Chapter Four—A Third Conversion—The Passive Night of the Spirit

The Power of a Cocoon

Think about the amazing transformation that takes place as a caterpillar enters a cocoon.  Once inside that still and dark place, it is transformed into a new creation. Its DNA remains the same.  It is still the same creature. But it emerges transformed, entirely new.

The Passive Night of the Spirit could be likened to entering a cocoon.  The reason this must happen is that God wants to recreate you for a third time!  True, when you initially go through Baptism, turn from sin and become a Christian, you are made new.  This is your first conversion. Sanctifying grace enters your life and you begin to walk as a child of God.  As you grow in your Christian life, God will bring you through the active and passive purgation of your senses and draw you into the life of a proficient, which is the Illuminative Way.  This could be termed your second conversion.  But as you grow and mature in the Christian life as a proficient, you should anticipate the full metamorphosis of your life into the creation God intends.  That metamorphosis culminates in Christian perfection. And Christian perfection is obtained once God brings you through this last dark and painful purgation of your spirit.  It is painful because everything not of God and His will must be completely stripped away and utterly annihilated. The soul at this stage is ready to go through its third and final conversion, which is essentially a transitional phase culminating into divine union.


The Goal of the Passive Night of the Spirit

This passive purgation of the spirit is the most transformative of all!  It’s also the most painful of them all. But the end does justify the means.  This purgation of the spirit does three main things to the soul for three main reasons.

  1. This purgation brings darkness to the spirit (the intellect, memory and will)—so that the soul can ultimately be fully illuminated by God and given light in EVERYTHING.
  2. This purgation leaves the spirit miserable and humbled in its natural state—so that the soul can be exalted and raised up further than it could ever imagine.
  3. This purgation impoverishes the soul, emptying it of all natural attachment and affection—so that it may be divinely stretched forward to bear the richest new fruit in all things both in Heaven and on Earth.

The spirit must become simple, pure and detached from all things, losing natural affection for all things so that the soul can become divinely united to all things, natural and supernatural, and live in the purest love imaginable.  The spirit, through its purity, will now have the pure sweetness of all good things. The perfected person will enjoy the taste, smell, touch, sight and sound of all things more perfectly and with perfect delight.  They will discover the divine beauty and joy of all relationships as God enjoys them. They will love God in a selfless way, receiving Him as a pure and holy gift to the soul. And they will share in all the delights in the heart of God Himself.


The Painful Purgation One Goes Through

To obtain all that was just mentioned, the soul must be completely annihilated in its former and lower self.  This will be painful, because the soul will be radically and completely transformed.  Change will hurt. New understanding reveals painful truths. The pure light of God is blinding and overwhelming.  The tiniest root of every sin is removed. The soul then experiences confusion on the deepest level. In general, the purgation follows a series of typical transformative stages.

First, when divine light floods the soul, the soul sees all things more clearly.  One thing that is seen is its sin. It’s like taking a bright light and shining it under a sofa and being made aware of the dirt that has accumulated.  When God’s light shines in your soul, you will see everything that is contrary to that light. This is a painful realization and leaves the soul, at times, with a complete realization of its miserable state.  Seeing every sin leaves the soul realizing that it is incapable, by itself, of ever attaining perfection. But this humiliating realization is necessary if the soul is to abandon all hope in itself, and receive the pure faith, hope and charity given by God.

Second, as the soul sees its wretchedness, meaning every imperfection brought to light, it cannot imagine that it could be loved by anyone.  It feels its misery and weakness and, like Job, feels as if its proper place is to sit on the dunghill, abandoned by God and by all. Thus, its human hope is vanquished.  And that hurts.

Third, as the soul observes God entering it more deeply, taking possession of it, the soul realizes that it must die.  The old man, the sinful man, the deep roots of every attachment, must be destroyed. This realization of total annihilation is painful and shocking to the soul.  It’s as if, in the cocoon, the soul is watching its old self be destroyed. Though its subsequent emergence is ultimately glorious, there is still a pain associated with the death of the old self.  

Fourth, as the soul experiences the pain of this purgation and receives this newly-infused knowledge from God, it is tempted to despair, realizing that it will never be able to enjoy life as it once did.  This is because the soul cannot yet see through this darkness and gaze upon that which awaits it. Instead, it looks back to the past, wishing it could regain its former joys and sensory affections that it once experienced from its spiritual encounters.  Upon realizing it will never return as it was, the soul feels a selfish sorrow and pain.

Fifth, the soul experiences a wearisome restlessness, having yearnings for God.  But its experience is that God is gone, nowhere to be found. The soul seeks spiritual consolation, but it finds none.  The sensory experience of God, the former imperfect knowledge of God, the former imperfect clarity of God’s will, leaves the soul.  As a result, the soul initially feels hopeless and alone. This purgation is necessary so that the soul can eventually be kindled by the fire of God’s infused faith, hope and love alone, in a new and direct way.

Lastly, the soul can no longer pray as it once did.  When it tries to pray, it seems as if its prayers are unheard.  Thus, the soul experiences a total death to the way it used to communicate with God.  But this is necessary if it is to come to pray in a new way. However, the initial experience includes a feeling of loss of the precious gift of prayer, even though its prayer is actually much deeper.


Analogy of a Log and Fire

Saint John uses the image of a log being placed on a fire to teach us about this final purgation.  If you’ve ever sat around a campfire and watched as a new log was placed on a blazing fire, you will understand the lesson he teaches.  At first, the log begins to crackle. This is because there are impurities in the log, such as moisture and sap, that cannot properly take on the nature of fire.  Those impurities must be burnt out. Also, the log becomes blackened before it catches fire. Eventually, when all the impurities are gone, the log actually takes on the properties of the fire all the way to its center, in that it glows, gives heat and is beautiful as it becomes one with the flame.  And once transformed by fire, the fire cannot be separated from the burning log. The flame and log are one.

So it is with the soul.  It must first be purged of all impurities.  As this happens, it becomes “blackened,” making it appear unsightly and dirty to itself.  But as the purgation takes place by the blazing flame of God’s love, the soul begins to take on the nature of the divine Spirit.  God’s light and heat radiate. Thus, the divine presence that the soul is to be transformed into first has the effect of purging it by its ever-closening presence.  God’s divinely infused presence at first burns, purges and reveals its misery and sin until the soul is enkindled and transformed. It takes a long time for the innermost part of the soul to be purified and enkindled, but once this happens, the soul and God are one.

This innermost purgation of the soul takes place by divine love.  The soul grows deeper and deeper in love of God, and it is this deepening love that purges it.  The intellect remains darkened and unable to see God clearly, but love begins to enkindle the will in a new and transforming way.  Love is infused, and this love purges as it grows.


Five Degrees of Love

It may be helpful now to look at a brief summary of five different degrees of love that a soul encounters.  Saint John describes these degrees within various chapters of the Dark Night of the Soul as follows:

  1. Sensory feelings of fervor (Dark Night 1.1.2)
  2. A dry concern about serving God (Dark Night 1.11.2)
  3. A sensory enkindling of love (Dark Night 1.11.1)
  4. An admiring and esteeming love (Dark Night 2.13.5)
  5. Enkindling with an impassioned love in the spirit (Dark Night 2.11.1-5; 13.3-9)

Let’s begin by briefly reviewing the first four degrees of love.  This will provide us with the necessary context to understand a new degree of love that has not yet been covered (#5 above).

Sensory feelings of fervor—This first degree of love is best captured by the image of a mother nursing her newborn.  The baby is quite content with this milk and takes delight in it. The “milk” for the soul is found in the apostolic works, long nights in prayer, penances, sacraments, and spiritual conversations.  It provides a sensory delight (meaning emotional consolation) given by God to the beginner. Saint John uses the following Scripture passage to illustrate how one loves in this first, sensory degree: “like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3).

A dry concern about serving God—In the second degree of love, the soul is given the gift of “fear of the Lord.”  The consolations in the sensory appetites that were experienced in the first degree of love of God are dried up, but now the soul begins to experience a great concern about serving God and never offending Him.  Though the soul feels dry and void in its sensory part, it is attentive to God.  The soul no longer serves God because it feels good; rather, it serves because of a grace given to it, which drives it to serve God in a purer way.  Though this does not “feel” as delightful as the first degree of love, it is of a higher nature nonetheless.

A sensory enkindling of love—This third degree of love enkindles the soul with a new desire to serve God.  Not only does it never want to offend God (fear of the Lord), it also thirsts more for God Himself, to possess Him and serve Him.  Even though there is a great thirst to love and serve God, the soul is not aware of why it thirsts.  It only knows that it does thirst.  This thirst is on the sensory level of the soul rather than in the spirit, and the thirst is so strong that the soul feels like it is dying of a hunger that cannot be satisfied.  Saint John refers to the following Scripture as an example: “My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Ps. 42:3a).

An admiring and esteeming love—This fourth level of love begins to move the soul’s desires from the sensory part to the spiritual part.  This gift of love is given by God as a prelude to the next degree of love. At this stage, the soul esteems and admires God so greatly that it cannot bear the thought of offending God and losing Him.  This is similar to the second degree of love, but now the “holy fear” is more spiritual in nature rather than in the sensory appetites.  The soul feels as if God is not pleased with it, and as a result of the profound and mysterious admiration it has for God, it suffers greatly, wondering if God has left it.  But in the midst of this suffering (which comes from fear of losing God), the soul still greatly esteems God. This person may need the assurance that not all is lost, that God is closer than ever, even though the soul feels Him not.  Although this experience is painful, the soul begins to love God in an even purer way and is prepared to enter into the final degree of purgation of love.

Enkindling with an impassioned love in the spirit—As the soul is infused with the spiritual blessings of God’s love, it experiences both suffering and yearnings of love for God.  The soul feels wounded and pierced by God’s love, and this hurts. But this wound also stirs up a strong spiritual longing for love.  Thus, despite the suffering, the soul longs for more.  The desire is not on the level of one’s senses and affections, it is a spiritual longing.

The soul endures affliction as it experiences yearnings.  It suffers first by spiritual darkness in that it cannot see the remedy for its longings.  But the soul also suffers from God directly, since God’s presence draws it, even though it cannot see God nor find satisfaction in Him.  Nonetheless, the soul seeks and searches for God, even though it feels alone, empty and weak. The soul believes itself to be miserable and unworthy of all love of God.  However, even though the intellect perceives this, the will is infused with a fervent passion for God that is so strong that it is driven to seek God in everything.  It may even act foolishly, with a blinding love, because the passion of love is so strong. This is not a willed love, but a spiritually infused passion in the will driving the person.  

In reality, the soul is growing closer and closer to God.  But the experience is one of darkness since its soul is finite and unable to receive the fullness of God.  Thus, by receiving God in this infused way, the soul is overwhelmed and must be transformed, so that it can receive this pure infusion of divine love.  This is like trying to pour the entire ocean into a small bottle. This can be done only by the hand of God.

Nonetheless, even though the mind cannot understand the fullness of God, the will is enkindled with the love of God it receives.  Thus, it loves in darkness and blindness and begins to be enkindled with yearnings to love God more. Though this is a pure spiritual longing, the senses join in and follow.  Nonetheless, the longing is first and foremost a spiritual passion. The soul burns with an unsatiated thirst for God. This passion is consented to by the will but is infused by God.  It longs for the Beloved that it cannot find. Saint John also points to this Scripture as an illustration: “O God, you are my God—it is you I seek! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, in a land parched, lifeless, and without water” (Psalm 63:2).

Mary Magdalene had this love when she went to the tomb to find Jesus.  When she realized Jesus was no longer in the tomb, her only desire was to find Him.  She burned with a longing for her Lord and was undeterred in her search for Jesus. Saint John explains that she paid no attention to the angels in the tomb because she was so fixated on finding Jesus.  


Final Journey into the Darkness of Virtue

For most people, the idea that one’s senses and spirit must become “darkened” is new.  Remember that Saint John is writing of the highest heights of perfection, which is something few people have experienced in this life.  So if the language and descriptions of this “dark night” seem obscure and confusing, know that your experience is normal. Learning these lessons will be like learning an entirely new language and culture.  The ideal way to do this is to forget everything that you knew before. It will be necessary that you begin to think in a new way, trying to understand God and your own life through an unfamiliar language imparted by God Himself.

Below are some of the benefits the soul will receive as it journeys through the darkness of this final purgation and annihilation of its former self, discovering a new life and a new unity with God.  Saint John bases his teaching below on the following stanzas of his poem:

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

Darkness—First, the “darkness” means that the soul’s former ways of understanding, imagining, thinking, feeling, experiencing, enjoying, etc., come to an end.  Its former understanding of God and life disappears. Its ability to reflect on and ponder the truths of God becomes impossible. Its former feelings of consolation and delight in God end.  The soul is now in darkness to all former ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing life and God.

Recall the image of the person who wants to gaze upon the Sun for an hour so as to take in the beauty of the Sun.  The natural eye cannot accomplish this. The Sun is too much. So it is with the natural faculties of the soul: intellect, will, memory, feelings, emotions, appetites.  These natural faculties of the soul CANNOT understand, see, figure out, hold, know, feel or experience God by themselves. God is too much. But God wants to communicate Himself to every soul nonetheless.  To accomplish this, He suspends all the natural operations of the soul and communicates to it in a new and secret way.  As a result, the natural faculties of the soul (mind, will, memory, appetites, feelings, etc.) are suspended and darkened until they become accustomed to the overwhelming presence of God.  Until fully purified, they will not suffice to receive God in His pure form. God is now communicated more directly and in a way that does not rely upon the soul’s natural abilities. Hence, the faculties are darkened.

Secure—The reason that this encounter is “secure” is that the soul no longer makes errors of judgment regarding the things of God, because it does not rely upon its natural abilities.  For example, if you spent months trying to figure God out, you would never be able to do so, and in fact, your ultimate conclusion would be an error.  Thus, if God removes your ability to “figure Him out,” then you are safe in that you will not fall into the error.  The same logic can be applied to every natural ability: imagining, willing, feeling, experiencing, desiring, etc. Nothing natural is capable of engaging God in His pure form.  Thus, God darkens everything natural so as to communicate to you in a new language!  The “new language” is infused faith, hope and charity.  These virtues are directly communicated to your soul, now in the most secure way, so that you will come to know God, hope in God, and love God in a way you could never do by yourself.  You begin to securely share in the divine life of God in God’s way, by God’s ability, and through God’s power alone!

Secret—Saint John also says that this new way to communicating with God is “secret,” it is “by the secret ladder…”  Imagine that you went on vacation to the most beautiful place on Earth. You gazed upon the most majestic mountains, the tallest and most ferocious waterfalls, looked out over the vast valleys and encountered the most sublime creatures.  You took pictures of all you saw, and then when you returned home, you showed these pictures to a friend. Your friend may have enjoyed the pictures and been impressed, but seeing the pictures of what you saw could never have imparted the same experience and knowledge of actually seeing those natural wonders in person.

Likewise, and to an infinitely greater degree, when God communicates to you His divine essence, by the gift of divine contemplation, no “picture” you try to take in your mind will ever suffice.  The knowledge and experience you gain of God is beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond language, and even beyond your natural ability to comprehend. Thus, this communication of God to you is “secret” in that its full picture is hidden from your natural faculties.  No human concept suffices to understand, let alone express, that which you encounter by infused faith. Therefore, this communication from God is of an entirely new form that you have never known before. It transcends all conceptual knowledge and is simply indescribable!

Ladder—Saint John describes ten steps of a mystical ladder, the secret ladder, of divine love.  The ladder rests on the Beloved, God Himself, and the soul ascends and descends it as the soul presses on through this dark night of the spirit.  At first the soul ascends, but as it fails in virtue, it then is humiliated and descends. The soul goes up and then down, experiencing humiliation and exaltation in its communication with God.  Eventually, when perfected and purified, the soul arrives at the Beloved. Below are ten steps of a mystical ladder rising to divine love.

Step One—On this first step, the soul suffers agony because it is only on the first step.  It feels sick with love and desires to be with God. Upon seeing how far away it is, the soul loses all delight in worldly things, and its suffering from want of God draws the soul upward.

Step Two—On this second step, the soul begins to seek God without ceasing.  It walks with a sort of spiritual anxiety wanting nothing but its Beloved.  All its words and thoughts are of God. God is the soul’s only concern.

Step Three—On this third step, the soul experiences a new fervor to work without failure in its pursuit of the Beloved.  It labors greatly and with eagerness. It takes on great works but sees them as small. The soul considers itself useless and living in vain, because, despite its fervor,  it cannot do enough for God, and the little it does seems like nothing. All the soul’s works are seen as imperfect, and this causes suffering. Vainglory disappears; the soul’s only desire is the glory of God.

Step Four—On this fourth step, the soul does not become weary.  Nothing hinders it in its pursuit of its Beloved. It only desires to please God.  However, there is great suffering in the soul, but this suffering produces good, because the soul pays no attention to the suffering and seeks only to love and serve God.  Perseverance through suffering makes the soul strong.

Step Five—On this fifth step, the soul begins to desire God impatiently.  Every delay in reaching the Beloved is wearisome. In fact, the soul is so anxious to find its Beloved, that time and time again it thinks it has found Him, then realizes it hasn’t.  But every disappointment leaves the soul hungry for God, and this hunger becomes a nourishment to seek more.

Step Six—On this sixth step, the soul runs swiftly and begins to discover the Beloved.  It is filled with hope and never wearies. Again and again, it reaches out and touches the Beloved, only to lose hold of Him.  But every touch fires the soul with more hope and fervor.

Step Seven—On this seventh step, the soul becomes very bold.  Though it is aware of its grave imperfections, it boldly lunges forward to its Beloved.  Neither shame nor counsel nor anything deters it from boldly pursuing God. The boldness is on account of love.  As St. Paul says, “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8b).

Step Eight—On this eighth step, the soul seizes the Beloved and does not let go.  The soul is finally satisfied, but it does not last because the Beloved slips away, and the soul falls down to a lower step on the ladder again.

Step Nine—Finally, the soul arrives at perfection!  On this ninth step, the soul unites with its Beloved and it burns with the incredible sweetness of God.  The Holy Spirit causes this burning sweetness. The best explanation Saint John gives of this step is to say that we cannot even explain it.  There is no way to describe this encounter with the Beloved.

Step Ten—This final step is not for this world.  Though some souls may make it to this step in this life, they do so only by leaving the body and becoming fully assimilated to God.  If this happens in this life, it occurs only for brief moments. These souls are purified to the perfect degree, and if they died would immediately see the Beatific vision.

Disguised—The final benefit of the dark night of the spirit is that the soul climbs the ladder to God “disguised.”  Saint John explains that the disguise conceals the soul from the three enemies: devil, world and flesh.

Faith, the white garment covering the soul, voids the understanding of all its natural intellectual power so that it can know only on the divinely infused level of pure faith.  The “disguise” of faith hides the intellect from the devil so that the devil has no way to trick or mislead the soul, since it is covered. It no longer understands by its natural abilities, which are imperfect, but understands only by the mind of God.  Thus, the soul is prepared, by this new understanding, for union with God.

Hope, the green garment, covers the white garment and represents the infused gift of supernatural hope.  Hope empties the memory of all worldly things, thus protecting it from the enemy the world. The soul no longer is drawn to anything the world can offer it and has no interest in anything except the one object of hope that is infused into its memory: hope in God and hope for union with God alone.  Thus, by hoping in nothing but God, the soul is prepared for union with God.

Charity, the purple garment, covers the white and green garment and voids the will of every love other than God and His holy will.  Charity protects the soul from the enemy the flesh, because all the selfish loves the flesh tempts it with are of no interest. The flesh cannot take hold of the will, since it is covered by this garment of charity, which is love of God alone.

Therefore, now fully disguised and hidden from the devil, the world and the flesh, the soul is free to pursue one thing: God.  God fills its understanding, its memory and its will. God alone covers, protects and directs the soul to union with Him.

A sheer grace—Saint John explains that he spent many pages describing the painful purgations so that the soul would come to realize what a grace it is to walk through them and attain divine union.  It is easy for people to become discouraged along the way by the suffering they endure. Therefore, if they know that these purgations lead to union, they will have more hope during the long journey to this “sheer grace!”


The Final Purgation of the Final Night

Saint John concludes his exposition on the “Dark Night of the Spirit” by explaining that the soul must press on through the deepest darkness, seeking God alone so as to be at rest and to be properly prepared for the divine union that awaits.  This final purgation of the final dark night is a state of spiritual betrothal and is accomplished only by the most secret contemplation of God in the depths of the spirit without the lights of anything within the lower part of the soul (the senses) nor anything in the higher part of the soul (the intellect, memory and will).  No feeling, concept, memory, object of rational desire nor anything else except the pure, silent, hidden and mysterious communication of God Himself to the spirit suffices.

The devil will not be able to see this communication of secret contemplation from God, but he will be aware that something glorious is taking place, because he will see that the lower part of the soul is entering into complete rest.  The devil may even be able to see, by God’s permission, the work of good angels assisting the soul. As a result, the devil will be able to torment the soul in a spiritual way as one final trial. But God permits this trial during the period of betrothal only to purify the soul on the deepest level.  In the end, if the soul seeks God and God alone, and silences everything in its senses AND all things in its intellect, memory and will, it will receive the purest communication of God in the most silent and hidden way, through pure contemplation, while all the faculties of the soul are in pure darkness.  In this darkened contemplation, the soul receives God Himself and the devil, the world and the flesh are powerless to hinder it.

The soul in the state of betrothal is now fully prepared for the glory of divine union.  The soul is completely at rest, receiving everything from God alone in the most secret depths of its being, as described by Saint John of the Cross’s famous poem as follows:

Dark Night of the Soul

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

While Saint John completed his commentary on the first three stanzas of his poem Dark Night of the Soul, he either never finished his commentary on the last five stanzas or those writings were lost.  However, the next chapter of this book will turn to the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame of Love, which are two other poems written and explained by Saint John that do cover the same content included in the final five stanzas of the Dark Night of the Soul.

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