Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Today’s saint, St. John of the Cross, is known for his writings on the “dark night of the soul.” He was a man of prayer who was intimately close to God; however, he suffered a great deal throughout his life as he attempted to reform the Carmelite order. St. John, along with St. Teresa of Avila, sought to cultivate a way of life that fostered a greater closeness with God through prayer and sacrifice. They faced strong opposition, however, from those who did not want the Carmelites to change their ways. John was immersed in the experience of the Cross, facing imprisonment, unjust accusations, persecution, and abuse. For seeking to grow in holiness, he was treated like a criminal.

But John’s greatest legacy is not his initial zeal to reform the Carmelite order; rather, it is how he responded when his holy passion was met with censure and condemnation. He turned to poetry and prayer as a means of expressing the great sorrow he felt, and he began to reflect on how he could grow ever closer to Jesus through this experience of suffering. Faced with the bitter reality that even our purest, most faithful actions can be met with cruelty and indifference, and that bad things do, in fact, happen to good people, John refused to believe that God was not present in that darkness. He wrote of his experiences undergoing this dark night of the soul and how the light that dawned on the other end was brighter than anything he had experienced. By passing through the darkness, he came to know a more brilliant Light; by “dying to self,” he rose to new life. John assures us that while the spiritual life will bring suffering and pain, the dark night is not the end. It is preparing us for a greater glory to come.

How do we cultivate a real, lasting joy instead of the fleeting happiness that comes and goes with our ever-changing circumstances? Even when God is hidden to us—even, in fact, when we pass through a dark night of the soul—joy is ours for the taking. We struggle, of course, to have joy in times when we do not feel happy; but true joy is deeper than mere happiness. So what is this mysterious, profound joy that can transcend our outward emotions? It comes from God alone.

The saints exuded joy in every moment of their lives—even amidst intense suffering and grief. God wants us to have this unshakeable joy, too, to be sustained by His promises at every moment, come what may. When we are taken with the joy only God can provide, we know beyond any question that we are known and loved and deeply cherished by a Love that knows no bounds. He wants to sustain our flagging spirits with that boundless joy.

We cannot control our circumstances, but if we are deeply rooted in God’s Word and continue to remind ourselves of His promises, we will have a hope that endures beyond our earthly trials. The joy that remains will cause us to remain convinced of God’s presence and goodness, even as we walk through the deserts of life.

This weekend, we will light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreaths as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Most of Advent is a time of quiet preparation, putting everything in order as Christmas draws near, making our hearts ready to receive the Christ child. But this coming week we will focus on joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. The child has not yet arrived, but we are joyful and confident in His coming; even though we are yet in darkness, we celebrate the promise of the Light. We walk in the midst of darkest night, yet we cannot contain our joy—for the light has already dawned in our hearts.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.
—1 Peter 1:8