Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, mystic
Padre Pio’s spirituality and ‘the dark night of the soul’
In the first stanza of the poem of The Dark Night, St. John of the Cross writes pointedly: “One dark night, fired with love’s urgent longings…” In his explanation of this verse John of the Cross clarifies that the fire within is something that goes unnoticed initially, that is, the soul has not comprehended the intensity of the experience. Nonetheless, a spiritual hunger develops interiorly, and one begins to hunger for God’s divine presence unlike ever before. The significant factor at this point is the perception of self that occurs. The mystic, once consoled in the spiritual life, now finds that earthly and heavenly things no longer satisfy: “…the soul, with no knowledge of its destination, sees itself annihilated in all heavenly and earthly things in which it formerly found satisfaction; and it only sees that it is enamored, but knows not how.” Pio wrote of this experience to his spiritual father, Fr. Benedetto Nardella, in January 1916:
For a long time my soul has found itself immersed day and night in the deep night of the spirit…in this state I then wonder at the account to be made of my life, and in a flash I feel myself falling into this dark prison cell and I instantly lose the remembrance of all the Lord’s generous favors to my soul.
Bonaventure writes of the negative way as a journey into the wilderness (Exodus 3: 18). Padre Pio’s dark night led him to believe he had been abandoned. The consolations of his past became blurred by his experience in the ‘wilderness’ causing him to lament:
Everything, everything has disappeared from the intelligence, from the soul. An endless desert of darkness, of despondency, of numbness in the birthplace of death, the night of abandonment, the cave of desolation. This is where my poor soul finds itself far from God and alone.
On August 26, 1912, Padre Pio wrote about ‘being wounded in the heart of a flame of a blazing fire.’ Writing to his spiritual director Fr. Benedetto he writes:
I was in church offering my thanksgiving after Mass when suddenly I felt my heart being wounded by an arrow of fire so sharp and intense that I thought I would die…I cannot find the words to help you understand the intensity of that flame. It seemed to me that I was being entirely immersed into fire by an invisible force.
The language that Padre Pio uses to describe his experience of transverberation, that is, the mystical sting of divine love, is characteristic of the same language used by John of the Cross to describe the beginning stages of the spiritual journey through the dark night. The mystic is interiorly set ablaze with divine love, while the resistance of nature to divine penetration plunges him/her into a state of spiritual bewilderment.
Pio of Pietrelcina underwent both the night of the senses and the night of the spirit and experienced being plunged into the abyss of the dark night. This experience in Padre Pio’s spiritual life serves as a means of detaching him from any inclination to sin. Carmelite scholar Wilfrid McGreal describeds this interior movement as a “purifying flame which takes away any obstacle to union with the Beloved…as sin is destroyed.” St. Bonaventure writes that the negative way “is necessary…[for] being cleansed from sin.” Thus begins the radical transformation of being drawn into the life of the Trinity.
In his letters he writes to his spiritual director of his personal experience of the agony and interior grief this caused him. The spiritual consolation Pio experienced in his interior life was suddenly stripped away. St. John of the Cross writes: “the reason for this dryness is that God transfers his goods and strength from sense to spirit.” This is indicative of the two ‘negative’ effects that result from the dark night. It is indicative of the struggle between the flesh (nature) and the spirit, a struggle between the human and the divine.
The darkness of the light of contemplation is not dark because it does not reflect God, but rather, it is dark because human senses fail to fathom the reality of God’s divine penetration. God penetrates the very essence, the very existence of the mystic, so much so that one’s humanity is overwhelmed by God’s divine light, and it seems one is left in darkness. The mystic suffers from afflictions, both interior and exterior, to the brink of utter abandonment. This period in one’s life will lead one to grow closer to God based on blind faith, or further apart from God, falling into despair. This is a real test of faith and belief in the ‘cloud of unknowing’. John of the Cross writes:
…when the divine light of contemplation strikes a soul not yet entirely
illumined, it causes spiritual darkness, for it not only surpasses the act of natural understanding, but it deprives the soul of this act and darkens it…for this great supernatural light overwhelms the intellect and deprives it of its natural vigor.
In a letter written by Pio on March 8, 1916 to his spiritual director, Father Benedetto, he writes:
Peace has been fully banished from my heart. I have become completely blind. I find myself enveloped in a profound darkness, and I can never, no matter how I struggle, find the light…The more I force myself, the more ardently I search, the more I see myself enveloped in greater gloom. I am alone by day, I am alone by night, and no ray of light enters to illuminate me. Never does a drop of relief come to quicken the flame, which continuously devours without consuming me.
 John of the Cross, The Dark Night, 1:11:1.
 Pio of Pietrelcina, “I have never trusted in myself,” edited by Gianluigi Pasquale, Secrets of a Soul, (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2003) 111.
 Bonaventure, “The Soul’s Journey into God,” Bonaventure, 61
 Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, “I have never trusted in myself,” Secrets of a Soul, 111
 Ibid., “I felt my heart being wounded by an arrow of love,” 36-37.
 McGreal, John of the Cross, 65.
 Ibid. 67.
 Hayes, Bonaventure-The Mystical Writings, 94.
 John of the Cross, The Dark Night, 2:5:3.
 Pio of Pietrelcina, “My father how difficult it is to believe,” Secrets of a Soul, 117.