Christian Yoga and the Dark Night of the Soul

April 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Meditation


St. John of the Cross was a Christian mystic and friar from sixteenth century Spain. As a mystic, he strived for union with God by the surrender of the soul to the inner workings of the Spirit. Such surrender allows for the soul to be tempered like metal in a furnace — the result being the death of the ego or false self. Unencumbered then by the world, the devil and the flesh, the soul is free to enjoy loving union with God.

When St. John wrote the above poem, Songs of the Soul, he was in prison for his attempts to reform the Carmelite order. While in prison, he was treated so poorly that he was near death by the time he managed to escape. Unbeknownst to his captors, however, he spent his time in his cell in communion with the Spirit of God. His jailor, recognizing his holiness, gave him the means to express himself on paper. The result is the above poem, an outpouring of unhindered love and yearning of the soul for God.

4.2.7Later, John was asked to explain what the poem meant, since it could easily be misinterpreted as a poem about two lovers having a secret rendezvous in the night. The Dark Night of the Soul was then composed to explain, line by line, what the poem intended.

The Dark Night is a careful examination of what it is like to experience the death of the ego. Many people of the modern era have misinterpreted the work to be an encouragement for someone going through hard times. This renders the work to have too restricted a scope. St. John is attempting to explain how the Holy Spirit goes about perfecting the soul after it has accepted the gift of salvation through Christ Jesus. It is a painful annihilation of the individual will in favor of the will of God and the purging of every desire until the only thing the soul longs for is God. The book encompasses the darkest, most painful parts of the Christian journey towards maturity in Christ.

Given this backdrop, it is important to mention that he breaks the process into two “Dark Nights.” The first he calls the purgation of sense, where the soul is purified of its attachments to the pleasures of the world. In it, the soul feels separated from the Spirit whose consolations it has come to adore. God seems distant, and the pleasures of the world no longer appeal to it. The soul is taught how to follow God for God’s sake, instead of for “What God can do for me.” The first night cleanses the soul of the vices associated with attachments to sense, including pride, self-condemnation, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and laziness.

The second night, a much darker, more painful night, is the purgation of the spirit. Here, God gets to the root of the problem, the infiltration of sin and corruption deep within the soul. The second night seems unbearable and the soul feels abandoned by God: “Loving God so intensely that nothing else matters, she sees herself as so wretched that God could not possibly love her back” (Book II, Chap. 7).

St. John describes this second night like a purging fire:
“Let’s look at this loving knowledge and divine light like fire. Fire transforms wood into fire. When fire touches wood, the first thing it does is that it begins to dry the wood out. It drives away moisture, causing the wood to shed the tears it has held inside itself. Then the wood blackens, turning dark and ugly; it may even give off a bad odor. Little by little, the fire desiccates the wood, bringing out and driving away all those dark and unsavory accidents that are contrary to the nature of fire. Finally, heating up and enkindling the wood from the outside, the fire transforms the wood into itself, rendering the wood as beautiful as the fire is”(Book II, Chap. 10).

Dark Night of the Soul is a heavy work, not to be read lightly. For sure, the holiness St. John reached in his lifetime is a gift few receive. There is a tendency for the reader to wonder where on the path to Godly union they can be found; to try and find themselves in the book. Perhaps the best route for us all is to abandon ourselves into the care of the Spirit; to be at peace first with where we are and next with wherever he will take us. If union with God is our goal, we are on the right path.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Jesus Christ, Mat 16:25).

Songs of the Soul

On a dark night,

Inflamed by love-longing–

O exquisite risk!–

Undetected I slipped away.

My house, at last, grown still.

Secure in the darkness,

I climbed the secret ladder in disguise–

O exquisite risk!–

Concealed by the darkness.

My house, at last, grown still.


That sweet night: a secret.

Nobody saw me;

I did not see a thing.

No other light, no other guide

Than the one burning in my heart.


This light led the way

More clearly than the risen sun

To where he was waiting for me

–The one I knew so intimately–

In a place where no one could find us.


O night, that guided me!

O night, sweeter than sunrise!

O night, that joined lover with Beloved!

Lover transformed in Beloved!


Upon my blossoming breast,

Which I cultivated just for him,

He drifted into sleep,

And while I caressed him,

A cedar breeze touched the air.


Wind blew down from the tower,

Parting the locks of his hair.

With his gentle hand

He wounded my neck

And all my senses were suspended.

I lost myself. Forgot myself.

I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.

Everything fell away and I left myself behind,

Abandoning my cares

Among the lilies, forgotten.

John of the Cross, translated by Mirabai Starr


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