A meditation on “La noche oscura” (“Dark Night of the Soul”), by San Juan de la Cruz
Many of us are familiar with the term “the dark night of the soul,” which usually refers to a period of crisis, almost always spiritual in nature, that makes us stronger once we come through it, having purged ourselves of our ego and the trappings of the material world. That phrase originally comes from an unnamed poem by San Juan de la Cruz (known in English as Saint John of the Cross), a Spanish mystic and Carmelite friar who lived from 1542 to 1591.
I have a vague recollection of reading this poem, usually referred to as “La noche oscura” (“Dark Night of the Soul”), as an undergraduate student at Marquette University. Although I’m now Catholic, I wasn’t at the time, and the poem seemed a bit confusing to me.
Below is the text of the poem in the original Spanish; click here to find an English translation of the work.
En una noche oscura, con ansias en amores inflamada, ¡oh dichosa ventura!, salí sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada; a escuras y segura, por la secreta escala disfrazada, ¡oh dichosa ventura! a escuras y en celada, estando ya mi casa sosegada; en la noche dichosa, en secreto, que nadie me veía, ni yo miraba cosa, sin otra luz y guía sino la que en el corazón ardía. Aquesta que me guiaba más cierto que la luz del mediodía, a donde me esperaba quien yo bien me sabía, en parte donde nadie parecía. ¡Oh noche que guiaste!, ¡oh noche amable más que el alborada!, ¡oh noche que juntaste Amado con amada, amada en el Amado transformada! En mi pecho florido, que entero para él solo se guardaba, allí quedó dormido, y yo le regalaba; y el ventalle de cedros aire daba. El aire de la almena, cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía, con su mano serena en mi cuello hería, y todos mis sentidos suspendía. Quedéme y olvidéme, el rostro recliné sobre el Amado, cesó todo, y dejéme, dejando mi cuidado entre las azucenas olvidado.
At first glance, the poem seems to tell the story of a girl who secretly climbs out of her window in the middle of a dark night, guided by a light that emanates from her heart, to have a physical encounter with her boyfriend; hardly an appropriate topic for a priest! Like most students, I had to have the professor explain to me that the details and actions in the poem are symbolic: the girl represents the soul that longs to leave the body, symbolized by the house, guided by faith, to unite with God. (These days I try to walk my students through this symbolism when we read the poem together.)
Back then, I could appreciate the structure of the poem, but the message still confounded me. My incorrect interpretation at the time was that it seemed like San Juan de la Cruz actually wanted to die. I couldn’t relate to that sentiment, even if it meant that through the process of dying I could be with God. You could imagine what I thought when I read a poem attributed to Santa Teresa de Ávila (also known as Santa Teresa de Jesús), who was San Juan de la Cruz’s mentor, that includes the verse “Que muero porque no muero” (“I’m dying because I don’t die”)!
It would take years of life experience and a Catholic conversion for me to make any sense of Spanish mysticism, although I still find it somewhat difficult to explain. I now see that San Juan de la Cruz’s use of erotic imagery is a technique to make the concept of mysticism easier to relate to; another consequence of this language might be that a union with God becomes more desirable for us. (I didn’t have much first-hand experience with romantic love during college, which could help to explain my initial lack of understanding.)
I think that the part of the poem that most resonates with me now is the metaphor of the darkness. As kids, many of us were afraid of the dark. My son, Frasier, who is 9-years-old, isn’t exactly afraid of the dark, but as he and I say our evening prayers together, he often gets philosophical and asks profound questions about life and death. It’s not rare for him to get moved to tears when thinking about different issues before falling asleep. As adults, I don’t know that we ever fully outgrow the anxiety we sometimes experience when alone in the dark. If we’re unable to see where we’re going, we can’t rely on the scientific method to interpret our surroundings. We have to use our instincts, which have a mysterious origin, to tell us which path to take. And what is the darkness? (I don’t seem to remember our professor explaining its symbolism to us.) It’s not necessarily literal darkness. To use the language of San Ignacio de Loyola, another Spanish saint from the Golden Age, it’s desolation. In other words, periods of doubt, suffering, addiction, confusion, isolation, depression or any prolonged feelings of negativity. Most of us have experienced profound desolation in the past year because of the pandemic. San Juan de la Cruz was no stranger to the darkness, having even spent time imprisoned; from this awful experience he crafted much of his moving poetry.
So, what’s the secret to moving from desolation to consolation? There’s no short cut, it would seem. It takes prayer, meditation, the practice of charity, and the strength to cleanse ourselves of those things that separate us from God, i.e. sins. Reading helps, as does writing. (This blog is one way I try to find my way through my own darkness.) Spending time in nature also does wonders for the spirit, for there we are surrounded by God’s creations. I would argue that whenever we follow our curiosity, we’re moving in the direction of becoming our highest self, which is what God wants for us. Perhaps the most reassuring message in San Juan de la Cruz’s writings, for me, is that no matter how much we might search for God, He longs to be united with us even more.
This theme of venturing out in the darkness, even if it might be scary, is present in other works by San Juan de la Cruz as well, like in his poem “Qué bien sé yo la fonte” (“For well I know the spring“), better known as “Aunque es de noche” (“Although it is night”), which I read for the first time in grad school. Recently I discovered a flamenco song by popular Spanish singer Rosalía, who uses San Juan de la Cruz’s poem for the lyrics. I find it to be very moving, as flamenco often is.
Have you experienced desolation this year? What has helped you to get through the darkness? Tell us about it in the comments below.
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