Yesterday we looked at recent spiritual teachers on purification.
Today I’d like to look at one particular spiritual teacher who examined purification – or purgation – in minute detail – St. John of the Cross. He lived in the second half of the sixteenth century.
His three-part description of the “dark night of the soul” describes a rigorous purification, followed by a high level of enlightenment (probably Brahmajnana or God-Realization, seventh-chakra enlightenment).
St. John describes it as if he’s writing a manual for seekers. But he’s actually describing his own experience, as his final statements, below, indicate.
“This purification of the soul,” he says, “we can call the dark night…, whether it is the purification of the sense or of the spirit.” (1)
The “dark night” is actually three separate purgations:
“A soul must ordinarily pass through [three] principal kinds of night (which spiritual persons call purgations or purifications of the soul) in order to reach the state of perfection. Here we shall term these purgations nights, because in [all three] of them the soul journeys in darkness as though by night.” (2)
The first night, or purgation “concerns the sensory part of man’s nature.” (3)
“[The first] dark night is a privation and purgation of all sensible appetites for external things of the world, the delights of the flesh, and the gratifications of the will. All this deprivation is wrought in the purgation of sense. …
“One is not freed from the sufferings and anguish of the appetites until they are tempered and put to sleep. … The first [reason we call this journey toward union with God a night] has to do with the point of departure, because the individual must deprive himself of his appetite for worldly possessions. This denial and privation is like a night for all his senses.” (4)
The second is “the night of the spiritual part of man’s soul,” as he describes for us:
“After passing through the first night (the privation of all sensible objects), a man soon enters the second night by living in faith alone, not a faith that is exclusive of charity, but a faith that excludes other intellectual knowledge. … For faith does not fall into the province of the senses. … God, by means of faith, which is the second night, communicates Himself so secretly and intimately that He becomes another night for the soul.” (5)
The third night is “the passive purgation”:
“While this communication of God is in progress, the night … becomes far darker than those other two nights. When this third night (God’s communication to the spirit, which usually occurs in extreme darkness of soul) has passed, a union with the Spouse, who is the Wisdom of God [the Divine Mother], then follows.” (6)
“In actuality these three nights comprise only one night, a night divided into three parts, just as the natural night. The first part, the night of the senses, resembles early evening, that time of twilight when things begin to fade from sight. The second part, faith, is completely dark, like midnight. The third part, representing God, is like the very early dawn just before the break of day.” (7)
And what follows these dark nights of purification for St. John? He calls it “a union with the Spouse, who is the Wisdom of God [the Divine Mother].”
Here’s his account of his enlightenment experience:
“Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
And I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
“When the breeze blew from the turret
Parting His hair,
He wounded my neck
With His gentle hand,
Suspending all my senses.
“I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased;
I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares Forgotten among the lilies.” (8)
“O living flame of love, how tenderly you wound my soul in her profoundest core! You are no longer shy. Do it now, I ask you: break the membrane of our sweet union.
“O sweet cautery! O delightful wound! O gentle hand! O delicate touch That tastes of eternal life, And pays every debt! In killing, You changed death to life.” (9)
I assume that St. John describes a movement from enlightenment in form (“the membrane” preventing union) to enlightenment beyond form (“delightful wound,” breaking through the membrane of form).
He then gives two indications that the experience did not last, meaning it was not Ascension. The first indication is here, where he says “every time [the flame] flares up.”
“This flame of love is the Spirit of its Bridegroom, which is the Holy Spirit. The soul feels Him within itself not only as a fire which has consumed and transformed it, but as a fire that burns and flares within it…. And that flame, every time it flares up, bathes the soul in glory and refreshes it with the quality of divine life. Such is the activity of the Holy Spirit in the soul transformed in love: the interior acts He produces shoot up flames for they are acts of inflamed love, in which the will of the soul united with that flame, made one with it, loves most sublimely.” (10)
If the flame flares up and subsides, then he has not ascended. If he had, the experience would be continuous and consistent.
The second is here where he talks about “touches of God,” indicating impermanent experiences (again, probably Brahmajnana).
“Such is the sweetness of deep delight of these touches of God that one of them is more than recompense for all the sufferings of this life, however great their number.” (11)
Despite the lack of a glossary hundreds of years ago to assist us to know what’s being discussed, St. John’s descriptions of his process of purgation are suggestive: from detachment from the senses to detachment of the spirit to union with God out of the extreme darkness.
We won’t need to go through such rigorous processes as St. John or others (12) describe. The energies that we’re bathing in right now are raising our vibrations to a state simply not available to St. John when he pursued his spiritual practices.
Reading the trials and tribulations that they had to pass through might make us grateful for the relatively peaceful and gentle way we’ve been asked to carry out our own ascent.
(1) St. John of the Cross in Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, trans. Complete Works of St. John of the Cross. Washington: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973, 71-2.
(2) Ibid., 73. St. John actually says “two” rather than “three” but then goes on to describe three phases of the dark night. For ease of discussion at an introductory level, I’ve called them “three.”
(3) Ibid., 73.
(4) Ibid., 74.
(5) Loc. cit.
(6) Loc. cit.
(7) Ibid., 75.
(8) Ibid., 69.
(9) Loc. cit.
(10) Ibid., 580.
(11) St. John of the Cross in Maurice Bucke,Cosmic Consciousness. A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. New York: Dutton, 1969; c1901, 149.
(12) St. Germaine left us a record of his rigorous Ascension: The Most Holy Trinosophia by Comte de Saint-Germain  at https://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/mht/index.htm