Saint John of the Cross explains the process in Dark Night of the Soul, but I had come across it earlier in simpler terms while reading Brother Lawrence’s thoughts in The Practice of the Presence of God. I also found it described more elaborately by Saint Teresa of Avila in The Interior Castle.

These holy people lived between 1515 and 1691, bu t their words can still instruct the willing heart today. I love these three books because they pose such a challenge. I’ve read them over and over again, gleaning a little more with each pass. I measure my progress by noting when the descriptions resonate within me.

When I first read Brother Lawrence, for example, I was simply astounded by his piety . It depressed me, really, because it seemed both wonderful and impossible -----more like a miracle than the result of discipline. Realizing that I had nothing in common with this delightful brother who lived 350 years ago, I was tempted to shelve the little book forever. But I couldn’t. I started reading it again, fascinated and encouraged by passages like the following:

          I consider myself as the most wretched of men, full of sores and

          corruption,   and who has committed all sorts of crimes against

          his King. Touched with a sensible regret, I confess to Him all

          my wickedness, I ask his forgiveness, abandon myself in His

          hands that He may do what He pleases with me. The King,

          full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastising me,

          embraces me with love, makes me eat at His table, serves me

          with His own hands, gives me the key of His treasures;

          He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a

          thousand and a thousand ways, and treats me in all respects as

          His favorite. It is thus I consider myself from time to time in

          His holy presence (The Practice of the Presence of God

           with    Spiritual Maxims, Spire Books, 2003).

My mind wrapped around this profoundly simple love. I wanted to experience it. I pursued the mystery with compulsion, reading the book several times in a row and squeezing out every bit of instruction. I tried, with difficulty, to cultivate the very practice of the presence of God. Could I put God’s will before mine occasionally? Sure. Could I do it every day for the rest of my life? Not likely.

Radical humility means desiring God’s will more than our own.

It doesn’t come naturally, at least not to me . We want what we want, and when it doesn’t work out, we end up fighting, struggling, worrying, drinking, smoking, and so on. Radical humility requires us to detach completely from our own desires and become indifferent to whatever happens as long as it fulfills God’s will.

D ISCOURAGED , BUT NOT WITHOUT HOPE, I WENT BACK TO THE BOOKSTORE, poked around, and bought The Interior Castle, translated by Mirabai Starr. Saint Teresa describes the soul as a magnificent, spacious castle, with God residing in the innermost chamber. She uses several metaphors while wrestling the ideas into words, but that is the main theme.

The soul hears God calling and wends her way deeper into the castle, battling insects and slithering reptiles as she goes. Saint Teresa tells us not to doubt the possibility of uniting our will to God’s:

          But, sadly for us, very few ever attain it. We delude ourselves

          into believing that if we simply embark on a spiritual journey and

          honor God with care, we have done all that we need to do. But

          there are always a few little insects lurking unrecognized until they

          have gnawed through our virtues. The damage happens through

          subtle self-centeredness, judging others in insidious little ways,

          neglecting to cultivate compassion, and frrgetting to love our

          neighbor as ourselves. Even though we may plod along doing

          what we think is expected of us and not technically committing

          any sins, we don’t make much progress toward uniting ourselves

          with the will of God (The Interior Castle, New Translation

          and Introduction by Mirabai Starr, Riverhead Books, 2003).

I cannot read this passage without wincing. There, in essence, Saint Teresa describes the difference between ordinary and radical humility. Moving beyond technical obedience requires that we both question ourselves and refrain from developing false confidence. So she offers some advice: “Pay special attention to these issues: love for one another; absence of desire to be thought of as someone special; and the impeccable performance of mundane tasks.” couldn’t help but notice , how this advice runs contrary to vast swaths of American culture. I realized how difficult it would be to synchronize progress between my internal and external lives.

J UST TO BE SURE I WAS TRULY WRETCHED, I READ THE BOOK AGAIN. With my suspicions confirmed, I went back to the               bookstore and bought Starr’s translation of Dark Night of the Soul.

Saint John describes two nights: the night of sense and the night of spirit. The first chapters assault the reader by describing the seven spiritual imperfections of beginners

I sheepishly read how beginners reveal their lack of humility in many ways: making spectacles of themselves in church; accusing others; refusing guidance; obsessing over rituals, penances, and mortifications; sulking; and in general confusing their will with God’s.

God in his wisdom does not coddle the beginner.  Rather, God withdraws spiritual comfort in order to challenge the soul and force the beginner to grow in faith. If the soul does not give up on God, Saint John says, she will progress.

           What the soul draws also from the aridity and emptiness of the

          night of desire is spiritual humility. Through humility, acquired

          along with self-knowledge, the soul is purified of the imperfections

          of spiritual pride into which she stumbled during her time of

          prosperity. Aware only of her own aridity and misery, it never

          occurs to her that she is   now making better progress than others,

          which is what she used to erroneously believe. Now she is sure

          that others are doing much better than she is . From this humility

          arises love of neighbor. The soul honors others and does not judge

          them  as she did before, when she assumed that she burned with

          special fervor and that they did not. Her own wretchedness is so

          present in her sight that there is no room to scrutinize others

          (Dark Night of the Soul, New Translation and Introduction

          by Mirabai Starr, Riverhead Books, 2002).


After returning to the faith and being a good Catholic for some ten years straight, I had finally reached the beginning of the spiritual journey that Brother Lawrence, Saint Teresa, and Saint John wrote about in their books. Well, it’s a start, I thought. I guess being Catholic means we can always love more.

I learned also that superficial, ordinary humility means little to God. Those who love God go far beyond the mundane trappings of a spiritual life. They chase God to the ends of the earth. In the night of spirit, the soul learns radical humility.

The soul annihilates her will, unites herself to God, wants what God wants, and gives up struggling. The soul finally trusts God completely.

I learned that this journey can take many years---—years of darkness and doubt, years of suffering, years of going through the motions, and years of blind faith . The interior life is so private and unwieldy that a person might barely hope to find a single soul who would listen to, let alone understand, what she experiences.

Worse yet, many people travel through the dark night without realizing it . They turn away from God because they don’ t understand their own suffering. How many people could go on if they knew where they were going? How many people would go on if they knew that they had already made progress?

It’s been a few years since I made acquaintance with these holy people. I think of them as my friends, and I keep their books around and reread them every so often. It helps to keep me moving forward and trusting when life seems to grow more perilous all the time

Most days I’m not so sure that I’ve made any progress at all . But at least now, when I lift my head and look down the road, I can see them urging me on with a wink and a smile.

Marlcna Doucette is a freelance writer

and editor who lives in Massachusetts.



January 2008 Vol . 96, No. 1 (Pgs. 15-16)

P. O. Box 420235, Palm Coast, Florida 32142

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