So far, in St. John's progression, the soul has actively tried to mortify its attachments to the things of the world and also the pleasures that come from various spiritual exercises. It has also allowed itself to be passively purged of its attachments to these spiritual delights in the Passive Night of the Senses.
Through the aridity of Passive Night of the Senses, God has led the soul away from and beyond discursive meditation (i.e. the use of words, concepts, images, or any "content" in prayer), towards what St. John will call contemplation.
"At the time of the aridities of this sensory night, God makes the exchange we mentioned by withdrawing the soul from the life of the senses and placing it in that of the spirit – that is, he brings it from meditation to contemplation – where the soul no longer has the power to work or meditate with its faculties on the things of God."
Now, absorbed in the work of contemplation, the soul is completely passive, and can do nothing but be acted upon by God:
"When this house of the senses was stilled (that is, mortified), its passions quenched, and its appetites calmed and put to sleep through this happy night of the purgation of the senses, the soul went out in order to begin its journey along the road of the spirit, which is that of proficients and which by another terminology is referred to as the illuminative way of infused contemplation. On this road God himself pastures and refreshes the soul without any of its own discursive meditation or active help."
Passing through the Passive Night of the Senses and entering into the contemplative work is a great joy and the soul is again at peace in God, although this time no longer attached to specific discursive exercises. The soul is content to rest in loving awareness of God:
"The soul readily finds in its spirit, without the work of meditation, a very serene, loving contemplation and spiritual delight."
This state, according to St. John, may last for years and this is, in fact, where the journey ends for some, maybe even most, contemplatives. But for others there is one final purgation to undergo – the Passive Night of the Spirit.
This is the deepest, longest, and darkest night. Just when the soul feels that it has abandoned all that is not God for God's sake, it then, in this night, feels rejected by the very God it has given all for. St. John describes this Night in several ways.
"Since the divine extreme strikes in order to renew the soul and divinize it, it so disentangles and dissolved the spiritual substance – absorbing it in a profound darkness – that the soul at the sight of its miseries feels that it is melting away and being undone by a cruel spiritual death. It feels as if it were swallowed by a beast and being digested in the dark belly, and it suffers and anguish comparable to Jonah's in the belly of the whale."
"But what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence cast it into darkness."
"The afflictions and straights of the will are also immense. Sometimes these afflictions pierce the soul when it suddenly remembers the evils in which it sees itself immersed, and it becomes uncertain of any remedy. To this pain is added the remembrance of past prosperity, because usually persons who enter this night have previously had many consolations in God and rendered him many services. They are now sorrowful in knowing that they are far from such good and can no longer enjoy it."
"They resemble one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hands and feet, and able neither to move nor see nor feel any favor from heaven or earth."
Bellies of whales, dungeons, spiritual death, anguish, abhorrence, darkness. Not a happy place.
But at the end of this long and dark night lies the unitive state, one in which the soul proclaims:
"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."
The blessedness of final Union allows the soul to look back on the various Nights and say, with St. John, "Ah, the sheer grace!"
The Dark Night ends abruptly and unexpectedly, as we may come to expect with St. John.
Final Thoughts on St. John of the Cross
This will end the series on St. John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night. One major takeaway for me after reading St. John is the tentative nature of any structured, sequential spiritual path. Not only does St. John not stick to one scheme to describe the spiritual journey, he himself believes that some experience these stages in different ways than others. He also sometimes speaks of the stages being simultaneous or overlapping. Everyone's experience is going to be unique. It is insightful to read about the paths of others, for instance the one St. John presents in these works, but to make any one sequence normative is probably a mistake.
Another, related, takeaway is the continued understanding from the Christian contemplative tradition that the path is winding. There are times of aridity, of doubt, of pain, of the feeling of absence, and these are normal, even necessary for progression. Meditation teachers from any tradition that don't speak about this reality set practitioners up for disappointment. I continue to believe that this is a relative strength of the Christian tradition as compared to others which speak only of peak experiences or a road that leads straight to the top without major trials along the way.
St. John is one of the harshest of the Catholic mystics. He insists on nothing less than complete mortification and non-attachment. An interesting contrast would be reading him next to The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author is gentler and, perhaps, more suited to modern, non-monastic audiences.
As an additional resource about the life of St. John, here is a introductory lecture from the Boston College School of Theology: