EVELYN UNDERHILL 1911
The Dark Night of the Soul
We have wandered during the last few chapters from our study of the mystical life-process in man, the organic growth of his transcendental consciousness, in order to examine the byproducts of that process, its characteristic forms of self-expression: the development of its normal art of contemplation, and the visions and voices, ecstasies and raptures which are frequent — though not essential — accompaniments of its activity. But the mystic, like other persons of genius, is man first and artist afterwards. We shall make a grave though common mistake if we forget this and allow ourselves to be deflected from our study of his growth in personality by the wonder and interest of his art. Being, not Doing, is the first aim of the mystic; and hence should be the first interest of the student of mysticism. We have considered for convenience’ sake all the chief forms of mystical activity at the half-way house of the transcendental life: but these activities are not, of course, peculiar to any one stage of that life. Ecstasy, for instance, is as common a feature of mystical conversion (p. 381) as of the last crisis, or “mystic marriage” of the soul:783 whilst visions and voices — in selves of a visionary or auditive type — accompany and illustrate every phase of the inward development. They lighten and explain the trials of Purgation as often as they express the joys of Illumination, and frequently mark the crisis of transition from one mystic state to the next.
One exception, however, must be made to this rule. The most intense period of that great swing-back into darkness which usually divides the “first mystic life,” or Illuminative Way, from the “second mystic life,” or Unitive Way, is generally a period of utter blankness and stagnation, so far as mystical activity is concerned. The “Dark Night of the Soul,” once fully established, is seldom lit by visions or made homely by voices. It is of the essence of its miseries that the once-possessed power of orison or contemplation now seems wholly lost. The self is tossed back from its hard-won point of vantage. Impotence, blankness, solitude, are the epithets by which those immersed in this dark fire of purification describe their pains. It is this episode in the life-history of the mystic type to which we have now come.
We have already noticed 784 the chief psychological characteristics of all normal mystical development. We have seen that its essence consists in the effort to establish a new equilibrium, to get, as it were, a firm foothold upon transcendent levels of reality; and that in its path towards this consummation the self experiences a series of oscillations between “states of pleasure” and “states of pain.” Put in another way, it is an orderly movement of the whole consciousness towards higher centres, in which each intense and progressive affirmation fatigues the immature transcendental powers, and is paid for by a negation; a swing-back of the whole consciousness, a stagnation of intellect, a reaction of the emotions, or an inhibition of the will.
Thus the exalted consciousness of Divine Perfection which the self acquired in its “mystical awakening” was balanced by a depressed and bitter consciousness of its own inherent imperfection, and the clash of these two perceptions spurred it to that laborious effort of accommodation which constitutes the “Purgative Way.” The renewed and ecstatic awareness of the Absolute which resulted, and which was the governing characteristic of Illumination, brought its own proper negation: the awareness, that is to say, of the self’s continued separation from and incompatibility with that Absolute which it has perceived. During the time in which the illuminated consciousness is fully established, the self, as a rule, is perfectly content: believing that in its vision (p. 382) of Eternity, its intense and loving consciousness of God, it has reached the goal of its quest. Sooner or later, however, psychic fatigue sets in; the state of illumination begins to break up, the complementary negative consciousness appears, and shows itself as an overwhelming sense of darkness and deprivation. This sense is so deep and strong that it inhibits all consciousness of the Transcendent; and plunges the self into the state of negation and misery which is called the Dark Night.
We may look at the Dark Night, as at most other incidents of the Mystic Way, from two points of view: (1) We may see it, with the psychologist, as a moment in the history of mental development, governed by the more or less mechanical laws which so conveniently explain to him the psychic life of man: or (2) with the mystic himself, we may see it in its spiritual aspect as contributing to the remaking of character, the growth of the “New Man”; his “transmutation in God.”
(1) Psychologically considered, the Dark Night is an example of the operation of the law of reaction from stress. It is a period of fatigue and lassitude following a period of sustained mystical activity. “It is one of the best established laws of the nervous system,” says Starbuck, “that it has periods of exhaustion if exercised continuously in one direction, and can only recuperate by having a period of rest.”785 However spiritual he may be, the mystic — so long as he is in the body — cannot help using the machinery of his nervous and cerebral system in the course of his adventures. His development, on its psychic side, consists in the taking over of this machinery, the capture of its centres of consciousness, in the interests of his growing transcendental life. In so far, then, as this is so, that transcendental life will be partly conditioned by psychic necessities, and amenable to the laws of reaction and of fatigue. Each great step forward will entail lassitude and exhaustion for that mental machinery which he has pressed unto service and probably overworked. When the higher centres have been submitted to the continuous strain of a developed illuminated life, with its accompanying periods of intense fervour, lucidity, deep contemplation—perhaps of visionary and auditive phenomena — the swing-back into the negative state occurs almost of necessity.
This is the psychological explanation of those strange and painful episodes in the lives of great saints — indeed, of many spiritual persons hardly to be classed as saints — when, perhaps after a long life passed in faithful correspondence with the transcendental order, growing consciousness of the “presence of God,” the whole inner experience is suddenly swept away, and only a (p. 383) blind reliance on past convictions saves them from unbelief. 786
The great contemplatives, those destined to attain the full stature of the mystic, emerge from this period of destitution, however long and drastic it may be, as from a new purification. It is for them the gateway to a higher state. But persons of a less heroic spirituality, if they enter the Night at all may succumb to its dangers and pains. This “great negation” is the sorting-house of the spiritual life. Here we part from the “nature mystics,” the mystic poets, and all who shared in and were contented with the illuminated vision of reality. Those who go on are the great and strong spirits, who do not seek to know, but are driven to be.
We are to expect, then, as a part of the conditions under which human consciousness appears to work that for every affirmation of the mystic life there will be a negation waiting for the unstable self. Progress in contemplation, for instance, is marked by just such an alternation of light and shade: at first between “consolation” and “aridity”; then between “dark contemplation” and sharp intuitions of Reality. So too in selves of extreme nervous instability, each joyous ecstasy entails a painful or negative ecstasy. The states of darkness and illumination coexist over a long period, alternating sharply and rapidly. Many seers and artists pay in this way, by agonizing periods of impotence and depression, for each violent outburst of creative energy.
Rapid oscillations between a joyous and a painful consciousness seem to occur most often at the beginning of a new period of the Mystic Way: between Purgation and Illumination, and again between Illumination and the Dark Night: for these mental states are, as a rule, gradually not abruptly established. Mystics call such oscillations the “Game of Love” in which God plays, as it were, “hide and seek” with the questing soul. I have already quoted a characteristic instance from the life of Rulman Merswin,787 who passed the whole intervening period between his conversion and entrance on the Dark Night, or “school of suffering love” in such a state of disequilibrium. Thus too Madame Guyon, who has described with much elaboration of detail her symptoms and sufferings during the oncoming and duration of the Night — or, as she calls its intensest period the Mystic Death — traces its beginning in short recurrent states of privation, or dullness of feeling, such as ascetic writers call “aridity”: in which the self loses all interest in and affection for those divine realities which had (p. 384) previously filled its life. This privation followed upon, or was the reaction from, an “illuminated” period of extreme joy and security, in which, as she says, “the presence of God never left me for an instant. But how dear I paid for this time of happiness! For this possession, which seemed to me entire and perfect — and the more perfect the more it was secret, and foreign to the senses, steadfast and exempt from change — was but the preparation for a total deprivation, lasting many years, without any support or hope of its return.”788 As Madame Guyon never attempted to control her states, but made a point of conforming to her own description of the “resigned soul” as “God’s weathercock,” we have in her an unequalled opportunity of study.
“I endured,” she says, “long periods of privation, towards the end almost continual: but still I had from time to time inflowings of Thy Divinity so deep and intimate, so vivid and so penetrating, that it was easy for me to judge that Thou wast but hidden from me and not lost. For although during the times of privation it seemed to me that I had utterly lost Thee, a certain deep support remained, though the soul knew it not: and she only became aware of that support by her subsequent total deprivation thereof. Every time that Thou didst return with more goodness and strength, Thou didst return also with greater splendour; so that in a few hours Thou didst rebuild all the ruins of my unfaithfulness and didst make good to me with profusion all my loss.”789
Here we have, from the psychological point of view, a perfect example of the oscillations of consciousness on the threshold of a new state. The old equilibrium, the old grouping round a centre characterized by pleasure-affirmation, has been lost; the new grouping round a centre characterized by pain-negation is not yet established. Madame Guyon is standing, or rather swinging, between two worlds, the helpless prey of her own shifting and uncontrollable psychic and spiritual states. But slowly the pendulum approaches its limit: the states of privation, “become almost continual,” the reactions to illumination, become less. At last they cease entirely, the new state is established, and the Dark Night has really set in.
The theory here advanced that the “Dark Night” is, on its psychic side, partly a condition of fatigue, partly a state of transition, is borne out by the mental and moral disorder which seems, in many subjects, to be its dominant character. When they are in it everything seems to “go wrong” with them. They are tormented by evil thoughts and abrupt temptations, lose grasp not only of their spiritual but also of their worldly affairs. Thus Lucie-Christine says: “Often during my great temptations to (p. 385) sadness I am plunged in such spiritual darkness that I think myself utterly lost in falsehood and illusion; deceiving both myself and others. This temptation is the most terrible of all.”790 The health of those passing through this phase often suffers, they become “odd” and their friends forsake them; their intellectual life is at a low ebb. In their own words “trials of every kind,” “exterior and interior crosses,” abound.
Now “trials,” taken en bloc, mean a disharmony between the self and the world with which it has to deal. Nothing is a trial when we are able to cope with it efficiently. Things try us when we are not adequate to them: when they are abnormally hard or we abnormally weak. This aspect of the matter becomes prominent when we look further into the history of Madame Guyon’s experiences. Thanks to the unctuous and detailed manner in which she has analysed her spiritual griefs, this part of her autobiography is a psychological document of unique importance for the study of the “Dark Night” as it appears in a devout but somewhat self-occupied soul.
As her consciousness of God was gradually extinguished, a mental and moral chaos seems to have invaded Madame Guyon and accompanied the more spiritual miseries of her state. “So soon as I perceived the happiness of any state, or its beauty, or the necessity of a virtue, it seemed to me that I fell incessantly into the contrary vice: as if this perception, which though very rapid was always accompanied by love, were only given to me that I might experience its opposite. I was given an intense perception of the purity of God; and so far as my feelings went, I myself became more and more impure: for in reality this state is very purifying, but I was far from understanding this. . . . My imagination was in a state of appalling confusion, and gave me no rest. I could not speak of Thee, oh my God, for I became utterly stupid; nor could I even grasp what was said when I heard Thee spoken of. . . . I found myself hard towards God, insensible to His mercies; I could not perceive any good thing that I had done in my whole life. The good appeared to me evil; and — that which is terrible — it seemed to me that this state must last for ever.”791
This world as well as the next seemed leagued against her. Loss of health and friendship, domestic vexations, increased and kept pace with her interior griefs. Self-control and power of attention were diminished. She seemed stupefied and impotent, unable to follow or understand even the services of the Church, incapable of all prayer and all good works; perpetually attracted by those worldly things which she had renounced, yet quickly wearied by them. The neat edifice of her first mystic life was in (p. 386) ruins, the state of consciousness which accompanied it was disintegrated, but nothing arose to take its place.
“It is an amazing thing,” says Madame Guyon naively, “for a soul that believed herself to be advanced in the way of perfection, when she sees herself thus go to pieces all at once.”792
So, too, Suso, when he had entered the “upper school” of the spiritual life, was tormented not only by temptations and desolations, but by outward trials and disabilities of every kind: calumnies, misunderstandings, difficulties, pains. “It seemed at this time as if God had given permission both to men and demons to torment the Servitor,” he says.793 This sense of a generally inimical atmosphere, and of the dimness and helplessness of the Ego oppressed by circumstances, is like the vague distress and nervous sensibility of adolescence, and comes in part from the same cause: the intervening period of chaos between the break-up of an old state of equilibrium and the establishment of the new. The self, in its necessary movement towards higher levels of reality, loses and leaves behind certain elements of its world, long loved but now outgrown: as children must make the hard transition from nursery to school. Destruction and construction here go together: the exhaustion and ruin of the illuminated consciousness is the signal for the onward movement of the self towards other centres: the feeling of deprivation and inadequacy which comes from the loss of that consciousness is an indirect stimulus to new growth. The self is being pushed into a new world where it does not feel at home; has not yet reached the point at which it enters into conscious possession of its second or adult life.
“Thou hast been a child at the breast, a spoiled child,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso. “Now I will withdraw all this.” In the resulting darkness and confusion, when the old and known supports are thus withdrawn, the self can do little but surrender itself to the inevitable process of things: to the operation of that unresting Spirit of Life which is pressing it on towards a new and higher state, in which it shall not only see Reality but be real.
Psychologically, then, the “Dark Night of the Soul” is due to the double fact of the exhaustion of an old state, and the growth towards a new state of consciousness. It is a “growing pain” in the organic process of the self’s attainment of the Absolute. The great mystics, creative geniuses in the realm of character, have known instinctively how to turn these psychic disturbances to spiritual profit. Parallel with the mental oscillations, upheavals and readjustments, through which an unstable psycho-physical type moves to new centres of consciousness, run the spiritual oscillations of a striving and ascending spiritual type. Gyrans (p. 387) gyrando vadit spiritus. The machinery of consciousness, over-stretched, breaks up, and seems to toss the self back to an old and lower level, where it loses its apprehensions of the transcendental world; as the child, when first it is forced to stand alone, feels weaker than it did in its mother’s arms.
“For first He not only withdraws all comfortable observable infusions of light and grace, but also deprives her of a power to exercise any perceptible operations of her superior spirit, and of all comfortable reflections upon His love, plunging her into the depth of her inferior powers,” says Augustine Baker, the skilled director of souls, here anticipating the modern psychologist. “Here consequently,” he continues, “her former calmness of passions is quite lost, neither can she introvert herself; sinful motions and suggestions do violently assault her, and she finds as great difficulty (if not greater) to surmount them as at the beginning of a spiritual course. . . . If she would elevate her spirit, she sees nothing but clouds and darkness. She seeks God, and cannot find the least marks or footsteps of His Presence; something there is that hinders her from executing the sinful suggestions within her but what that is she knows not, for to her thinking she has no spirit at all, and, indeed, she is now in a region of all other most distant from spirit and spiritual operations — I mean, such as are perceptible.”794
Such an interval of chaos and misery may last for months, or even for years, before the consciousness again unifies itself and a new centre is formed. Moreover, the negative side of this new centre, this new consciousness of the Absolute, often discloses itself first. The self realizes, that is to say, the inadequacy of its old state, long before it grasps the possibility of a new and higher state. This realization will take two forms; (a) Objective: the distance or absence of the Absolute which the self seeks, (b) Subjective: the self’s weakness and imperfection. Both apprehensions constitute a direct incentive to action. They present, as it were, a Divine Negation which the self must probe, combat, resolve. The Dark Night, therefore, largely the product of natural causes, is the producer in its turn of mystical energy; and hence of supernatural effects.
(2) So much for psychology. We have next to consider the mystical or transcendental aspects of the Dark Night: see what it has meant for those mystics who have endured it and for those spiritual specialists who have studied it in the interests of other men.
As in other phases of the Mystic Way, so here, we must beware of any generalization which reduces the “Dark Night” to a uniform (p. 388) experience; a neatly defined state which appears under the same conditions, and attended by the same symptoms, in all the selves who have passed through its pains. It is a name for the painful and negative state which normally intervenes between the Illuminative and the Unitive Life — no more. Different types of contemplatives have interpreted it to themselves and to us in different ways; each type of illumination being in fact balanced by its own appropriate type of “dark.”
In some temperaments it is the emotional aspect — the anguish of the lover who has suddenly lost the Beloved — which predominates: in others, the intellectual darkness and confusion overwhelms everything else. Some have felt it, with St. John of the Cross, as a “passive purification,” a state of helpless misery, in which the self does nothing, but lets Life have its way with her. Others, with Suso and the virile mysticism of the German school, have experienced it rather as a period of strenuous activity and moral conflict directed to that “total self-abandonment” which is the essential preparation of the unitive life. Those elements of character which were unaffected by the first purification of the self — left as it were in a corner when the consciousness moved to the level of the illuminated life — are here roused from their sleep, purged of illusion, and forced to join the grooving stream.
The Dark Night, then, is really a deeply human process, in which the self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind. Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful and departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his “spiritual” side, can Divine Humanity be formed: and the formation of Divine Humanity — the remaking of man “according to the pattern showed him in the mount” — is the mystic’s only certain ladder to the Real. “My humanity,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso, “is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest.”795 This “hard saying” might almost be used as a test by which to distinguish the genuine mystic life from its many and specious imitations. The self in its first purgation has cleansed the mirror of perception; hence, in its illuminated life, has seen Reality. In so doing it has transcended the normal perceptive powers of “natural” man, immersed in the illusions of sense. Now, it has got to be reality: a very different thing. For this a new and more drastic purgation is needed — not of the organs of perception, but of the very shrine of self: that “heart” which is the seat of personality, the source of its love and will. In the stress and anguish of the Night, when it turns back from the vision (p. 389) of the Infinite to feel again the limitations of the finite the self loses the power to Do; and learns to surrender its will to the operation of a larger Life, that it may Be. “At the end of such a long and cruel transition,” says Lucie Christine, “how much more supple the soul feels itself to be in the Hand of God, how much more detached from all that is not God! She sees clearly in herself the fruits of humility and patience, and feels her love ascending more purely and directly to God in proportion as she has realized the Nothingness of herself and all things.”796
We must remember in the midst of our analysis, that the mystic life is a life of love: that the Object of the mystic’s final quest and of his constant intuition is an object of adoration and supreme desire. “With Thee, a prison would be a rose garden, oh Thou ravisher of hearts: with Thee, Hell would be Paradise, oh Thou cheerer of souls,” said Jalalu ‘d Din.797 Hence for the mystic who has once known the Beatific Vision there can be no greater grief than the withdrawal of this Object from his field of consciousness; the loss of this companionship, the extinction of this Light. Therefore, whatever form the “Dark Night” assumes, it must entail bitter suffering: far worse than that endured in the Purgative Way. Then the self was forcibly detached from the imperfect. Now the Perfect is withdrawn, leaving behind an overwhelming yet impotent conviction of something supremely wrong, some final Treasure lost. We will now look at a few of the characteristic forms under which this conviction is translated to the surface-consciousness.
A. To those temperaments in which consciousness of the Absolute took the form of a sense of divine companionship, and for whom the objective idea “God” had become the central fact of life, it seems as though that God, having shown Himself, has now deliberately withdrawn His Presence, never perhaps to manifest Himself again. “He acts,” says Eckhart, “as if there were a wall erected between Him and us.”798
The “eye which looked upon Eternity” has closed, the old dear sense of intimacy and mutual love has given place to a terrible blank.
“That which this anguished soul feels most deeply,” says St. John of the Cross, “is the conviction that God has abandoned it, of which it has no doubt; that He has cast it away into darkness as an abominable thing . . . the shadow of death and the pains and torments of hell are most acutely felt, and this comes from the sense of being abandoned by God, being chastised and cast (p. 390) out by His wrath and heavy displeasure. All this and even more the soul feels now, for a terrible apprehension has come upon it that thus it will be with it for ever. It has also the same sense of abandonment with respect to all creatures, and that it is an object of contempt to all, especially to its friends.”799
So, too, Madame Guyon felt this loss of her intuitive apprehension of God as one of the most terrible characteristics of the “night.” “After Thou hadst wounded me so deeply as I have described, Thou didst begin, oh my God, to withdraw Thyself from me: and the pain of Thy absence was the more bitter to me, because Thy presence had been so sweet to me, Thy love so strong in me. . . . Thy way, oh my God, before Thou didst make me enter into the state of death, was the way of the dying life: sometimes to hide Thyself and leave me to myself in a hundred weaknesses, sometimes to show Thyself with more sweetness and love. The nearer the soul drew to the state of death, the more her desolations were long and weary, her weaknesses increased, and also her joys became shorter, but purer and more intimate, until the time in which she fell into total privation.”800
When this total privation or “mystic death” is fully established, it involves not only the personal “Absence of God,” but the apparent withdrawal or loss of that impersonal support, that transcendent Ground or Spark of the soul, on which the self has long felt its whole real life to be based. Hence, its very means of contact with the spiritual world vanishes; and as regards all that matters, it does indeed seem to be “dead.” “When we have reached this total deprivation,” says De Caussade, “what shall we do? Abide in simplicity and peace, as Job on his ash heap, repeating, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit; those who have nothing have all, since they have God.’ ‘Quit all, strip yourself of all,’ says the great Gerson, ‘and you will have all in God.’ ‘God felt, God tasted and enjoyed,’ says Fénelon, ‘is indeed God, but God with those gifts which flatter the soul. God in darkness, in privation, in forsakenness, in insensibility, is so much God, that He is so to speak God bare and alone. . . .’ Shall we fear this death, which is to produce in us the true divine life of grace?”801
B. In those selves for whom the subjective idea “Sanctity” — the need of conformity between the individual character and the Transcendent—has been central, the pain of the Night is less a deprivation than a new and dreadful kind of lucidity. The vision of the Good brings to the self an abrupt sense of her own hopeless and helpless imperfection: a black “conviction of sin,” far more bitter than that endured in the Way of Purgation, which swamps (p. 391) everything else. “That which makes her pain so terrible is that she is, as it were, overwhelmed by the purity of God, and this purity makes her see the least atoms of her imperfections as if they were enormous sins, because of the infinite distance there is between the purity of God and the creature.”802
“This,” says St. John of the Cross again, “is one of the most bitter sufferings of this purgation. The soul is conscious of a profound emptiness in itself, a cruel destitution of the three kinds of goods, natural, temporal, and spiritual, which are ordained for its comfort. It sees itself in the midst of the opposite evils, miserable imperfections, dryness and emptiness of the understanding, and abandonment of the spirit in darkness.”803
C. Often combined with the sense of sin and the “absence of God” is another negation, not the least distressing part of the sufferings of the self suddenly plunged into the Night. This is a complete emotional lassitude: the disappearance of all the old ardours, now replaced by a callousness, a boredom, which the self detests but cannot overcome. It is the dismal condition of spiritual ennui which ascetic writers know so well under the name of “aridity,” and which psychologists look upon as the result of emotional fatigue.804 It seems incredible that the eager love of a Divine Companion, so long the focus of the self’s whole being should have vanished: that not only the transcendent vision should be withdrawn, but her very desire for, and interest in, that vision should grow cold. Yet the mystics are unanimous in declaring that this is a necessary stage in the growth of the spiritual consciousness.
“When the sun begins to decline in the heavens,” says Ruysbroeck, “it enters the sign Virgo; which is so called because this period of the year is sterile as a virgin.” This is the autumn season in the cycle of the soul, when the summer heat grows less. “It perfects and fulfils the yearly travail of the Sun. In the same manner, when Christ, that glorious sun, has risen to His zenith in the heart of man, as I have taught in the Third degree, and afterwards begins to decline, to hide the radiance of His divine sunbeams, and to forsake the man; then the heat and impatience of love grow less. Now that occultation of Christ, and the withdrawal of His light and heat, are the first work and the new coming of this degree. Now Christ says inwardly to this man, Go ye out in the manner which I now show you: and the man goes out and finds himself to be poor, miserable, and abandoned. Here all the storm, the fury, the impatience of his love, grow cool: glowing summer (p. 392) turns to autumn, all its riches are transformed into a great poverty. And the man begins to complain because of his wretchedness: for where now are the ardours of love, the intimacy, the gratitude, the joyful praise, and the interior consolation, the secret joy, the sensible sweetness? How have all these things failed him? And the burning violence of his love, and all the gifts which he felt before. How has all this died in him? And he feels like some ignorant man who has lost all his learning and his works . . . and of this misery there is born the fear of being lost, and as it were a sort of half-doubt: and this is the lowest point at which a man can hold his ground without falling into despair.”805
D. This stagnation of the emotions has its counterpart in the stagnation of the will and intelligence, which has been experienced by some contemplatives as a part of their negative state. As regards the will, there is a sort of moral dereliction: the self cannot control its inclinations and thoughts. In the general psychic turmoil, all the unpurified part of man’s inheritance, the lower impulses and unworthy ideas which have long been imprisoned below the threshold, force their way into the field of consciousness. “Every vice was re-awakened within me,” says Angela of Foligno, “I would have chosen rather to be roasted than to endure such pains.”806 Where visual and auditory automatism is established, these irruptions from the subliminal region often take the form of evil visions, or of voices making coarse or sinful suggestions to the self. Thus St. Catherine of Siena, in the interval between her period of joyous illumination and her “spiritual marriage,” was tormented by visions of fiends, who filled her cell and “with obscene words and gestures invited her to lust.” She fled from her cell to the church to escape them, but they pursued her there: and she obtained no relief from this obsession until she ceased to oppose it. She cried, “I have chosen suffering for my consolation, and will gladly bear these and all other torments in the name of the Saviour, for as long as it shall please His Majesty.” With this act of surrender, the evil vision fled: Catherine swung back to a state of affirmation, and was comforted by a vision of the Cross.807
An analogous psychological state was experienced by St. Teresa; though she fails to recognize it as an episode in her normal development, and attributes it, with other spiritual adventures for which she can find no other explanation, to the action of the Devil. “The soul,” she says, “laid in fetters, loses all control over itself, and all power of thinking of anything but the absurdities he puts before it, which, being more or less unsubstantial, inconsistent, and (p. 393) disconnected, serve only to stifle the soul, so that it has no power over itself; and accordingly — so it seems to me — the devils make a football of it, and the soul is unable to escape out of their hands. It is impossible to describe the sufferings of the soul in this state. It goes about in quest of relief, and God suffers it to find none. The light of reason, in the freedom of its will, remains, but it is not clear; it seems to me as if its eyes were covered with a veil. . . . Temptations seem to press it down, and make it dull, so that its knowledge of God becomes to it as that of something which it hears of far away.” This dullness and dimness extends to ordinary mental activity, which shares in the lassitude and disorder of the inner life. “If it seeks relief from the fire by spiritual reading, it cannot find any, just as if it could not read at all. On one occasion it occurred to me to read the life of a saint, that I might forget myself and be refreshed with the recital of what he had suffered. Four or five times, I read as many lines, and though they were written in Spanish, I understood them less at the end than I did when I began: so I gave it up. It so happened to me on more occasions than one.”808 If we are reminded of anything here, it is of the phenomenon of “dark contemplation.” That dimness of mind which we there studied, is here extended to the normal activities of the surface intelligence. The Cloud of Unknowing, rolling up, seems to envelop the whole self. Contemplation, the “way within the way,” has epitomized the greater process of the mystic life. In both, the path to Light lies through a meek surrender to the confusion and ignorance of the “Dark.” The stress and exasperation felt in this dark, this state of vague helplessness, by selves of an active and self-reliant type, is exhibited by Teresa in one of her half-humorous self-revealing flashes. “The Devil,” she says of it, “then sends so offensive a spirit of bad temper that I think I could eat people up!”809
All these types of “darkness,” with their accompanying and overwhelming sensations of impotence and distress, are common in the lives of the mystics. Suso and Rulman Merswin experienced them: Tauler constantly refers to them: Angela of Foligno speaks of a “privation worse than hell.” It is clear that even the joyous spirit of Mechthild of Magdeburg knew the sufferings of the loss and absence of God. “Lord,” she says in one place, “since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me the gift which every dog has by nature: that of being true to Thee in my distress; when I am deprived of all consolation. This I desire more fervently than Thy heavenly Kingdom!”810 In such a saying as this, the whole “value for life” of the Dark Night is (p. 394) revealed to us: as an education in selfless constancy, a “school of suffering love.”
E. There is, however, another way in which the self’s sense of a continued imperfection in its relation with the Absolute — of work yet remaining to be done — expresses itself. In persons of a very highly strung and mobile type, who tend to rapid oscillations between pain and pleasure states, rather than to the long, slow movements of an ascending consciousness, attainment of the Unitive Life is sometimes preceded by the abrupt invasion of a wild and unendurable desire to “see God,” apprehend the Transcendent in Its fullness: which can only, they think, be satisfied by death. As they begin to outgrow their illuminated consciousness, these selves begin also to realize how partial and symbolic that consciousness—even at its best—has been: and their movement to union with God is foreshadowed by a passionate and uncontrollable longing for ultimate Reality. This passion is so intense, that it causes acute anguish in those who feel it. It brings with it all the helpless and desolate feelings of the Dark Night; and sometimes rises to the heights of a negative rapture, an ecstasy of deprivation. St. Teresa is perhaps the best instance of this rare method of apprehending the self’s essential separation from its home; which is also the subject of a celebrated chapter in the “Traité de l’Amour de Dieu” of St. François de Sales.811 Thanks to her exceptionally mobile temperament, her tendency to rush up and down the scale of feeling, Teresa’s states of joyous rapture were often paid for by such a “great desolation” — a dark ecstasy or “pain of God.” “As long as this pain lasts,” she says, “we cannot even remember our own existence; for in an instant all the faculties of the soul are so fettered as to lie incapable of any action save that of increasing our torture. Do not think I am exaggerating; on the contrary, that which I say is less than the truth, for lack of words in which it may be expressed. This is a trance of the senses and the faculties, save as regards all which helps to make the agony more intense. The understanding realizes acutely what cause there is for grief in separation from God: and our Lord increases this sorrow by a vivid manifestation of Himself. The pain thus grows to such a degree that in spite of herself the sufferer gives vent to loud cries, which she cannot stifle, however patient and accustomed to pain she may be, because this is not a pain which is felt in the body, but in the depths of the soul. The person I speak of learned from this how much more acutely the spirit is capable of suffering than the body.812
The intense and painful concentration upon the Divine Absence which takes place in this “dark rapture” often induces all the (p. 395) psycho-physical marks of ecstasy. “Although this state lasts but a short time, the limbs seem to be disjointed by it. The pulse is as feeble as if one were at the point of death; which is indeed the case, for whilst the natural heat of the body fails, that which is supernatural so burns the frame that with a few more degrees God would satisfy the soul’s desire for death. . . . You will say perhaps, that there is imperfection in this desire to see God: and ask why this soul does not conform herself to His will, since she has so completely surrendered herself to it. Hitherto she could do this, and consecrated her life to it; but now she cannot, for her reason is reduced to such a state that she is no longer mistress of herself and can think of nothing but her affliction. Far from her Sovereign Good, why should she desire to live? She feels an extraordinary loneliness, finds no companionship in any earthly creature; nor could she I believe among those who dwell in heaven, since they are not her Beloved. Meanwhile all company is torture to her. She is like a person suspended in mid-air, who can neither touch the earth, nor mount to heaven. She burns with a consuming thirst, and cannot reach the water. And this is a thirst which cannot be borne, but one which nothing will quench: nor would she have it quenched with any other water than that of which our Lord spoke to the Samaritan woman; and this water is denied her.”813
All these forms of the Dark Night — the “Absence of God,” the sense of sin, the dark ecstasy, the loss of the self’s old passion, peace, and joy, and its apparent relapse to lower spiritual and mental levels — are considered by the mystics themselves to constitute aspects or parts of one and the same process: the final purification of the will or stronghold of personality, that it may be merged without any reserve “in God where it was first.” The function of this episode of the Mystic Way is to cure the soul of the innate tendency to seek and rest in spiritual joys; to confuse Reality with the joy given by the contemplation of Reality. It is the completion of that ordering of disordered loves, that trans-valuation of values, which the Way of Purgation began. The ascending self must leave these childish satisfactions; make its love absolutely disinterested, strong, and courageous, abolish all taint of spiritual gluttony. A total abandonment of the individualistic standpoint, of that trivial and egotistic quest of personal satisfaction which thwarts the great movement of the Flowing Light, is the supreme condition of man’s participation in Reality. Thus is true not only of the complete participation which is possible to the great mystic, but of those unselfish labours in which the initiates of science or of art become to the Eternal Goodness (p. 396) “what his own hand is to a man.” “Think not,” says Tauler, “that God will be always caressing His children, or shine upon their head, or kindle their hearts as He does at the first. He does so only to lure us to Himself, as the falconer lures the falcon with its gay hood. . . . We must stir up and rouse ourselves and be content to leave off learning, and no more enjoy feeling and warmth, and must now serve the Lord with strenuous industry and at our own cost.”814
This manly view of the Dark Night, as a growth in responsibility — an episode of character-building—in which, as “The Mirror of Simple Souls” has it, “the soul leaves that pride and play wherein it was full gladsome and jolly,” is characteristic of the German mystics. We find it again in Suso, to whom the angel of his tribulation gave no sentimental consolations; but only the stern command, “Viriliter agite ” — “Be a man!” “Then first,” says Tauler again, “do we attain to the fullness of God’s love as His children, when it is no longer happiness or misery, prosperity or adversity, that draws us to Him or keeps us back from Him. What we should then experience none can utter; but it would be something far better than when we were burning with the first flame of love, and had great emotion, but less true submission.”815
In Illumination, the soul, basking in the Uncreated Light, identified the Divine Nature with the divine light and sweetness which it then enjoyed. Its consciousness of the transcendent was chiefly felt as an increase of personal vision and personal joy. Thus, in that apparently selfless state, the “I, the Me, the Mine,” though spiritualized, still remained intact. The mortification of the senses was more than repaid by the rich and happy life which this mortification conferred upon the soul. But before real and permanent union with the Absolute can take place: before the whole self can learn to live on those high levels where — its being utterly surrendered to the Infinite Will — it can be wholly transmuted in God, merged in the great life of the All, this dependence on personal joys must be done away. The spark of the soul, the fast-growing germ of divine humanity, must so invade every corner of character that the self can only say with St. Catherine of Genoa, “My me is God: nor do I know my selfhood except in God.”816
The various torments and desolations of the Dark Night constitute this last and drastic purgation of the spirit; the doing away of separateness, the annihilation of selfhood, even though all that self now claims for its own be the Love of God. Such a claim—which is really a claim to entire felicity, since the soul which possesses it needs nothing more — is felt by these great spirits to (p. 397) sully the radiance of their self-giving love. “All that I would here say of these inward delights and enjoyments,” says William Law, “is only this; they are not holiness, they are not piety, they are not perfection; but they are God’s gracious allurements and calls to seek after holiness and spiritual perfection . . . and ought rather to convince us that we are as yet but babes, than that we are ready men of God. . . . This alone is the true Kingdom of God opened in the soul when, stripped of all selfishness, it has only one love and one will in it; when it has no motion or desire but what branches from the Love of God, and resigns itself wholly to the Will of God. . . . To sum up all in a word: Nothing hath separated us from God but our own will, or rather our own will is our separation from God. All the disorder and corruption and malady of our nature lies in a certain fixedness of our own will, imagination, and desire, wherein we live to ourselves, are our own centre and circumference, act wholly from ourselves, according to our own will, imagination, and desires. There is not the smallest degree of evil in us but what arises from this selfishness because we are thus all in all to ourselves. . . . To be humble, mortified, devout, patient in a certain degree, and to be persecuted for our virtues, is no hurt to this selfishness; nay, spiritual-self must have all these virtues to subsist upon, and his life consists in seeing, knowing and feeling the bulk, strength, and reality of them. But still, in all this show and glitter of virtue, there is an unpurified bottom on which they stand, there is a selfishness which can no more enter into the Kingdom of Heaven than the grossness of flesh and blood can enter into it. What we are to feel and undergo in these last purifications, when the deepest root of all selfishness, as well spiritual as natural, is to be plucked up and torn from us, or how we shall be able to stand in that trial, are both of them equally impossible to be known by us beforehand.”817
The self, then, has got to learn to cease to be its “own centre and circumference”: to make that final surrender which is the price of final peace. In the Dark Night the starved and tortured spirit learns through an anguish which is “itself an orison” to accept lovelessness for the sake of Love, Nothingness for the sake of the All; dies without any sure promise of life, loses when it hardly hopes to find. It sees with amazement the most sure foundations of its transcendental life crumble beneath it, dwells in a darkness which seems to hold no promise of a dawn. This is what the German mystics call the “upper school of true resignation” or of “suffering love”; the last test of heroic detachment, of manliness, of spiritual courage. Though such an experience is (p. 398) “passive” in the sense that the self can neither enter nor leave it at will it is a direct invitation to active endurance, a condition of stress in which work is done. Thus, when St. Catherine of Siena was tormented by hideous visions of sin, she was being led by her deeper self to the heroic acceptance of this subtle form of torture, almost unendurable to her chaste and delicate mind. When these trials had brought her to the point at which she ceased to resist them, but exclaimed, “I have chosen suffering for my consolation,” their business was done. They ceased. More significant still, when she asked, “Where wast Thou, Lord, when I was tormented by this foulness?” the Divine Voice answered, “I was in thy heart.” 818
“In order to raise the soul from imperfection,” said the Voice of God to St. Catherine in her Dialogue, “I withdraw Myself from her sentiment, depriving her of former consolations . . . which I do in order to humiliate her, and cause her to seek Me in truth, and to prove her in the light of faith, so that she come to prudence. Then, if she love Me without thought of self, and with lively faith and with hatred of her own sensuality, she rejoices in the time of trouble, deeming herself unworthy of peace and quietness of mind. Now comes the second of the three things of which I told thee, that is to say: how the soul arrives at perfection, and what she does when she is perfect. That is what she does. Though she perceives that I have withdrawn Myself, she does not, on that account, look back; but perseveres with humility in her exercises, remaining barred in the house of self-knowledge, and, continuing to dwell therein, awaits with lively faith the coming of the Holy Spirit, that is of Me, who am the Fire of Love. . . . This is what the soul does in order to rise from imperfection and arrive at perfection, and it is to this end, namely, that she may arrive at perfection, that I withdraw from her, not by grace, but by sentiment. Once more do I leave her so that she may see and know her defects, so that feeling herself deprived of consolation and afflicted by pain, she may recognize her own weakness, and learn how incapable she is of stability or perseverance, thus cutting down to the very root of spiritual self-love: for this should be the end and purpose of all her self-knowledge, to rise above herself, mounting the throne of conscience, and not permitting the sentiment of imperfect love to turn again in its death-struggle, but with correction and reproof digging up the root of self-love with the knife of self-hatred and the love of virtue.”819
“Digging up the root of self-love with the knife of self-hatred” — here we see the mystical reason of that bitter self-contempt and sense of helplessness which overwhelms the soul in the Dark Night.
Such a sense of helplessness is really, the mystics say, a mark of (p. 399) progress: of deeper initiation into that sphere of reality to which it is not yet acclimatized, and which brings with it a growing consciousness of the appalling disparity between that Reality, that Perfection, and the imperfect soul.
The self is in the dark because it is blinded by a Light greater than it can bear — that “Divine Wisdom which is not only night and darkness to the soul, but pain and torment too.” “The more clear the light, the more does it blind the eyes of the owl, and the more we try to look at the sun the feebler grows our sight and the more our weak eyes are darkened. So the divine light of contemplation, when it beats on the soul not yet perfectly purified, fills it with spiritual darkness, not only because of its brilliance, but because it paralyses the natural perception of the soul. The pain suffered by the soul is like that endured by weak or diseased eyes when suddenly struck by a strong light. Such suffering is intense when the yet unpurified soul finds itself invaded by this cleansing light. For in this pure light, which attacks its impurities to expel them, the soul perceives itself to be so unclean and miserable that it seems as if God had set Himself against it. . . . Wonderful and piteous sight! so great are the weakness and imperfection of the soul that the hand of God, so soft and so gentle, is felt to be so heavy and oppressive, though merely touching it, and that, too, most mercifully; for He touches the soul, not to chastise it, but to load it with His graces.”820
The Dark Night then, whichever way we look at it, is a state of disharmony; of imperfect adaptation to environment. The self, unaccustomed to that direct contact of the Absolute which is destined to become the Source of its vitality and its joy, feels the “soft and gentle touch” of the Following Love as unbearable in its weight. The “self-naughting” or “purification of the will,” which here takes place, is the struggle to resolve that disharmony; to purge away the somewhat which still sets itself up in the soul as separate from the Divine, and makes the clear light of reality a torment instead of a joy. So deeply has the soul now entered into the great stream of spiritual life, so dominant has her transcendental faculty become, that this process is accomplished in her whether she will or no: and in this sense it is, as ascetic writers sometimes call it, a “passive purgation.” So long as the subject still feels himself to be somewhat, he has not yet annihilated selfhood and come to that ground where his being can be united with the Being of God.
Only when he learns to cease thinking of himself at all, in however depreciatory a sense; when he abolishes even such selfhood as lies in a desire for the sensible presence of God, will that (p. 400) harmony be attained. This is the “naughting of the soul,” the utter surrender to the great movement of the Absolute Life, which is insisted upon at such length by all writers upon mysticism. Here, as in purgation, the condition of access to higher levels of vitality is a death: a deprivation, a detachment, a clearing of the ground. Poverty leaps to the Cross: and finds there an utter desolation, without promise of spiritual reward. The satisfactions of the spirit must now go the same way as the satisfactions of the senses. Even the power of voluntary sacrifice and self-discipline is taken away. A dreadful ennui, a dull helplessness, takes its place. The mystic motto, I am nothing, I have nothing, I desire nothing, must now express not only the detachment of the senses, but the whole being’s surrender to the All.
The moral condition towards which the interior travail is directed is that of an utter humility. “Everything depends,” says Tauler, on “a fathomless sinking in a fathomless nothingness.” He continues, “If a man were to say, ‘Lord, who art Thou, that I must follow Thee through such deep, gloomy, miserable paths?’ the Lord would reply, ‘I am God and Man, and far more God.’ If a man could answer then, really and consciously from the bottom of his heart. ‘Then I am nothing and less than nothing’; all would be accomplished, for the Godhead has really no place to work in, but ground where all has been annihilated.821 As the schoolmen say, when a new form is to come into existence, the old must of necessity be destroyed. . . . And so I say: ‘If a man is to be thus clothed upon with this Being, all the forms must of necessity be done away that were ever received by him in all his powers — of perception, knowledge, will, work, of subjection, sensibility and self-seeking.’ When St. Paul saw nothing, he saw God. So also when Elias wrapped his face in his mantle, God came. All strong rocks are broken here, all on which the spirit can rest must be done away. Then, when all forms have ceased to exist, in the twinkling of an eye the man is transformed. Therefore thou must make an entrance. Thereupon speaks the Heavenly Father to him: “Thou shalt call Me Father, and shalt never cease to enter in; entering ever further in, ever nearer, so as to sink the deeper in an unknown and unnamed abyss; and, above all ways, images and forms, and above all powers, to lose thyself, deny thyself, and even unform thyself.’ In this lost condition nothing is to be seen but a ground which rests upon itself, everywhere one Being, one Life. It is thus, man may say, that he becomes unknowing, unloving, and senseless.”822
It is clear that so drastic a process of unselfing is not likely (p. 401) to take place without stress. It is the negative aspect of “deification”: in which the self, deprived of “perception, knowledge, will, work, self-seeking” — the I, the Me, the Mine—loses itself, denies itself, unforms itself, drawing “ever nearer” to the One, till “nothing is to be seen but a ground which rests upon itself”—the ground of the soul, in which it has union with God.
“Everywhere one Being, one Life” — this is the goal of mystical activity; the final state of equilibrium towards which the self is moving, or rather struggling, in the dimness and anguish of the Dark Night. “The soul,” says Madame Guyon in a passage of unusual beauty, “after many a redoubled death, expires at last in the arms of Love; but she is unable to perceive these arms. . . . Then, reduced to Nought, there is found in her ashes a seed of immortality, which is preserved in these ashes and will germinate in its season. But she knows not this; and does not expect ever to see herself living again.” Moreover, “the soul which is reduced to the Nothing, ought to dwell therein; without wishing, since she is now but dust, to issue from this state, nor, as before, desiring to live again. She must remain as something which no longer exists: and this, in order that the Torrent may drown itself and lose itself in the Sea, never to find itself in its selfhood again: that it may become one and the same thing with the Sea.”823 So Hilton says of the “naughted soul,” “the less it thinketh that it loveth or seeth God, the nearer it nigheth for to perceive the gift of the blessed love. For then is love master, and worketh in the soul, and maketh it for to forget itself, and for to see and behold only how love doth. And then is the soul more suffering than doing, and that is clean love.”824
The “mystic death” or Dark Night is therefore an aspect or incident of the transition from multiplicity to Unity, of that mergence and union of the soul with the Absolute which is the whole object of the mystical evolution of man. It is the last painful break with the life of illusion, the tearing away of the self from that World of Becoming in which all its natural affections and desires are rooted, to which its intellect and senses correspond; and the thrusting of it into that World of Being where at first, weak and blinded, it can but find a wilderness, a “dark.” No transmutation without fire, say the alchemists: No cross, no crown, says the Christian. All the great experts of the spiritual life agree — whatever their creeds, their symbols, their explanations — in describing this stress, tribulation, and loneliness, as an essential part of the way from the Many to the One; bringing the self to the threshold of that completed life which is to be lived in intimate union with (p. 402) Reality. It is the Entombment which precedes the Resurrection, say the Christian mystics; ever ready to describe their life-process in the language of their faith. Here as elsewhere — but nowhere else in so drastic a sense — the self must “lose to find and die to live.”
The Dark Night, as we have seen, tends to establish itself gradually; the powers and intuitions of the self being withdrawn one after another, the intervals of lucidity becoming rarer, until the “mystic death” or state of total deprivation is reached. So, too, when the night begins to break down before the advance of the new or Unitive Life, the process is generally slow, though it may be marked — as for instance in Rulman Merswin’s case — by visions and ecstasies.825 One after another, the miseries and disharmonies of the Dark Night give way: affirmation takes the place of negation: the Cloud of Unknowing is pierced by rays of light.
The act of complete surrender then, which is the term of the Dark Night, has given the self its footing in Eternity: its abandonment of the old centres of consciousness has permitted movement towards the new. In each such forward movement, the Transcendental Self, that spark of the soul which is united to the Absolute Life, has invaded more and more the seat of personality; stage by stage the remaking of the self in conformity with the Eternal World has gone on. In the misery and apparent stagnation of the Dark Night — that dimness of the spiritual consciousness, that dullness of its will and love — work has been done, and the last great phase of the inward transmutation accomplished. The self which comes forth from the night is no separated self, conscious of the illumination of the Uncreated Light, but the New Man, the transmuted humanity, whose life is one with the Absolute Life of God. “As soon as the two houses of the soul [the sensual and the spiritual],” says St. John of the Cross, “are tranquil and confirmed and merged in one by this peace, and their servants the powers, appetites and passions are sunk in deep tranquillity, neither troubled by things above nor things below, the Divine Wisdom immediately unites itself to the soul in a new bond of loving possession, and that is fulfilled which is written in the Book of Wisdom: ‘While all things were immersed in quiet silence, and the night was in the midway of her course, Thy omnipotent Word sallied out of heaven from the royal seats’ (Wisdom xviii. 14). The same truth is set before us in the Canticle, where the Bride, after passing by those who took her veil away and wounded her, saith, ‘When I had a little passed by them I found Him Whom my soul loveth’ (Cant. iii. 4).”826* * * * *
(p. 403) So far, we have considered the Dark Night of the Soul from a somewhat academic point of view. We have tried to dissect and describe it: have seen it through the medium of literature rather than life. Such a method has obvious disadvantages when dealing with any organic process: and when it is applied to the spiritual life of man, these disadvantages are increased. Moreover, our chief example, “from the life,” Madame Guyon, valuable as her passion for self analysis makes her to the student of mystic states cannot be looked upon as a satisfactory witness. Her morbid sentimentalism, her absurd “spiritual self-importance” have to be taken into account and constantly remembered in estimating the value of her psychological descriptions. If we want to get a true idea of the Dark Night, as an episode in the history of a living soul, we must see it in its context, as part of that soul’s total experience. We must study the reactions of a self which is passing through this stage of development upon its normal environment the content of its diurnal existence; not only on its intuition of the Divine.
As a pendant to this chapter, then, we will look at this “state of pain” as it expressed itself in the life of a mystic whose ardent, impressionable, and poetic nature reacted to every aspect of the contemplative experience, every mood and fluctuation of the soul. I choose this particular case — the case of Suso — (1) because it contains many interesting and unconventional elements; showing us the Dark Night not as a series of specific moods and events, but as a phase of growth largely conditioned by individual temperament: (2) because, being told at first hand, in the pages of his singularly ingenuous autobiography, the record is comparatively free from the reverent and corrupting emendations of the hagiographer.
From the 22nd chapter onwards, Suso’s “Life” is one of the most valuable documents we possess for the study of this period of the Mystic Way. We see in it — more clearly perhaps than its author can have done — the remaking of his consciousness, his temperamental reactions to the ceaseless travail of his deeper self: so different in type from those of St. Teresa and Madame Guyon. There is a note of virile activity about these trials and purifications, an insistence upon the heroic aspect of the spiritual life, far more attractive than Madame Guyon’s elaborate discourses on resignation and holy passivity, or even St. Teresa’s “dark ecstasies” of insatiable desire.
The chapter in which Suso’s entrance into this “Second Mystic Life” of deprivation is described is called “How the Servitor was led into the School of True Resignation.” Characteristically, this inward experience expressed itself in a series of dramatic visions; (p. 404) visions of that “dynamic” kind which we have noticed as a frequent accompaniment of the crisis in which the mystic self moves to a new level of consciousness.827 It followed the long period of constant mortification and intermittent illumination which lasted, as he tells us, from his eighteenth to his fortieth year: and constituted the first cycle of his spiritual life. At the end of that time, “God showed him that all this severity and these penances were but a good beginning, that by these he had triumphed over the unruly sensual man: but that now he must exert himself in another manner if he desired to advance in the Way.”828 In two of these visions — these vivid interior dramas — we seem to see Suso’s developed mystical consciousness running ahead of its experience, reading the hidden book of its own future, probing its own spiritual necessities; and presenting the results to the backward and unwilling surface-mind. This growing mystic consciousness is already aware of fetters which the normal Suso does not feel. Its eyes open upon the soul’s true country, it sees the path which it must tread to perfect freedom; the difference between the quality of that freedom, and the spirituality which Suso thinks that he has attained. The first of these visions is that of the Upper School; the second is that in which he is called to put upon him the armour of a knight.
“One night after matins, the Servitor being seated in his chair, and plunged in deep thought, he was rapt from his senses. And it seemed to him that he saw in a vision a magnificent young man descend from Heaven before him, and say, “thou hast been long enough in the Lower School, and hast there sufficiently applied thyself. Come, then, with me; and I will introduce thee into the highest school that exists in this world.829 There, thou shalt apply thyself to the study of that science which will procure thee the veritable peace of God; and which will bring thy holy beginning to a happy end.’ Then the Servitor rose, full of joy; and it seemed to him that the young man took him by the hand and led him into a spiritual country, wherein there was a fair house inhabited by spiritual men: for here lived those who applied themselves to the study of this science. As soon as he entered it, these received him kindly, and amiably saluted him. And at once they went to the supreme Master, and told him that a man was come, who desired to be his disciple and to learn his science. And he said, ‘Let him (p. 405) come before me, that I may see whether he please me.’ And when the supreme Master saw the Servitor, he smiled on him very kindly, and said, ‘Know that this guest is able to become a good disciple of our high science, if he will bear with patience the hard probation: for it is necessary that he be tried inwardly.’
“The Servitor did not then understand these enigmatic words. He turned toward the young man who had brought him and asked, ‘Well, my dear comrade, what then is this Upper School and this science of which you have spoken to me?’ The young man replied thus: ‘In this Upper School they teach the science of Perfect Self-abandonment; that is to say, that a man is here taught to renounce himself so utterly that, in all those circumstances in which God is manifested, either by Himself or in His creatures, the man applies himself only to remaining calm and unmoved renouncing so far as is possible all human frailty.’ And shortly after this discourse, the Servitor came to himself . . . and, talking to himself, he said, ‘Examine thyself inwardly and thou wilt see that thou hast still much self-will: thou wilt observe, that with all thy mortifications which thou hast inflicted on thyself, thou canst not yet endure external vexations. Thou art like a hare hiding in a bush, who is frightened by the whispering of the leaves. Thou also art frightened every day by the griefs that come to thee: thou dost turn pale at the sight of those who speak against thee: when thou doest fear to succumb, thou takest flight; when thou oughtest to present thyself with simplicity, thou dost hide thyself. When they praise thee, thou art happy: when they blame thee, thou art sad. Truly is it very needful for thee that thou shouldst go to an Upper School.”830
Some weeks later, when he had been rejoicing in the new bodily comfort which resulted from his relinquishment of all outward mortifications, Suso received a still more pointed lesson on his need of moral courage. He was sitting on his bed and meditating on the words of Job “Militia est.” “The life of man upon the earth is like unto that of a knight”:831 “and during this meditation, he was once more rapt from his senses, and it seemed to him that he saw coming towards him a fair youth of manly bearing, who held in his hands the spurs and the other apparel which knights are accustomed to wear. And he drew near to the Servitor, and clothed him in a coat of mail, and said to him, ‘Oh, knight! hitherto thou hast been but a squire, but now it is God’s will that thou be raised to knighthood.’ And the Servitor gazed at his spurs, and said with much amazement in his heart, ‘Alas, my God! what has befallen me? what have I become? must I indeed be a knight? I had far rather remain in peace.’ Then he (p. 406) said to the young man, ‘Since it is God’s will that I should be a knight I had rather have won my spurs in battle; for this would have been more glorious.’ The young man turned away and began to laugh: and said to him, ‘Have no fear! thou shalt have battles enough. He who would play a valiant part in the spiritual chivalry of God must endure more numerous and more dreadful combats than any which were encountered by the proud heroes of ancient days, of whom the world tells and sings the knightly deeds. It is not that God desires to free thee from thy burdens; He would only change them and make them far heavier than they have ever been.’ Then the Servitor said, ‘Oh, Lord, show me my pains in advance, in order that I may know them.’ The Lord replied, ‘No, it is better that thou know nothing, lest thou shouldst hesitate. But amongst the innumerable pains which thou wilt have to support, I will tell thee three. The first is this. Hitherto it is thou who hast scourged thyself, with thine own hands: thou didst cease when it seemed good to thee, and thou hadst compassion on thyself. Now, I would take thee from thyself, and cast thee without defence into the hands of strangers who shall scourge thee. Thou shalt see the ruin of thy reputation. Thou shalt be an object of contempt to blinded men; and thou shalt suffer more from this than from the wounds made by the points of thy cross.832 When thou didst give thyself up to thy penances thou wert exalted and admired. Now thou shalt be abased and annihilated. The second pain is this: Although thou didst inflict on thyself many cruel tortures, still by God’s grace there remained to thee a tender and loving disposition. It shall befall thee, that there where thou hadst thought to find a special and a faithful love, thou shalt find nought but unfaithfulness, great sufferings, and great griefs. Thy trials shall be so many that those men who have any love for thee shall suffer with thee by compassion. The third pain is this: hitherto thou hast been but a child at the breast, a spoiled child. Thou hast been immersed in the divine sweetness like a fish in the sea. Now I will withdraw all this. It is my will that thou shouldst be deprived of it, and that thou suffer from this privation, that thou shouldst be abandoned of God and of man, that thou shouldst be publicly persecuted by the friends of thine enemies. I will tell it thee in a word: all thou shalt undertake, that might bring thee joy and consolation, shall come to nothing, and all that might make thee suffer and be vexatious to thee shall succeed.’”833
Observe here, under a highly poetic and visionary method of presentation, the characteristic pains of the Dark Night as (p. 407) described by St. John of the Cross, Madame Guyon, De Caussade and almost every expert who has written upon this state of consciousness. Desolation and loneliness, abandonment by God and by man, a tendency of everything to “go wrong,” a profusion of unsought trials and griefs — all are here. Suso, naturally highly strung, sensitive and poetic, suffered acutely in this mental chaos and multiplication of woes. He was tormented by a deep depression so that “it seemed as though a mountain weighed on his heart” by doubts against faith: by temptations to despair.834 These miseries lasted for about ten years. They were diversified and intensified by external trials, such as illnesses and false accusations; and relieved, as the years of purgation had been, by occasional visions and revelations.
Suso’s natural tendency was to an enclosed life: to secret asceticism, reverie, outbursts of fervent devotion, long hours of rapt communion with the Eternal Wisdom whom he loved. At once artist and recluse, utterly unpractical, he had all the dreamer’s dread of the world of men. His deeper self now ran counter to all these preferences. Like the angel which said to him in the hour of his utmost prostration and misery, “ Viriliter agite!”835 it pressed him inexorably towards the more manly part; pushing him to action, sending him out from his peaceful if uncomfortable cell to the rough-and-tumble of the world. Poor Suso was little fitted by nature for that rough-and-tumble: and a large part of his autobiography is concerned with the description of all that he endured therein. The Dark Night for him was emphatically an “active night”; and the more active he was forced to be, the darker and more painful it became. Chapter after chapter is filled with the troubles of the unhappy Servitor; who, once he began to meddle with practical life, soon disclosed his native simplicity and lost the reputation for wisdom and piety which he had gained during his years of seclusion.
There was not in Suso that high-hearted gaiety, that child-like courage, which made the early Franciscans delight to call themselves God’s fools. The bewildered lover of the Eternal Wisdom suffered acutely from his loss of dignity; from the unfriendliness and contempt of other men. He gives a long and dismal catalogue of the enemies that he made, the slanders which he endured, in the slow acquirement of that disinterested and knightly valour which had been revealed to him as the essential virtue of the squire who would “ride with the Eternal Wisdom in the lists.”836
Suso was a born romantic. This dream of a spiritual chivalry (p. 408) haunts him: again and again he uses the language of the tournament in his description of the mystic life. Yet perhaps few ideals seem less appropriate to this timid, highly-strung, unpractical Dominican friar: this ecstatic “minnesinger of the Holy Ghost,” half-poet, half-metaphysician, racked by ill-health, exalted by mystical ardours, instinctively fearing the harsh contact of his fellow-men.
There is no grim endurance about Suso: he feels every hard knock, and all the instincts of his nature are in favour of telling his griefs. A more human transcendentalist has never lived. Thanks to the candour and completeness with which he takes his readers into his confidence, we know him far more intimately than we do any of the other great contemplatives. There is one chapter in his life in which he describes with the utmost ingenuousness how he met a magnificent knight whilst crossing the Lake of Constance; and was deeply impressed by his enthusiastic descriptions of the glories and dangers of the lists. The conversation between the tough man at arms and the hypersensitive mystic is full of revealing touches. Suso is exalted and amazed by the stories of hard combats, the courage of the knights, and the ring for which they contend: but most astounded by the fortitude which pays no attention to its wounds.
“And may not one weep, and show that one is hurt, when one is hit very hard?” he says.
The knight replies, “No, even though one’s heart fails, as happens to many, one must never show that one is distressed. One must appear gay and happy; otherwise one is dishonoured, and loses at the same time one’s reputation and the Ring.”
“These words made the Servitor thoughtful; and he was greatly moved, and inwardly sighing he said, ‘Oh Lord, if the knights of this world must suffer so much to obtain so small a prize, how just it is that we should suffer far more if we are to obtain an eternal recompense! Oh, my sweet Lord, if only I were worthy of being Thy spiritual knight!”
Arrived at his destination, however, Suso was visited by fresh trials: and soon forgetting his valiant declarations, he began as usual to complain of his griefs. The result was a visionary ecstasy, in which he heard the voice of that deeper self to which he always attributed a divine validity, inquiring with ill-concealed irony, “Well, what has become of that noble chivalry? Who is this knight of straw, this rag-made man? It is not by making rash promises and drawing back when suffering comes, that men win the Ring of Eternity which you desire.”
“Alas! Lord,” said Suso plaintively, “the tournaments in which one must suffer for Thee last such a very long time!” (p. 409)
The voice replied, “But the reward, the honour, and the Ring which I give to My knights endure for ever.”837
As his mystic consciousness grew, the instinct pressing him towards action and endurance grew with it. The inner voice and its visionary expression urged him on remorselessly. It mocked his weakness, encouraged him to more active suffering, more complete self-renunciation: more contact with the unfriendly world. Viriliter agile! He must be a complete personality; a whole man. Instead of the quiet cell, the secret mortifications, his selfhood was to be stripped from him, and the reality of his renunciation tested, under the unsympathetic and often inimical gaze of other men. The case of Suso is one that may well give pause to those who regard the mystic life as a progress in passivity, withdrawal from the actual world: and the “Dark Night” as one of its most morbid manifestations.
It is interesting to observe how completely human and apparently “unmystical” was the culminating trial by which Suso was “perfected in the school of true resignation.” “None can come to the sublime heights of the divinity,” said the Eternal Wisdom to him in one of his visions, “or taste its ineffable sweetness, if first they have not experienced the bitterness and lowliness of My humanity. The higher they climb without passing by My humanity, the lower afterward shall be their fall. My humanity is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest: My sufferings are the door by which all must come in.”838 It was by the path of humanity; by some of the darkest and most bitter trials of human experience, the hardest tests of its patience and love, that Suso “came in” to that sustained peace of heart and union with the divine will which marked his last state. The whole tendency of these trials in the “path of humanity” seems, as we look at them, to be directed towards the awakening of those elements of character left dormant by the rather specialized disciplines and purifications of his cloistered life. We seem to see the “new man” invading all the resistant or inactive corners of personality: the Servitor of Wisdom being pressed against his will to a deeply and widely human life in the interests of Eternal (p. 410) Love. The absence of God whom he loved, the enmity of man whom he feared, were the chief forces brought to play upon him: and we watch his slow growth, under their tonic influence, in courage, humility, and fraternal love.
Few chapters in the history of the mystics are more touching than that passage in Suso’s Life.839 “Where we speak of an extraordinary Trial which the Servitor had to bear.” It tells how a malicious woman accused him of being the father of her child, and succeeded for the time in entirely destroying his reputation. “And the scandal was all the greater,” says the Servitor with his customary simplicity “because the rumour of that brother’s sanctity had spread so far.” Poor Suso was utterly crushed by this calumny, “wounded to the depths of his heart.” “Lord, Lord!” he cried, “every day of my life I have worshipped Thy holy Name in many places, and have helped to cause it to be loved and honoured by many men: and now Thou wouldst drag my name through the mud!” When the scandal was at its height, a woman of the neighbourhood came to him in secret; and offered to destroy the child which was the cause of this gossip, in order that the tale might be more quickly forgotten and his reputation restored. She said further that unless the baby were somehow disposed of, he would certainly be forced by public opinion to accept it, and provide for its upbringing. Suso, writhing as he was under the contempt of the whole neighbourhood, the apparent ruin of his career — knowing, too, that this slander of one of their leaders must gravely injure the reputation of the Friends of God — was able to meet the temptation with a noble expression of trust. “I have confidence in the God of Heaven, Who is rich, and Who has given me until now all that which was needful unto me. He will help me to keep, if need be, another beside myself.” And then he said to his temptress, “Go, fetch the little child that I may see it.”
“And when he had the baby, he put it on his knees and looked at it: and the baby began to smile at him. And sighing deeply, he said, ‘Could I kill a pretty baby that smiled at me? No, no, I had rather suffer every trial that could come upon me!” And turning his face to the unfortunate little creature, he said to it, ‘Oh my poor, poor little one! Thou art but an unhappy orphan, for thy unnatural father hath denied thee, thy wicked mother would cast thee off, as one casts off a little dog that has ceased to please! The providence of God hath given thee to me, in order that I may be thy father. I wilt accept thee, then, from Him and from none else. Ah, dear child of my heart, thou liest on my knees; thou dost gaze at me, thou canst not yet speak! As for me, I contemplate (p. 411) thee with a broken heart; with weeping eyes, and lips that kiss, I bedew thy little face with my burning tears! . . . Thou shalt be my son, and the child of the good God; and as long as heaven gives me a mouthful, I shall share it with thee, for the greater glory of God; and will patiently support all the trials that may come to me, my darling son!’” How different is this from the early Suso; interested in little but his own safe spirituality, and with more than a touch of the religious aesthete!
The story goes on: “And when the hard-hearted woman who had wished to kill the little one saw these tears, when she heard these tender words, she was greatly moved: and her heart was filled with pity, and she too began to weep and cry aloud. The Servitor was obliged to calm her, for fear that, attracted by the noise, some one should come and see what was going on. And when she had finished weeping the Brother gave her back the baby and blessed it, and said to it, ‘Now may God in His goodness bless thee, and may the saints protect thee against all evil that may be!’ And he enjoined the woman to care for it well at his expense.”
Small wonder that after this heroic act of charity Suso’s reputation went from bad to worse; that even his dearest friends forsook him, and he narrowly escaped expulsion from the religious life. His torments and miseries, his fears for the future, continued to grow until they at last came to their term in a sort of mental crisis. “His feeble nature broken by the pains which he had to endure, he went forth raving like one who has lost his sense and hid himself in a place far from men, where none could see or hear him . . . and whilst he suffered thus, several times something which came from God said within his soul, ‘Where then is your resignation? Where is that equal humour in joy and in tribulation which you have so lightly taught other men to love? In what manner is it, then, that one should rest in God and have confidence only in Him?’ He replied weeping, ‘You ask where is my resignation? But tell me first, where is the infinite pity of God for His friends? . . . Oh Fathomless Abyss! come to my help, for without Thee I am lost. Thou knowest that Thou art my only consolation, that all my trust is only in Thee. Oh hear me, for the love of God, all you whose hearts are wounded! Behold! let none be scandalized by my insane behaviour. So long as it was only a question of preaching resignation, that was easy: but now that my heart is pierced, now that I am wounded to the marrow . . . how can I be resigned?’ And after thus suffering half a day, his brain was exhausted, and at last he became calmer, and sitting down he came to himself: and turning to God, and abandoning himself to His Will, he said, ‘If it cannot be otherwise, fiat (p. 412) voluntas tua .’”840 The act of submission was at once followed by an ecstasy and vision, in which the approaching end of his troubles was announced to him. “And in the event, God came to the help of the Servitor, and little by little that terrible tempest died away.” Thus with Suso, as with St. Catherine of Siena and other mystics whom we have considered, the travail of the Dark Night is all directed towards the essential mystic act of utter self-surrender; that fiat voluntas tua which marks the death of selfhood in the interests of a new and deeper life. He has learned the lesson of “the school of true resignation”: has moved to a new stage of reality: a complete self-naughting, an utter acquiescence in the large and hidden purposes of the Divine Will.
“Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro alla divina voglia
per ch’ una fansi nostre voglie stesse,”840
says Piccarda, announcing the primary law of Paradise. Suso has passed through the fire to the state in which he too can say, “La sua voluntate è nostre pace.” The old grouping of his consciousness round “spiritual self” has come to its head and at last broken down. In the midst of a psychic storm parallel to the upheavals of conversion, “mercenary love” is for ever disestablished, the new state of Pure Love is abruptly established in its place. Human pain is the price: the infinite joy peculiar to “free souls” is the reward. We may study the pain, but the nature of the joy is beyond us: as, in the Absolute Type of all mystic achievement, we see the cross clearly but can hardly guess at the true nature of the resurrection life.
Hence Suso’s description of his establishment in the Unitive Way seems meagre, an anti-climax, after all that went before. “And later,” he says simply, “when God judged that it was time, He rewarded the poor martyr for all his suffering. And he enjoyed peace of heart, and received in tranquillity and quietness many precious graces. And he praised the Lord from the very depths of his soul, and thanked Him for those same sufferings: which, for all the world, he would not now have been spared. And God caused him to understand that by this complete abasement he had gained more, and was made the more worthy to be raised up to God, than by all the pains which he had suffered from his youth up to that time.”841 (p. 413)
381:783 Vide supra , pp. 187 seq ., the cases of Suso and Pascal.
381:784 Pt. ii. cap. i.
382:785 “Psychology of Religion,” p. 24.
383:786 An example of this occurred in the later life of Ste. Jeanne Françoise de Chantal. See “The Nuns of Port Royal,” by M. E. Lowndes, p. 284. Much valuable material bearing on the trials of the Dark Night as they appear in the experience of ordinary contemplatives will be found in the letters of direction of De Caussade. See his “L’Abandon à la Providence Divine,” vol. ii.
383:787 Vide supra , p. 228.
384:788 Vie, pt. I. cap. xx.
384:789 Op. cit., cap. xxi.
385:790 “Journal Spirituel,” p. 233.
385:791 Vie, cap. xxiii.
386:792 “Les Torrents,” pt. i. cap. vii. § 2.
386:793 Leben, cap. xxii.
387:794 “Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § iv. cap. v.
388:795 “Buchlein von der ewigen Weisheit,” cap. ii.
389:796 “Journal Spirituel,” p. 368.
389:797 From the “Mesnevi.” Quoted in the Appendix to ‘The Flowers or Rose Garden of Sadi.”
389:798 Meister Eckhart, Pred. lvii. So too St. Gertrude in one of her symbolic visions saw a thick hedge erected between herself and Christ.
390:799 “Noche Escura del Alma,”’ I. ii. cap. vi.
390:800 Vie, pt. i. cap. xxiii.
390:801 De Caussade, “L’Abandon à la Providence Divine.” vol. ii., p. 269.
391:802 Madame Guyon , “Les Torrents,” pt. i. cap, vii.
391:803 “Noche Escura del Alma,” loc. cit.
391:804 Instructive examples in De Caussade, op. cit., vol. ii., pp. 1-82.
392:805 Ruysbroeck, “De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum,” I. ii. cap. xxviii.
392:806 St. Angèle de Foligno, op. cit ., p. 197 (English translation, p. 15).
392:807 J. E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 20.
393:808 Vida, cap. xxx. §§ 12 and 14.
393:809 Op. cit., loc. cit.
393:810 “Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit,” pt. ii. cap. 25.
394:811 L. vi. cap. xiii.
394:812 “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sextas, cap. xi.
395:813 St. Teresa, op. cit., loc. cit. Compare the Vida, cap. xx. §§ 11 to 14.
396:814 Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent (Winkworth’s translation, p. 280).
396:815 Op. cit., loc. cit .
396:816 “Vita e Dottrina,” cap. xiv.
397:817 “Christian Regeneration” (The Liberal and Mystical Writings of William Law, pp. 158-60).
398:818 Vide supra , p. 392.
398:819 Dialogo, cap. lxiii.
399:820 St. John of the Cross, “Noche Escura del Alma,” I. ii cap. v.
400:821 I.e. , the pure essence of the soul, purged of selfhood and illusion.
400:822 Sermon on St. Matthew (“The Inner Way.” pp. 204, 205).
401:823 “Les Torrents” pt. i. cap, viii.
401:824 “The Scale of Perfection,” bk. ii. cap. xxxv.
402:825 Jundt, “Rulman Merswin” p. 22.
402:826 “Noche Escura del Alma,” I. ii, cap. xxiv.
404:827 Vide supra , p. 290.
404:828 Leben, cap. xx.
404:829 These expressions, the Upper and Lower School of the Holy Spirit, as applied to the first and second mystic life, were common to the whole group of “Friends of God,” and appear frequently in their works. Vide supra , p.441, Rulman Merswin’s “Vision of Nine Rocks,” where the man who has “gazed upon his Origin” is said to have been in the Upper School of the Holy Spirit; i.e ., to have been united to God.
405:830 Leben, cap. xxi.
405:831 Job vii. 1 (Vulgate).
406:832 During the years of purgation Suso had constantly worn a sharp cross, the points of which pierced his flesh.
406:833 Leben, cap. xxii.
407:834 Leben, cap. xxiii.
407:835 Ibid. , cap. xxv.
407:836 “Buchlein von der ewigen Weisheit,” cap. ii.
409:837 Leben, cap. xlvii. So Ruysbroeck, “The gold Ring of our Covenant is greater than Heaven or Earth” (“De Contemplatione”). Compare Vaughan the Silurist (“The World”). “I saw Eternity the other night, Like a great Ring of pure and endless light, All calm as it was bright; . . . . One whispered thus: ‘This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide But for His Bride.’”
409:838 “Buchlein von der ewigen Weisheit,” cap. ii.
410:839 Cap. xl.
412:840 “Nay, it is essential to this blessed being, to hold ourselves within the Will Divine; that therewith our own wills be themselves made one.”
412:841 Loc. cit .
This article is part of public domaine and has been reprinted from sacredtexts.com with the site's permission.
Photo by Moyan Brenn, Creative Commons