The phrase “dark night of the soul” comes from a poem by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Spanish Carmelite monk and mystic, whose Noche obscura del alma is translated “The Dark Night of the Soul.” This eight-stanza poem outlines the soul’s journey from the distractions and entanglements of the world to the perfect peace and harmony of union with God. According to the poet, the “dark night of the soul” is synonymous with traveling the “narrow way” that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 7:13-14.
The monk taught that one seeking God will cast off all attachments to this world and live a life of austerity. Before attaining union with God, however, the soul must pass through a personal experience of Christ’s passion. This time of testing and agony is accompanied by confusion, fear, and uncertainty—including doubts of God—but on the other side are Christ’s glory, serenity, and a mystical union with God.
The dark night is not pleasant, but to the end that it allows one to approach nearer to God and His love, the poet calls it a “happy night” and a “night more lovely than the dawn.” At the end of one’s journey, he concludes, God takes away all feeling, leaving the traveler senseless to everything except the presence of God Himself.
From a theological standpoint, the concept of a dark night of the soul fits with the Catholic teaching of the necessity of purgatory and of earning God’s favor through penance and other works. However, the idea of a step-by-step process of self-denial and affliction culminating in glory is not taught in Scripture. Jesus predicted that His followers would face persecution (John 15:20), but He also gives His peace to those same followers (John 14:27). A believer has God’s peace now; he doesn’t have to experience a “dark night” first (Romans 5:1). The child of God is already seated “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever taught a “dark night of the soul.”
The ideas contained in “The Dark Night of the Soul” have been applied in contexts outside of Catholicism. Protestants have been known to use the phrase to describe a period of questioning one’s salvation. And the phrase is sometimes used generically to describe any type of mental, emotional, or spiritual anguish.