When Christ was crucified, the New Testament tells us, the whole earth was covered in darkness from noon until three in the afternoon. If we take the story internally, this is the ‘dark night of the soul’ — the final purification and pardoning of the initiate before merging back with the Absolute.
Similarly, as the Israelites prepared to leave ‘Egypt’ [a state of psychological enslavement to the realm of matter and illusion] in the Hebrew story, this is where the people were told to remain passive and ready within the house (symbolically, a deep meditative state), while the Angel of Death swept through the land and slaughtered the ‘first-born’ of Egypt. In yet another story, the dark night is where Jericho [the final “attachment”] had to be painfully crushed, as the seven days of Creation were undone by seven days of Destruction.
The Gospels tell us little of what Jesus went through during these three long hours of darkness, so we have to rely on what other Christian mystics have revealed. According to Meister Eckhart, the 15th century Dominican mystic, during the ‘dark night’ it seems as though God has deliberately withdrawn his presence, “as if there were a wall between Him and us.” According to St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish Carmelite mystic (who coined the phrase ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ in his famous poem and commentary), what the anguished soul feels most deeply “is the conviction that God had abandoned it.” This is a time when “the soul is conscious of a profound emptiness in itself.… It sees itself in the midst of the opposite evils, miserable imperfections, dryness and emptiness of the understanding, and abandonment of the spirit in darkness.”
Why would this happen? Why would God abandon the initiate in this high place near the end of the path? (“O God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)
It is because at this immeasurably high place in the soul’s journey ‘home’, all emotional attachment to the world, to the ‘good’ as well as to the ‘bad’, must be given up. The soul must be firm and resolute, with no sentimentality, and it must completely detach itself from everything in its previous life.
The dark night of the soul is the way that God cures the soul of its tendency to cling to spiritual joys. Even these must be given up! Everything must die and dissipate (but not until this place in the quest), even the pleasures of the contemplative and spiritual life, even one’s gratitude for the bliss of Divine Light. There cannot be the slightest sweetness left, for this would continue to separate the soul from God as it identifies with its own rapture. Thus, in anguish and in pain, the soul must undergo this ultimate break with the life of illusion, and be completely torn away from the realm of materiality. The soul must have nothing, it must become nothing, so that it can have and be only God. Finally, completely unattached, completely unencumbered, the soul is free: free to love, free to be.
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