Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Dark Night Question

We have received the following question as an email.

Dear Orthodox Monk,

I got your email off your blog site and I just had a question. I noticed in one of your entries you mention St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. It sounds like you've read it before. I'm just curious, as an Orthodox Christian, what is your opinion of this work? I have been unable to find any Orthodox critique of this work. Thank you.


It’s been a very long time since we read St John of the Cross. To give a full answer, we probably would have to consult with a member of the Carmelite Order. So our response is really off the cuff.

As near as we have been able to determine from our reading, as haphazard as it has been, the basic structure of the mystical ascent in St John of the Cross is three stages punctuated by two dark nights—between the first and second, and the second and third stages.

It seems clear to us that the three stages of the mystical ascent that St John of the Cross is using are those defined by Evagrius Ponticus and introduced into the West by St John Cassian. These are the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages. St John introduces the dark night of the senses—wherein the senses are purified so that the monk or nun might begin to contemplate intelligible (non-sensible) realities—between the purgative and illuminative stages; and the dark night of the soul between the illuminative and the unitive stages. The dark night of the soul appears to be a further purification of the soul so that the created spirit of man might be able to enter into habitual mystical union with God.

The breakdown of the mystical journey into these three stages, we understand from our reading, took hold all across Christendom from Spain to Mesopotamia (St Isaac the Syrian). So there would be no problem with it from an Orthodox point of view.

There is no record, however, in the Orthodox Hesychast tradition, of formal dark nights between the purgative and illuminative, and illuminative and unitive stages of the mystical ascent. This is not to say that St John of the Cross is to be dismissed out of hand as a heretic and deluder of others. It is not necessary—unless we have solid evidence for it—to take such a rigid approach to other Christians. St John obviously wrote on the basis of his own experience. We can exercise a tolerant attitude that preserves our own Orthodox identity, including the identity of the Orthodox Church as the true Church and Ark of Salvation, without anathematizing in our first breath everyone who believes differently. That way, we might be able to conduct a dialogue with others. Otherwise, it’s each to his bunker.

We understand that Staretz Sophrony (Sakharov) had an interest in St John of the Cross arising out of his own experience. Here we must point out that there is a tradition in Orthodoxy, again dating all the way back to Evagrius, of periods of abandonment by God. Hence, it might be thought that St John has formalized these periods of abandonment into dark nights and that that is why Staretz Sophrony found him interesting. But Staretz Sophrony’s immediate disciples might be able to explain this much better than we.

We would raise the following issues from our meager reading.

Putting the dark night of the senses between purgative and illuminative stages actually violates the Evagrian system as interpreted by St Isaac the Syrian. For St Isaac places the transition from the use of the senses to the exclusive contemplation of intelligible (non-sensible) realities in the middle of the illuminative stage, at the point that the mystic passes from contemplating the essences of created objects to the contemplation of angels. Of course, it may be that St John of the Cross either sees the point at which the purgative stage ends a little differently from the classic exposition in Evagrius, or understands the extent of the dark night of the senses a little differently than we ourselves do. This is the sort of thing that learned scholars debate.

There is something in Evagrius that would correspond to the dark night of the soul—the soul puts off the spiritual contemplation so as to approach God without images or concepts of any kind—but to us in our meager reading it did not seem to be so formalized as in St John of the Cross. Moreover, such a dark night does not seem to be present in St Isaac the Syrian.

Part of the problem is that while St John in our estimation is basing himself on the Evagrius that he received through St John Cassian, Roman Catholic spiritual theology took a different philosophical route, especially in the Middle Ages, from Orthodox spiritual theology. For example, in Roman Catholic theology grace is created, whereas the Orthodox have always taught that it is uncreated. This means that St John is obliged to explain his mystical experiences in ways which diverge considerably from the Orthodox tradition because he has to adhere to different theological concepts. Moreover, it might be possible that St John was obliged by the distortions of Western Scholastic theology to endure dark nights of the senses and soul in the manner he describes while this might not be necessary in the sounder Orthodox theological tradition. We don’t know. We don’t even know how anyone would demonstrate such a proposition. However, Orthodox Hesychast literature is much more a literature of light than Carmelite spirituality even though it certainly recognizes periods when the soul is tested by abandonment.

In general, we would think that an Orthodox Professor of Spiritual Theology would want to read St John of the Cross and consider how St John’s system is similar to and differs from the Hesychast systems of various Orthodox mystics, for example St Gregory of Sinai, but we would also think that St John’s books might confuse the Orthodox layman who didn’t understand the intricacies of both Orthodox and Roman Catholic spiritual theology.

Hope that helps.

–Orthodox Monk


  1. Dear Orthodox Monk,

    I have been wrestling with how to read the Old Testament with an Orthodox mind. More specifically, the struggle involves reconciling various narratives with history, and most importantly, the love of God as revealed in Christ.

    Allow me to offer some examples.

    1) The creation narrative in Genesis. As a Reformed Protestant I was inclined to young earth creationism. This viewpoint is at odds with what is commonly accepted in scientific and archeological circles. As an Orthodox Christian, how much flexibility do I have to read the account in a way which is compliant with evolutionary theory and long archeological time lines?

    2) The narratives of: the Noahic flood; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the conquest of Canaan; and other cataclysmic events. As a Reformed Protestant I was willing to accept a literal reading of these accounts, and ascribe to God's "just wrath" the deaths and suffering of the men, women and children who perished. However, as an Orthodox Christian, it's no longer so clear. I have difficulty understanding how to reconcile these narratives with the loving God described by various saints such as St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Silouan.

    3) The imprecatory Psalms. Not unlike #2, I am struggling to understand who to have in mind as the object of the imprecations. For example, am I to refer them to: the Psalmist's enemies (not always known); my enemies; the evil noetic powers; or something else? How do I both pray these Psalms and love my enemies?

    Thank you for considering these points.

  2. We will address these questions in due course.

    Orthodox Monk