What is meant by the 'dark night of the soul'?
Spanish monk and mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote a poem called Noche obscura del alma or "The Dark Night of the Soul" wherein he describes a spiritual journey from chaos to peace; from worldliness to godliness. The poet, who lived from 1542—1591, compared his idea of the dark night of the soul to the narrow way in Matthew 7:13-14, and says that the person who seeks God will travel this path, through a time of pain and confusion and testing, but that when they emerge on the other side, they will enjoy peace and a mystical union with God. The poem concludes by saying that a person who has gone through the dark night of the soul will be rewarded by being made senseless to everything except the presence of God.
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While the dark night of the soul is primarily a Catholic idea, Protestants sometimes use the phrase when referring to times of doubt or questioning one's salvation. The phrase is also used colloquially to refer to a period of mental or emotional trial. It is true that believers go through times of testing and trial, and come out spiritually stronger and nearer to God (James 1:2-3; 2 Peter 1:3-11). But linking a specific "dark night of the soul" to spiritual enlightenment is not biblical, nor is the idea that senselessness is a reward or a sign of spiritual progress. On the contrary, when a believer is nearer to God there is an absence of sin, but they also feel more, not less, of life's joys (John 15:9-11; Galatians 5:22-24; Romans 8:6; Proverbs 3:1-12). The philosophy that numbness accompanies goodness is a Buddhist rather than a Christian philosophy.
The dark night of the soul is similar to the experience a soul is supposed to undergo in Purgatory—a place in Catholic doctrine where all passions and desires of the flesh are eradicated, all doubts are solved, all sins are purged, and then the reward of Heaven is earned. However, the idea of Purgatory is also unbiblical, as salvation and entrance to Heaven are a gift of God through Christ, and not a result of human work, endurance or agony (Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 3:28). When we do endure trials or persecution, we endure them by Christ's strength and we feel His peace and presence during the trial (John 15:20; John 14:27).
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