Saturday, March 12, 2005

A ray of darkness

From Mirabai Starr's most excellent, poetic, and sensual translation of St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul. This is from Chapter 2, "Night of the Spirit." Chapter 1 is called "Night of Sense"; the seeking soul must pass through each to attain union with God - the purification first of the senses and then of the spirit.
The dark night of the spirit is an inflowing of God into the soul. It purges her of imperfections: natural and spiritual. Contemplatives call it "infused contemplation" or "mystical theology." This is where God transmits his secret teachings to the soul and instructs her in the perfection of love. She does not have to do a thing, nor will she understand a thing. Infused contemplation is the wisdom of the loving God. It both purges and illumines the soul, making her ready for the union of love. The same loving wisdom that purifies and enlightens the blessed spirits on other planes of existence, purges and illumines the earthly soul, now.

But here is the doubt: Why is this divine light, which illumines and purges the soul of ignorance, called here the "dark night"?

Divine wisdom is not only night and darkness to the soul but also terror and suffering. Its height transcends the natural reach of the soul and so it looks like darkness to her. Her own insignificance and impurity also cause her to experience the light of God as painful and oppressive. The Philosopher suggests that the clearer and more manifest are divine things in themselves, the darker and more hidden they are to the natural eyes of the soul. The brighter the light, the more blinding it is to the owl. The more directly we gaze at the sun, the more it darkens our visual faculty, depriving it and overwhelming it, because of its inherent weakness.

And so, when divine light strikes the soul that is not yet fully illumined, it causes spiritual darkness to drop over her, transcending her limitations, impoverishing and darkening her natural intelligence. St. Dionysus and other mystics call infused contemplation a "ray of darkness." The power of the discursive mind is conquered by this great supernatural light.

David says that "near to God and surrounding him are darkness and clouds." It's not that this is actually so but that it seems that way to the feeble intellect which is blinded by such radiance and cannot rise to meet it. "Through the great splendor of his presence," says David, "clouds passed," that is, between God and our own understanding. When God sends forth from himself the illuminating ray of secret wisdom to the soul not yet fully transformed, her mind is enveloped by darkness.

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