the dark night of the soul

Maybe it’s the first chapter of Richard Miller’s book Writing at the End of the World or maybe it’s my own end-of-the-year soul cleaning, but this phrase — dark night of the soul — bounces in my head like a catchy tune I can’t evict. So I googled it…and came up with St. John of the Cross’s poem of the same name…but St. John’s writing seems to be self-authored glossing of his own poem. Not quite clear how one writes a poem and then puts a treatise around it. Definitely an early multigenre work, eh? Turns out “The Dark Night of the Soul” is a Christian classic. Wikipedia tells me that St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite priest who lived in the 16th century. The original poem is titled “En una noche oscura,” and I like the way the second stanza begins: “a escuras y segura” (“in darkness and secure”) because the Spanish contains an internal rhyme the English cannot capture, and because I like the notion of secure darkness. San Juan de la Cruz meditates on two dark nights of the soul: the first is sensual, the second is spiritual. I’ve read bits and pieces and wish I could transport myself into a 16th-century sensibility. The poem itself expresses a kind of ecstasy, and the prose seems to detail the journeys through those two dark nights.

I’m thinking a lot about people who care for other people, family members and caregivers who pay attention to those who are at the end of life or dealing with terminal or chronic illness. More and more, I believe the spiritual warriors among us are those who show up day after day, dark night after dark night, to pour the water, smooth the brow, hum a tune, teach the troubled, and speak to those who may no longer care to hear. This kind of courage, tenacity, and faith inspires me.


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