The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul
In these two works, John of the Cross describes the arduous experience of the spiritual journey. It is a difficult time, the “dark night of the senses,” that requires a total act of faith. Unlike the spiritual traditions of Sts. Augustine and Bonaventure that depended highly upon the faculties of memory, intellect and will as their guide, John of the Cross deviated from this tradition and claimed that faith alone was one’s guide in the ascent toward union with God, particularly during the ‘dark night of the soul.’ He contended that this begins with our Baptism and meets its culminating point in "transforming union"/"spiritual marriage." He states:
Since this transformation and union is something that falls beyond the reach of the senses and of human capability, the soul must empty itself perfectly and voluntarily – I mean in its affection and will – of all the earthly and heavenly things it can grasp. It must through its own efforts empty itself insofar as it can. As for God, who will stop him from accomplishing his desires in the soul that is resigned, annihilated, and despoiled?
For John of the Cross, the Trinity and the Incarnation were the mysteries par excellence. He believed that Scripture was the map that leads one to the Trinity and the Incarnate Word, making reference to chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel: “This is eternal life: that they should know you, the one true God, and Him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.” Our initiation into the Trinity takes root at Baptism, but comes to its glorious fruition in union with God…the pathway being the ‘dark night,’ the night of purification.
Scholar Peter Slattery, O.Carm. states that St. John of the Cross has three criterion by which it can be judged whether or not one is experiencing what John of the Cross refers to as the ‘dark night of the senses.’ The first sign that would indicate an authentic experience of the dark night is the loss of consolation one previously experienced in prayer and the things of God. The second sign is the frustration of desiring to be close to God but feeling He is far away; commonly people at this stage believe they are not serving God well enough and they may express a scrupulous fear of sinning. The third and final criterion consists of the loss of the ability to use one’s imagination to meditate. John of the Cross states: “At this time God does not communicate Himself to the person through the senses as he did before…but begins to communicate Himself through pure spirit.” John of the Cross sums it up in the following words:
…at that time the soul also suffers great darkness in the understanding, many aridities and afflictions in the will, and grievous knowledge of its miseries in the memory…and in its substance the soul suffers profoundly from its poverty and abandonment.
According to The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul there occurs a certain purification of the intellect, memory and will. This is a time that many spiritual writers have referred to as the negative way or desert experience, or in the words of John of the Cross - the night. John of the Cross believed that purgatory could take place in this life and that heaven could potentially begin on earth (in the sense of entering into union with God). John’s mysticism begins with the purification of the senses and detachment from all that does not lead to the honor and glory of God. He describes this bittersweet experience as “night” because one is plunged into the “darkness of faith.”
In The Ascent of Mt. Carmel he writes: “In the night of the senses there still remains some light, for the understanding and reason remain, and are not blinded. But this spiritual night, which is faith, deprives the soul of everything, both as to the understanding and as to sense…the less the soul works with its own ability, the more securely it journeys, because it journeys more in faith.” In both The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul John patterns the way of this journey: sin, a sense of alienation from God, purification, union with God.
This journey is one of ups and downs, disappointments - it is a time of great struggle that requires uncompromising trust in God’s grace. All of this is meant to strengthen one in the spiritual life. John describes the struggle against sin, attachment, and distractions, as the journey continues. As one is on the journey to Mt. Carmel, through the tumultuous time of the “dark night” it is important to persevere. According to John of the Cross: “If there is no one to understand these persons, they either turn back and abandon the road or lose courage, or at least they hinder their own progress…”
The key is perseverance, but this will not be easy and quite frankly may seem impossible. God is ever-present to aid us during this time; God will give us the grace to help us along the way – those in this situation “ought to persevere patiently and not be afflicted…[they must] trust in God who does not fail those who seek him.” The detachment that John writes about is not what is commonly misunderstood as getting rid of things or not having any sort of pleasure in life, but rather he writes: “…of the detachment from them of the taste and desire, for it is this that leads the soul free and void of them, although it may have them.”
The spiritual tradition of St. John of the Cross points to the Gospel passage that reads: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Luke 18:25). Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God is within; if attachments lead one away from God, their purpose serves to enslave the heart and will. For John of the Cross, such attachments are spiritually detrimental. The desert Fathers wrote about metanoia, the ongoing process of incremental change in one’s interior life; John’s version of metanoia was the arduous task of ascending Mt. Carmel. The path to Mt. Carmel was Christ Himself, nothing else could suffice. St. John of the Cross writes: “For Christ, desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness, and poverty in everything in the world.”
John of the Cross maps out the journey of the soul as it ascends Mt. Carmel. Just as he maps out the course, he also maps out just what is necessary to be forsaken in order to make room for God. It is an interior journey that takes one deeper and deeper into the very depths of one’s soul. The journey becomes so arduous at times that it seems almost impossible to face it and continue on, for “God does not communicate Himself through the senses as he did before…but begins to communicate Himself through pure spirit by an act of simple contemplation in which there is no discursive succession of thought.” It is at this point the soul is being invited to enter into the ‘dark night.’ The ‘dark night’ does not consist solely of what we are capable of actively doing and giving up, as much as it does passively in opening ourselves to the churning of the Holy Spirit within us – in a sense, molding us. John of the Cross writes:
God, who is all perfection, wars against all the imperfect habits of the soul, and, purifying the soul with the heat of its flame, he uproots its habits from it, and prepares it, so that at last he may enter it and be united with it by his sweet, peaceful, and glorious love, as is the fire when it has entered the wood.
The ‘dark night’ is by no means an escape from real life; it is facing the reality of everyday struggles and digging into the depths of who we are before God. The Holy Spirit is the impetus initiating the ‘dark night.’ It is God’s invitation to the soul to journey into the interior life and to ultimately be in union with God forever. Some of the classic signs that may occur in one’s life when entering into the ‘dark night of the senses’: aridity, difficulty praying, avoidance of deliberate sin, willingness to suffer doing God’s Will, experiencing the absence of God, fretting over past sins and fear of falling away from God again. John writes: “The night which we have called the night of sense may and should be called a night of correction and restraint of desire…where all habits, both good and bad, are brought into subjection, and thus, until they are purged, the rebellions and depravities of sense cannot be purged thoroughly.” (Dark Night 2:3:1).
The ‘night of the spirit’ is that purification that digs down to the root, that is, the spiritual root, and serves as a weeding-out of those defects of the inner life:
…a dullness of mind…lack of sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, a distracted and inattentive inner life…a lowly and natural mode of communion with God…a feeble and imperfect knowing of Him…remnants of pride still surfacing, such as wanting to be seen in advanced stances of prayer…an undue security in one’s own spiritual experiences.
St. John of the Cross refers to this ‘night’ as the “oppressive undoing” because, as he states, it is the divine love and light that penetrate the very soul. He states that the divine infusion of light: assails…strikes…disentangles…dissolves…divests…chastises…afflicts…[and] purifies.” One may ask why this is so, and John answers this inquiry in his second book of the Dark Night when he writes: “Because the light and wisdom of this contemplation is very bright and pure, and the soul in which it shines is very dark and impure, a person will be deeply afflicted on receiving it.”
The ‘dark night’ seems drudgery, but in reality, i.e., in light of the greater reality at work here, it is a wholesome experience of reintegration in self-awareness and growing in divine intimacy with God. This is not something concocted by John of the Cross; it is the baptismal vocation of every Christian – it is life in the Trinity. John’s ‘dark night’ is considered by some to be negative in the sense that it is not hopeful, but bleak; this is not the case at all. John’s spirituality is considered a spiritual tradition according to the ‘negative’ way because it is the renunciation of unhealthy attachments. This ‘negative way’ in the spiritual tradition is positive in that it prefers nothing to God.
 Susan Muto, John of the Cross for Today: The Ascent, (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1991) 41.
 John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. 2, no. 2.
 New American Bible, John 17:3.
 John of the Cross, The Dark Night, 1:9:8.
 Andrew Harvey, editor, “The Purification of the Fire,” Teachings of the Christian Mystics, (Boston: Shambhala, 1998) 131.
 John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2:1:3.
 John of the Cross, The Dark Night 1:10:2.
 Ibid. 1:10:3.
 John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 3:4.
 John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount. Carmel, 1:13:4.
 John of the Cross, Dark Night 1:9:8.
 Harvey, 132.
 John of the Cross, Dark Night 2:3:1.
 John of the Cross, Dark Night, 2:2:1-4; 2:3:3.
 Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., The Fire Within, (San Francesco: Ignatius Press, 1989) 169.
John of the Cross, Dark Night 2:6:5.