional aspect—the anguish of the lover who has suddenly lost the Beloved—which predominates: in others, the intellectual darkness and confusion overwhelms everything else. Some have felt it, with St. John of the Cross, as a “passive purification,” a state of helpless misery, in which the self does nothing, but lets Life have its way with her. Others, with Suso and the virile mysticism of the German school, have experienced it rather as a period of strenuous activity and moral conflict directed to that “total self-abandonment” which is the essential preparation of the unitive life. Those elements of character which were unaffected by the first purification of the self—left as it were in a corner when the consciousness moved to the level of the illuminated life—are here roused from their sleep, purged of illusion, and forced to join the grooving stream. [….]

“That which this anguished soul feels most deeply,” says St. John of the Cross, “is the conviction that God has abandoned it, of which it has no doubt; that He has cast it away into darkness as an abominable thing . . . the shadow of death and the pains and torments of hell are most acutely felt, and this comes from the sense of being abandoned by God, being chastised and cast out by His wrath and heavy displeasure. All this and even more the soul feels now, for a terrible apprehension has come upon it that thus it will be with it for ever. It has also the same sense of abandonment with respect to all creatures, and that it is an object of contempt to all, especially to its friends.” [….]

So, too, Madame Guyon felt this loss of her intuitive apprehension of God as one of the most terrible characteristics of the “night.” “After Thou hadst wounded me so deeply as I have described, Thou didst begin, oh my God, to withdraw Thyself from me: and the pain of Thy absence was the more bitter to me, because Thy presence had been so sweet to me, Thy love so strong in me. . . . Thy way, oh my God, before Thou didst make me enter into the state of death, was the way of the dying life: sometimes to hide Thyself and leave me to myself in a hundred weaknesses, sometimes to show Thyself with more sweetness and love. The nearer the soul drew to the state of death, the more her desolations were long and weary, her weaknesses increased, and also her joys became shorter, but purer and more intimate, until the time in which she fell into total privation.” [….]

All these forms of the Dark Night—the “Absence of God,” the sense of sin, the dark ecstasy, the loss of the self’s old passion, peace, and joy, and its apparent relapse to lower spiritual and mental levels—are considered by the mystics themselves to constitute aspects or parts of one and the same process: the final purification of the will or stronghold of personality, that it may be merged without any reserve “in God where it was first.” [….]

The Dark Night then, whichever way we look at it, is a state of disharmony; of imperfect adaptation to environment. The self, unaccustomed to that direct contact of the Absolute which is destined to become the Source of its vitality and its joy, feels the “soft and gentle touch” of the Following Love as unbearable in its weight. The “self-naughting” or “purification of the will,” which here takes place, is the struggle to resolve that disharmony; to purge away the somewhat which still sets itself up in the soul as separate from the Divine, and makes the clear light of reality a torment instead of a joy.

Excerpts from Evelyn Underhill’s chapter on the dark night in Mysticism. I picked out sections that resonate the most with me.

At a psychological level, the dark night is an invitation to meet and befriend shadow material. At a spiritual level, it’s an invitation for what I am to notice itself independent of content of experience, whether it’s expansion or contraction, bliss or grief. And in both cases, the dark night is an invitation to release identification out of identities and stories about myself, others and the world. It’s an invitation to notice and examine thoughts I have taken as true.

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