I was recently asked about the relationship of the experience of the dark night in the spiritual life and growth in compassion. For some of my readers, this will seem a little esoteric. But the dark night really is not. The dark night refers to difficult spiritual experiences, especially in prayer. Most Christians experience this for greater or lesser lengths of time with both greater and lesser intensity. They are difficult to endure, especially if they last for a long time. They are also necessary for spiritual growth. Because the temptation is to abandon one's faith during these periods of darkness, Catholic mystics and doctors through the centuries have developed special teachings aimed at encouragement. One of these is St. John of the Cross who develops his theology of "the night" throughout his poetry and in his commentaries: Ascent to Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul.
Spiritual darkness often involves backsliding, sliding back into sin. In every case, the confusion brought on by this kind of darkness is addressed by returning to the Lord through prayer and a converted life. But this is not the only kind of darkness Christians must endure. There is also darkness related not so much to sin itself as much to the wounds and imperfections sin causes. If these things are not addressed, our ability to love God and one another is impaired. So God in his mercy begins to heal us in this life - even when the medicine involves suffering what seems to be his absence or at least the absence of his consoling presence. He really is never absent but it feels like absence and even rejection. What is actually unfolding is a much deeper encounter with the Lord, deeper than our affections can feel or our intellect can know. It seems like darkness because we do not understand or feel what God is doing - but his power is at work accomplishing much more than we can ask or imagine.
John of the Cross speaks of two different kinds of night in this regard -- the night of the senses and the night of the spirit. The night of the senses refers to the purifying work by which God heals the effects of sin on our five senses and our imagination. This night has two phases - active which involves taking up the discipline of the Christian life for the healing of our conscious level of existence and passive which involves a kind of contemplation by which the Lord heals unconscious levels of our existence. The night of the Spirit has these same two phases only that the passive phase is much more intense and heals the depths of the human heart which the term 'unconscious' does not quite capture. This article refers to both the night of the senses and the night of the spirit.
St. John of the Cross does not spend a lot of time describing the compassion of heart that develops in the Dark Night of the Senses because his focus is on progress towards the perfection of the Christian life in terms of union with God. But there are indications that in his thinking the soul that passes through this night, especially the passive phase of it, does become profoundly compassionate. One might say that compassion of heart is a fruit of this night.
One good places to explore this is in Dark Night book 1. Here he treats of 7 spiritual imperfections of beginners. He assumes that these beginners have already taken up all the difficult work of renunciation explained in Ascent to Mt. Carmel, book 1, Chapter 13. They are already in the active phase of the dark night – their lives have already begun to be hidden in God. But the Lord wants to hide them even more. These beginners are no longer inclined to comforts and satisfaction on a voluntary level. By renouncing everything that is not for the glory of God, they have come to a certain kind of freedom in the spiritual life. They are free from earthly things more or less. This means that merely material things no longer provide an obstacle to obeying the will of God as it is revealed through a superior or through interior promptings. But there is another level at which they are not free – there are still involuntary inclinations and attachments in their hearts which no amount of asceticism can purify. Only God can do this through the passive phase of the Dark Night.
St. John of the Cross does not describe this exactly but these seven spiritual imperfections are all obstacles to compassion. For example, spiritual pride involves putting one’s identity in the ability to master the Christian discipline of life instead of the Lord alone. As a result, those suffering from this are always comparing themselves with others and always desiring that others think highly of them. They do not do this willfully (not most of the time), but involuntarily. Thus, they are not moved to compassion but judgment in the face of the suffering or weakness of others.
Similarly with spiritual anger – in which one is involuntarily filled with righteous indignation over the faults of others, or imperfections in the liturgy, or pastoral mistakes. Likewise, spiritual acedia-sloth in which an unconscious sluggishness constantly gnaws at someone when they try to enter into the heart of someone who suffers – and at the same time they find themselves deeply disturbed when someone else gladly goes ahead of them to show love where they themselves failed in courage – spiritual envy.
To drive this home, I need to refer to my own experience and I am sorry that it is so insipid, but it will serve to illustrate the point. It is an unconscious movement that I often catch myself in. Whereas before I set my identity in being the best at intellectual or athletic or social achievement, these things are not as important to me because I have renounced them for love of Jesus who died for me. If I am faithful to the discipline of the Christian life in terms of prayer, asceticism and works of mercy, these things no longer have the power to attract me away from the Lord. So I have a more spiritual object for my desires – serving the Lord. But the desire with which I desire this more worthy object is still quite broken.
I desire to serve the Lord not for his own sake, but for my sake, my ego. And this I do even though I do not want to and know that it is imperfect. There is so much to this – a lack of trust in God’s loving plan, an idol of perfection that God has never willed, fear of completely surrendering to God and letting him show me the path to perfection, fear of myself. As long as I do not accept who I really am before the Lord even if involuntarily, how can I possibly be compassionate to another? I cannot accept others and share their misery with them if I lack the courage to face my own misery and accept the truth about myself before God. Yet the kicker is that I do not consciously will this state of affairs – it is simply the way things are, the way I am.
St. Bernard sees this as a very imperfect way to be. My compassion for Jesus is held back because my love is merely mercenary. I have not learned to love God for his own sake - how can I love others for their own sake? He teaches that only special mystical graces can raise me above this kind of love so that I learn to love God, not for my own sake, but for his sake alone. How do I dispose myself to this new kind of love, a love not polluted by unconscious movements that hold it back from God and through God to others?
To progress to a better love, St. John of the Cross says I need to pass through the passive phase of the dark night of the spirit. He calls this a ray of darkness, a certain spiritual nakedness, in which I have no satisfaction in observing the discipline of the Christian life. In prayer, it will seem as if God were completely absent, as if he were ignoring me. And isn’t this just what I need for a little while?
On an involuntary level, I think I am so impressive to God and everyone else – I will continue to think that I am the absolute center of the universe until I suffer a sort of Copernican revolution. Such a revolution Until I am stripped of this, I cannot see that God is the true centre and until I see even on an involuntary way that God is the true center, I cannot have compassion – that is, because of my unconscious egoism, I am trapped in my heart and unable to suffer the feelings of God who mourns for his people in their misery and who rejoices when they taste his love for them. I am also unable to suffer the misery of all those God has entrusted to me. Caught up in myself, I am impeded from seeking the hidden presence of the Lord calling out to me in my children and my wife and my colleagues – and even in my enemies. To free me from myself, God in his tremendous love will hide himself more deeply within me than I have ever gone or can ever go with my own efforts alone.
Here, I am like the bride in the Spiritual Canticle, who awakened by her beloved just as he runs off into hiding. She must find him – and the more she seeks him the freer she is of herself. She experiences a certain Copernican revolution in this journey towards her beloved. All of a sudden, she realizes that she is not the center of the universe anymore than the earth is the center of the cosmos. Because her love for Him becomes greater as she searches for him, mysteriously she comes to see herself for who she really is – as the one who needs her Beloved. Just as the earth revolves around the sun, she discovers that the real truth about herself is that she revolves around Him, and Him alone. As she sees this truth about herself through this night, she is finally able to be compassionate towards others. She knows the truth about who they really are in the eyes of the Lord – true compassion is able to speak this truth by suffering the misery of the other so as to affirm their dignity.
Compassion is part of mercy by which we suffer the defect or evil or misery of another to affirm their dignity. On a natural level aided by grace empathetic people can do this to some degree. But even they are limited by their own short comings from being able to do this in a transforming way. The other person remains trapped in his own misery even if he knows he is not suffering it alone. In order to really be merciful, we must be prompted by the Holy Spirit. Through his gift of counsel, he shows us the secret sorrows that our neighbors bear, that they struggle with in isolation. They feel like no one else knows their suffering. But God does and the Holy Spirit yearns for us to be an instrument through which the Lord might reveal his merciful love. As long as involuntary imperfections, like lack of self-knowledge, block the movement of the Holy Spirit in our heart – even though he shows us, we cannot see. But as the ray of darkness penetrates our depths and as we realize that God alone is our deepest center, we begin to understand what the His Spirit reveals to us and we find the courage to enter into the heart of another. Under his impetus and by his power, even our weakest attempts at empathy and compassion are transforming.
It is at this point that one of the most powerful realities of the communion of saints is realized. The unconscious imperfections are purified and healed, but they do not go away exactly. Instead, they are transformed. My egoism does not magically disappear when I realize that I am not at the center of the universe. Nor, when I am prompted by the Holy Spirit to enter the heart of another, is the effort ever easy. But when I prayerfully recognize the gravity of my big fat ego holding me back from loving someone God has entrusted to me, rather than blocking me, my otherwise destructive self-love becomes an occasion of grace which causes me to turn to the Lord with greater trust in Him. It simply requires a simple movement of the will, an act of trust, a persevering belief in the faithfulness of God. This loving movement informs my efforts with an invincible hope, even when my efforts appear completely futile. My poverty is filled with the riches of God's grace in such moments. His power is made perfect in our weakness if we persevere and believe in his love even when continuing to love seems impossible.
Our weaknesses and trials, far from undermining our faith, make our faith mature and fruitful. St. Therese describes such trials in terms of “the wiping of [Christ’s] Face” in poem 17:
Living by Love – the wiping of your Face,
That sinners of their weight of sin be rid:
O God of Love! May they return to grace
And bless your Name as ne’er before they did…
Blasphemy strikes my heart, I hear it still;
To blot it out, I’ll sing for evermore
‘Your Name, your Sacred Name, I always will
Love and adore!”
The “blasphemy” that “strikes” her heart is not merely something she sees in the “weight of sin” that sinners suffer. She experiences this in her own heart. Rather than leading her to sin, however – we see this description where it leads her to praise. We can compare her song which blots out this sin with the mystical grades of prayer described by Teresa of Avila – where one is so filled with God’s presence he can’t contain himself and wants to shout out praises. But this prayer, beyond what St. Teresa describes, actually helps others (beyond herself) as St. Therese explains “return to grace and bless [God’s] Name.” As St. Paul would say, it is in her weakness that the strength of God is brought to perfection.
In other words, God wants to transform the involuntary weaknesses we suffer into doors that lead into his heart and the hearts of others. He can only do this by the dark night first of the senses (where it begins) and then of the spirit (where it is brought to perfection). So for anyone suffering through the nights, the great Catholic mystics encourage you to hang on and not lose hope. Trust in the Lord and persevere in the Christian life - God is doing immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.