All of us use labels to define ourselves. The fun uncle. The nurturing mother. The devoted husband. The good friend. The athlete. The nurse. The risk-taker. The talker. The intellectual. The beauty. The person with a particular movie-preference profile on Netflix. But the problem with using external qualities to define ourselves is that, sooner or later, we are all at risk of losing our identity. The frailty of the human condition means that tragedy strikes at everyone at some point in their lives. Serious illness, the death of a loved one, injury or disability, loss of a job, or the natural changes that come with aging– these life events happen to everyone, and the pain they can bring is twofold. A grieving parent, for example, has to mourn the loss of her children as well as her sense of self. Who am I now if I devoted my life to raising a child who is suddenly gone? For the injured athlete, who am I now if I can no longer control my body? Or for anyone who loses his job, who am I if not my profession? What now is the purpose of my life?
St. John of the Cross has good news for all of us. Those external labels were not the core, essential you. Inside you is your true self which rests in God and cannot be taken away or harmed by any possible hardship. However we come to it, an essential part of the Christian journey is passing through “the dark night of the soul,” in which we experience the pain of shedding all the baggage of our external, false selves in order, finally, to be perfectly one with God.
The “dark nights of the soul” is a term unique to St. John, but he uses it to describe a familiar process found in the New Testament as well as in many Church Fathers. In more familiar Biblical language, we might call it the “death of the old man.” St. Paul writes that our “old man” is crucified with Christ in order that we may be raised from the dead with Christ (Rom 6:6, Eph 4:22). So, while St. John does not seem to be describing a new phenomenon, he is giving it a new descriptive name, and he may be the earliest Christian writer to focus to such a great extent on how it feels for our old man to be crucified. If we had always thought of the death of our old man as purely symbolic, it may come as something of a shock to think of real pain being involved. But when our turn inevitably comes to go through pain or tragedy, then we may take comfort in knowing that many have travelled down this path before us.
The dark nights of St. John of the Cross are the stripping away of everything about the self that is false, secondary, non-essential. Denys Turner, in his discussion of the dark nights, calls it the loss of the ego: the narratives we create about our identity and our past, the images and goals we have of who we would like to become, all possessive loves, all the accomplishments of our own efforts and will, all our weaknesses, all fears, guilt, shame, and pride. (The Darkness of God, p. 238-241) And St. John describes the feeling of this deconstruction of the self in terms that closely mirror depression: “the distaste for food, the gnawings of anxiety in the pit of the stomach, the dulling of the eye and ear, the souring of taste, the rawness of touch, the rankness in the nose… the loss of the power of enjoyment, generalized and objectless fears, the evacuation of meaning, the collapse of memory into random associations, the sense of the pointlessness of any willed pursuit” (Ibid., p. 232). “The emotional crisis of the passive night of the senses is like the condition of total transparency, in which nothing can be seen because everything is seen through” (Ibid. p. 234).
But St. John does not propose to leave a suffering soul in such a state. On the other side of the dark nights, everything is transformed. “We discover in ourselves the presence of a purely passive power, a pure capacity to be attracted, a desire for God which, being no longer grounded in the need to possess, to dominate and destroy, can be the desire, as the Cloud author put it, for God ‘himself, & none of his goodes’… The dark nights are the dawning of a realization that in this loss of selfhood, nothing is lost; it is the awakening of the capacity to live without the need for it.” (Ibid. 236, 243)
St. Paul himself makes a good example. Before he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a prominent and well-respected Jew, a pharisee. A major part of his identity was his zealous persecution of Christians. He famously held the coats for his colleagues while they stoned St. Stephen to death. After his conversion, he was literally struck blind for a time. And he lost everything.
Who was he now? He was no longer an authority-figure, but considered himself the least of the apostles. As a new follower of Christ, he would now be rejected by his old anti-Christian community, but that was no guarantee of acceptance by the Christians. Understandably, the other apostles initially feared and suspected him. In his conversion, St. Paul gave up his friends, his position in the synagogue, and also his home. He would spend most of the rest of his life travelling across the Mediterranean to preach the gospel and establish new churches. As time went on, St. Paul also lost his health, his freedom (in prison for his faith), and finally, his life. Layer by layer, everything he had that was false or non-essential was stripped away.
What, if anything, does St. Paul have to say about his experience of conversion and the crucifixion of his “old man”? It seems that, for St. Paul, the most painful aspect was the loss of his pride in believing himself to be blameless and of his pride in his identity as a Hebrew. “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him.”(Phil. 3: 4-8)
Ultimately, he was able to give up all these things because he found his true self in Christ. Through this gradual process of losing or transforming his sense of self, St. Paul was sustained by Christ’s love. The true, essential Paul remained always safe, resting in Christ. He writes eloquently of this in his letter to the Romans:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35-38)
The inner, essential Paul he refers to as “the new man” is not dependent on possessions or health or honor or even the love of any other person. It is his true, authentic self, the part of him that is connected to God. While undergoing every kind of loss and hardship, St. Paul writes, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed… but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4: 8-9, 16).
Although St. Paul lost everything that he valued most about himself before his conversion, he discovered his true self, his “inward man” in God. This process only deepened through the rest of his life, as he bore with hardships in travelling, prison, illness, and ultimately was sentenced to death by the Roman government. Truly, nothing could separate him from the love of God. In the same way, the continuity and transformative power of the love of God is also the message of St. John of the Cross in his writings on the dark night of the soul.