Dark Days and Nights of the Soul

Last week, I wrote about attempts to prove the existence of a soul by proving that the soul has weight. Writing that led me to return to “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poem I was assigned to read in college. It was a title that appealed to me then because that was a time when I had many nights that I thought of as “dark nights” due to depression.

The poem was written by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross. St. John didn’t give the poem a title. He also wrote two commentaries on the poem that are much longer than the poem itself. Those commentaries are called Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo) and The Dark Night (Noche Oscura).

The new year 2020 has been a month of dark nights and dark days for me. I can’t say that my dark days are really “of the soul.” St. John of the Cross was describing the journey of the soul to a mystical union with God. If anything, my journey has been away from God.

I’m not sure I can really define what I mean when I use the word “soul” though I have thought about it for years. St. John of the Cross was certainly thinking about God and religious belief. He wasn’t thinking about how life-in-general can have dark nights, but in the 600+ years since he was writing the phrase “dark night of the soul” has been used many times to mean the hardships of everyday life.

It means to me and others a kind of spiritual depression that someone has to go through in order to be reawakened into the world. If you’re experiencing that it can be very frightening and dangerous.

Eckhart Tolle says the dark night of the soul is used to describe “what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level… the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.”

The nights St. John describes are purgations on the path. The first purging is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul.  The second purge is the spiritual part. Both are stages of the mystical journey.

St. John does not actually use the term “dark night of the soul”, but only “dark night” (“noche oscura“). His guidance comes from the only light in this dark night burns in the soul.

When I studied and wrote about the poem as a student, I dug deeper into the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love which had been earlier described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle.

This old poem is not easy to read. What might I find to identify with in a poem written around 1578 while the poet was probably was imprisoned in Spain?

What I found was the idea that a crisis of the spirit and soul might be the start of a journey to something better. I find it hopeful. I found it hopeful many years ago. I still find some hope in its intention now.

The crisis is hopefully temporary, but it may not be brief. I pity those who suffer for a long time. The examples in religious history are not comforting. St. Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured dark nights for 45 years. According to her letters, the dark “night” of St. Teresa of Calcutta lasted from 1948 almost until her death in 1997.

These are heavy and not entertaining thoughts. I once had a conversation with a close friend about this topic and he suggested (only partly jokingly) that the soul is energy and that it leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field.

He is not alone in that belief in a force that is a kind of global soul or energy field that can be used by all of us – if we know how to tap into it.  there’s the rub.  Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

Energy cannot be destroyed, so if the soul is energy, where does it go when we die?

Another scientifically-minded friend answers that the energy simply gets “grounded” in the Earth.

You won’t find scientific interest in soul research. I doubt that any researchers are looking at the dark night of the soul either.

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured. maybe we can’t tap into any larger energy other than our own.

I wrote my own dark night of the soul poem this past week (read it here) and I do feel lighter today than I did the past month.

Maybe I need to lighten up when it’s possible to do so. Perhaps, I will reread humorist Douglas Adams’ novel about the shallowness of modern spirituality, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, whose title sets up where he is headed. And I’ll make a nice cup of tea.

On Being

The Helix Nebula, also known as The Eye of God

Since childhood, I have been a big radio fan. Nowadays, a lot of my radio listening is done via podcasts that I listen to on an iPod or via Stitcher online “radio” – but it’s still radio.  I started listening to Speaking of Faith in 2003 when it became a weekly radio program. I think some people may have been put off by the word “faith” thinking it’s a show about just religion. It’s not. Though many religious practices are topics, so is finding the spirituality and meaning in many other parts of our lives.

The program changed its name from “Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett” to “Krista Tippett on Being.”  The programs are still much the same but the producers said at the time they changed the name that they could be in “a more spacious container for what the program has become.”

“Speaking of Faith” may have suggested religion to people, but the program always described itself as “religion, meaning, ethics and ideas” and the latter three probably made up more of the programs.

On Being might also be a name that points to a change in the way Americans think about faith – less connected with a religion and more connected to meaning, ethics and ideas. It is a more “hospitable” word than “faith” for non-Christian and non-religious listeners.

I also follow their blog.

The show’s producer and host is Krista Tippett.  She has an interesting bio. She grew up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher; studied history at Brown University and went to West Germany in 1983 on a Fulbright Scholarship; stayed in divided Berlin as a correspondent and became a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany. She left in 1988. Krista got an M.Div. from Yale in 1994.

In 2007, Krista published her first book, Speaking of Faith about the issues that made up the programs. And she sees the show as one that can “draw out the intellectual and spiritual content of religion that should nourish our common life, but that is often obscured precisely when religion enters the news.”

Her book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit is actually the one I read first because of my fascination with Einstein and the ways science connects and rejects religion.

You can listen to many of the programs online at http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org and subscribe (free) to the podcasts of the show with iTunes or other services.

Their website lists show topics from physics (“Uncovering the Codes for Reality”; “Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth”) to parenting (“What we Nurture”); from civil society (“The Inward Work of Democracy”; “Words that Shimmer”); to aging (“The Far Shore of Aging”; “Contemplating Mortality”); from yoga (“The Body’s Grace”; “Meditation in Action”) to neuroscience (“Creativity and the Everyday Brain”; “Investigating Healthy Minds”), from urban renewal (“Becoming Detroit”; “Evolving a City”) to farm to table food (“Driven by Flavor”); from “The Last Quiet Places” to ocean exploration; and from Desmond Tutu to Rosanne Cash and from the Dalai Lama to Rumi.


About the image: This NASA Hubble Space Telescope composite of photos from the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona shows a Helix Nebula. The Helix Nebula (also known as NGC 7293) is a planetary nebula about 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. It is one of the closest planetary nebulae to Earth and was discovered by Karl Ludwig Harding before 1824. Since, 2003, it has appeared in many places on the Net and is often referred to as the “Eye of God.”