Western Mysticism I


The Dark Night of the Soul

By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo


"That the mind itself has a higher state of existence, beyond reason, a superconscious state, and that when the mind gets to that higher state, then this knowledge beyond reasoning comes. All the different steps in yoga are intended to bring us scientifically to the superconscious state of Samadhi… Just as unconscious work is beneath consciousness, so there is another work which is above consciousness, and which, also, is not accompanied with the feeling of egoism… There is no feeling of I, and yet the mind works, desireless, free from restlessness, objectless, bodiless. Then the truth shines in its full effulgence, and we know ourselves-----for Samadhi lies potential in us all---- for what we truly are, free, immortal, omnipotent, loosed from the finite, and its contrasts of good and evil altogether, and identical with the Atman or Universal Soul."



 Raja Yoga, London, 1896



The word Mysticism has numerous meanings defined by various writers. There have been many mystics in the Christian church, which have always been viewed with suspicion. However, it was from some of the enlightened ones that a codified system of meditation (orison) had been established. It is more a state of feeling than knowledge. In this article we would like to define exactly what the word means. Of all the definitions that have been used so far, the one given by Evelyn Underhill is the best. She defines it as: Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or lesser degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment. The first question that arises is ‘what is Reality?’ The second is ‘how does one unite?’ The question of uniting with God will be clear as this article unfolds.  As for the word Reality, at this moment we will equate it approximately with God or Godhead, the Absolute, Truth. In approaching the Ultimate, the mystic will have to traverse through many terrain or steps upward to the Absolute (transcendence). Or he has to go inward into emptiness, which consists of numerous layers of emptiness (immanence). The mystic also experiences in these intervening steps mystical states. A high percentage of people do undergo some psychic states in their life times. So what constitutes a mystical state? There are four criteria that will qualify a state to be a mystical one:

1.Ineffability. --- No words or expression can describe the state of mind, which must be directly experienced, as no amount of description is adequate.

2. Noetic quality. There are illuminative revelations concerning knowledge and insights of truth, which the normal consciousness cannot fathom. These widespread pieces of information may not be brought back when the mystic returns to normal consciousness.

3.Transiency: The mystical state does not last. Rarely it can be sustained from a few minutes to one or two hours at most. After the state has faded, memory of it is not perfect. If the mystical state recurs it will be recognised as such. These discontinuous states will recur and recur until the final union with God is reached. This state should then be with the mystic until death.

4. Passivity: Once in the mystic state, the mystic’s will seems to be controlled by a superior force. The mystic then may be associated with a secondary or alternative personality, such as trance state, automatic writing or prophecy. These secondary phenomena may not be remembered and have no bearing on the maturing of the mystic’s inner life. In some, however, they are remembered and they also influence the life of the mystic between the times of their recurrences.

The first and second criteria entitle the state to be called mystic. The third and fourth are less marked, but are usually found. When the mystic state conforms to the above criteria, most Christians feel that they have experienced a contact with God. Dr R.M. Bucke calls it Cosmic Consciousness about 100 years ago:

“The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe. Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence------ would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of moral sense, which is fully as striking, and more important than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.”

The above preamble can be applied to all forms of mysticism. Generally, mysticism can be classified as eastern and western. As most of my previous spiritual articles are on eastern mysticism, this essay will be largely based on western mysticism. The eastern ones are a) Buddhism with their meditations on one-pointedness and insight meditation. b) Zen or Chan meditation culminating in Shikantaza. c) Hinduism’s raja yoga with Nirvikalpa Samadhi as the goal. d) Taoism with its multifarious spiritual practices in meditation, Chi Kung and tai chi etc. e) Sufism in Islam. f) Kabbalah in Judaism.

Western Mysticism

Nuns and monks in the Christian religion compose most of the literature on this subject. Roman Catholicism plays a dominant role in this topic. The more enlightened ones laid down a codified system of mystical theology. The basis of this system is ‘orison’, prayer or meditation, the methodical elevation of the soul towards God. There are many descriptions of the mystical paths towards the peak. The more popular ones are  a) Mystic Way consisting of the three steps. b) St Teresa’s seven castles and c) Evelyn Underhill’s classification under five headings.

The most convenient classification is Evelyn Underhill’s five headings, as follows:

1)      The Awakening of the Self to cosmic consciousness of Divine Reality.

2)      The Purification of the Self.

3)      Illumination which includes many stages of contemplation.

4)      The Dark Night of the Soul or Mystic Death (purification of the spirit).

5)      Unitive Life: The Self is one with the Absolute.

1. The Awakening of the Self

This is the true conversion, which is of a much higher plane than mere religious conversion. According to Starbuck it is primarily an unselfing. It is cosmic consciousness pressing on individual consciousness. Often it breaks in suddenly and becomes a great new revelation. The person emerges from his own smaller limited world into a much larger world of being. It is the most momentous alteration of consciousness in human experience. As Omraam Mihael Aivanhov aptly puts it:

"So many people do not manage to find the meaning of life. They do not know that to find the meaning of life is to find an element that only the divine world can give us. And the divine world only gives it to those who over many years endeavour to reach it. Indeed the meaning of life is the reward for the patient, constant inner work a person has undertaken to do on himself. When they have reached a certain state of consciousness, they receive from Heaven an element that is extremely precious, like a drop of light that impregnates all the matter of their being. From that moment on, their life takes on a new dimension and intensity and they see everything with new clarity, as if they had been given the gift of knowing the reason for everything. And even death no longer frightens them, because this particle they have received from Heaven uncovers before them a world where there is no more danger or darkness, and they feel they are already travelling the infinite road of light."

This momentous breakthrough is extremely intense as human experience goes. It is mostly abrupt, but rarely it may be gradual. The third variety is not a conversion as such, but a gradual and increasing lucidity intermittently accompanying the pain, misery of mind, and inward struggles towards the Way of Purgation. In this type of conversion, purgation goes hand in hand with it sliding into the third stage of Illumination. Here, there is already a slight swing of the pendulum between the superficial and cosmic consciousness. Preceded by long and dim struggles and restlessness, usually the conversion takes the form of a sudden and acute realisation of a magnificent reality of the cosmic world. Sometimes a sadness of the heart arises for no apparent reason. No words can describe this true awakening. The mists and veil of normal consciousness are swept away leaving the sharp outline of the Everlasting Hills. This imposition from without is sudden and has a supernatural feel about it. The conversion of St Paul on the way to Damascus is a good example: light, voice and ecstasy completely transforming his life. Quite often a Light, an Attraction and Power accompany the conversion. The light indicates the potential of belonging completely to God, the Attraction subduing the heart, which is delighted and the Power to resolve to carry out acts of service. De Sanctis put it another way: a sense of liberation and victory, a conviction of the nearness of God and a sentiment of love towards God.  It is a sudden, intense and joyous perception of God immanent in the universe, of the divine beauty and unutterable power and splendour of the cosmic world and the promise of a new life.

Some mystics like St. Francis of Assisi are given visions. He saw the Crucified Christ who said: ‘Francis, go, repair My house’. After this he found himself another man, giving untiring toll to repair the Church. Having been a lover of beauty, this man was transformed to begin associating with beggars, tending to lepers and performing acts of charity and self-humiliation. Catherine of Genoa had another vision of Christ. She has been extremely wretched and has a strong hatred of herself when she went to confession. The sudden intuition of the Absolute was followed by an internal vision of Christ bearing the cross. During this same period, she was internally taught the whole practice of orison (prayer, meditation and contemplation). This divine Love increased the hatred even more, crying out, ‘O Love. No more sins! No more sins!’ An utterly new life began at this point.

In 1347, Rulman Merswin, a retired businessman at 36 years was having a walking meditation in his garden in Strassburg. He swore to surrender his own will, person and goods to the service to God. Back came the reply of a light shining upon him and a voice of adorable sweetness. He felt as if he was lifted from the ground and carried around his garden several times. This new consciousness of the Divine compelled him to undertake acts of mortification.

Merswin’s contemporary, Suso, an artist and embryonic ecclesiastic, had an ecstasy lasting between half to an hour. When he returned, he swooned to the ground, crying,  “Oh, my God, where was I and where am I? Oh, my heart’s great joy, never shall my soul forget this hour”. He walked like a robot after that. His soul was full of marvels, heavenly lightnings repeatedly passed through his body. And it seemed that he walked on air. This foretaste of heaven initiated a chain of mystical development.

Some of the post conversion mystical developments are: a) entering into a new world of existence, where all objects are glorified and beauty is seen in all material things. The woods sing heavenly music, and animals glow with enchantment. b) To Walt Whitman the glory is permanent, “light rare, untellable, lighting the very light.” c) This new mystical consciousness is viewing now the World of Becoming, after the sharp break with the old way of seeing things. d) Escaping from the limitation of the old conventional world, it has broken into an unlimited divine whole of another Reality. e) At that breakthrough he is not separate from the ‘One’.

Summarising, the awakening breakthrough is the viewing of man’s spiritual consciousness usually in two directions of apprehending Reality: eternal and temporal, transcendent and immanent, absolute and dynamic aspects of Truth. This glimpse of God shows that He is both Being and Becoming, near and far: pairs of opposite which the developed mystical experience will carry up into a higher realms. Normally only one of the perception will manifest at the first breakthrough. The first is the splendour of the expansive, formless ineffable vision of the vague existence of the next world. The Godhead is seen as transcendent to, yet immanent in, the created universe. The reaction of the self is the awe and rapture of the impersonal glory of a transfigured world. To be a spectator of Reality is not enough. The awakened person must participate in this transcendent life. He is required to change his life in a costly and drastic fashion.

From the above descriptions of the breakthroughs of the various people, they all conform to the four characteristics of the mystic state. Their knowledge of the things seen, heard and felt in the world of Reality possesses that noietic quality that was mostly ineffable. Memories are there, but describing in detail in words is not possible. The episodes are all of short duration (transiency), and whilst they are in the trance states they are powerless to use their own body-mind faculties (passivity).

2. Purgation or Purification of the Self

This new awakened person has to embark on a slow spiritual path of transcendence and of transformation of character in order to reach higher levels of consciousness of Reality. The path to union with God is to eradicate the false self and the false beliefs of this world. That means erasing evil, illusion and all imperfections of character, which are not in harmony with Reality. Having realised that our superficial consciousness is finite, we have to aspire to the infinite --- Reality. Although virtue is not specifically named, the acquisition of goodness must be made a perquisite to the spiritual marriage with God, the only Reality. That means purging of all ‘sins’ like lust, pride, sloth, anger, gluttony, envy and avarice. Humility, charity, selflessness, meekness and calmness should replace these seven ‘sins’. For purgation to be complete pain and suffering must be endured as a pleasure and not a chore.

After the awakening, the return to normal life shows up the contrast between the clouded contours of our faulty life of perverse self-centredness and the sharp radiance of the Real. This realisation alone brings the mystic to look at his old world with contempt and all geared up to climb the mountain of transcendence. In this context he is prepared to suffer great tortures and pain. “Let me suffer or die” said St. Teresa. Whilst Suso ‘departed from outward things to go into true interior silence and bury himself in the desert of a ‘deep contrition’. The torment of contrition and acute consciousness of unworthiness is the first oscillation from the mystic pleasure back to the present state of pain. In order to orientate the mind to truth or turning the self from the unreal to the Real, one has to get rid of self love and to erase all interests of the surface consciousness. In other words, Purgation is self-simplification. Purgation is the cleansing of the part that is to remain and stripping of that part to be done with. 1) The Negative aspect is the purging away of the superfluous, unreal, and harmful things, which dissipate the precious energies of the self. This is the process of Detachment or Poverty. 2) The Positive aspect is the raising of the remaining permanent elements of character to the highest or purest state. This is Mortification, a deliberate recourse to painful experiences and difficult tasks.


The Catholic Church spells out the essence of detachment as voluntary Poverty, which is the stripping and casting off of material and immaterial wealth, from all finite things. The next element is Chastity, which means the total cleansing of the soul of all personal desire. Lastly, Obedience is the abnegation of selfhood and the mortification of the will leading to a holy indifference to the flow of the Tao. This act of inward poverty leads us to destroy our selfhood, which in the past has individual desires and rights. Now the self is merely an insignificant drop of seawater in the ocean. “ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” means detachment and purity (detachment of the heart) will lead to that humble spirit of obedience, which expresses detachment of the will. So these 3 aspects are manifestations of one thing --- Inward Poverty. In other words, God being pure Good can only merge with a pure soul. The mystic must deprive himself of all material things and fellow creatures, even though the latter are themselves pure. And yet after the Illumination stage, the mystic is encouraged to love ‘all creatures, which are in God, as God in all creatures.’ This is a corollary of “blessed are the pure in heart”. We can only truly enjoy the things that we neither possess nor desire. “That thou mayest have pleasure in everything, seek pleasure as nothing. That thou mayest possess all things, seek to possess nothing. In detachment the spirit finds quiet and repose, and it covets nothing.  For as soon as it covets anything, it is immediately fatigued thereby.” It is lust, not love that poisons the relation between the self and the external world. This fatigues the soul. The division of ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ will colour the mind with cravings and fear of loss. We are truly slaves of our own property. We drag along with us a chain and not a treasure. In aspiring to the view of Reality, possessions cloud the view; claims, desires and attachments pose conflicts of interest in the mind. All these detract the mind from the silence and emptiness of contemplation.

Actually, Poverty should be solely a mental rather than a material state. St John of the Cross says: “ The soul is not empty, so long as the desire for sensible things remains. But the absence of this desire for things produces emptiness and liberty of soul; even when there is an abundance of possessions.” Of course, this is easier said than done. This immediate answer to Antoinette Bourignan who asked God on what to do should be used as standard practice: “Forsake all earthly things. Separate thyself from the love of the creatures. Deny thyself.” The mystic then should be crying joyously, “I am nothing, I have nothing, I lack nothing!”


This is part of purification. It is the positive side of it. The processes here are to erase the elements of the old character, which were subserving the needs and desires of the old self. The object here is to kill the attachments and self-interests of the former self. The new being must have its character built up to face the challenges of the transcendent self. In order to forge the new path, the old personality must be totally sublimated. This process must be repeated until the old habits and tendencies have faded and died. Mortification can only stop when the new self is wholly pursuing the challenges of transcendent life. The consequence of mortification is not death of the person, but death of the old attachments. There are many degrees of dying and there maybe many deaths per day, but there is also a joy after each death. The greater the death, the greater the resultant joy. All the physical and mental tortures are required to release the personality from its inclination to human pleasure and satisfaction. Once the self is completely emptied of these cravings, then the mortification can stop.

All cravings of the senses must be killed or mortified. Not only must there be no thought of anything related to the flesh, there should also be no pleasure relating to mental fantasies of any kind, including ecclesiastic and political ambitions. The old person must also be purged of pride and prejudice, preferences and distaste and any form of selfhood. The desire for penance does not only ensure all forms of austerities and the most primitive of accommodation, but the slightest attempt at grooming is considered sacrilegious. The mystic must be always be willing to serve others rather than to attend to his own needs. Ownership of any property is out of the question. The new being must deem every person or creature as lovable and such unhealthy habit of kissing of lepers is encouraged. All forms of insects and animals are also part of God’s kingdom and nothing is too base.

The last point is the actual process of physical torture. The olden days more so than now, numerous ways of crucifying one-self are thought out and experimented. Sleeping on a bed of nails and using instruments of torture are common place. The more pain these instruments incur, the more they are egged on for more torture. When the time for them to stop, they will be told abruptly through the spirit. These forms of self-torture and austerities are still quite commonly seen in India. One of them is to go about completely naked and eating of dead bodies at the funeral pyre. When all this is practised in solitude, some mystics may have glimpses of ecstatic visions near the end of the purgation period. In fact near this end stage, Purgation and Illumination already start to alternate or exist together --- the beginning of the swing of pendulum. This complementation of the light and dark sides confirms the mobile or unstable nature of the early mystic consciousness. It often sways between the extremes of pain and pleasure. The vision of bliss to despair from now onwards tends to dog the psychology of the mystic. In a rare case these oscillations are so prolonged that the mystic bypasses the Illumination stage and move onto the Dark Night of the Soul directly.

3. Illumination

After the prolong purging of the self, the mystic has arrived at the stage of Illumination, which is peculiar only to mystics. The consciousness can now visit and start a relationship with God intermittently (this is not union). The essence of illumination is the successful transfer of self-centredness to a God-centred world. Having completely disentangled himself from worldly attachments, he is now certain that God exists and is establishing a relationship with Him. The artist or poet may have also this intimation of God. But his is not in a progressive stage of endeavour, but a one-off situation when the artist or poet writes his masterpiece. The non-mystical artist can only communicate to the living in the form of art in this one dimension. But the mystic has succeeded in bridging the gap of simultaneity and succession: the creator and the created. The artist’s eyes have merely cleansed the doors of perception. The mystic’s illumination is not only endowed with light, life, love and joy, but is also supported by humility, surrender and charity. This stage is often mistaken for the final union. It is not. There is still the mystic and God, two separate entities.

There are numerous attempts to present this state by artists, poets and composers as an equal to mystics and psychics. Sometimes it is not possible to distinguish them. In connection with this stage of illumination, the experiences may be characterised into 3 types:

(1)   Consciousness of the Absolute, which is not yet union with the divine. This is the betrothal and not marriage.

(2)   The illumined vision of the world. In Blake’s words “the doors of perception are cleansed: everything appears to man, as it is, infinite.”

(3)   Increasing powers of the intuitional self: (a) auditions, (b) speaking to God, (c) visions, and (d) automatic writing. These psychic phenomena increase the whole tenure and perspectives of the mystic’s life. This subject will be discussed in the next article.

The first and second form of perception of the transcendent and the immanent are expanded by the mystic so that he can apprehend the World of Being and the World of Becoming all at once. The mystic normally progresses under one of these 3 forms. Often all forms are present, but one is always dominant.

A. The Consciousness of the Absolute, or Sense of the Presence of God

This consciousness is joyous and pleasurable. It is the most consistent feature of Illumination. The mystic is certain that he is going towards God. The happiness is not there throughout the whole period of Illumination because periods of purgation do still turn up now and then. This ‘sense of God’ is more real than all physical forms or other sensual feelings to the mystic. The mystic is so sure of his touching God that even though he is criticised by his peers or his experience is contrary to his religion he remains steadfast in his belief. This is the immanence of God in the soul of the mystic, as St. John says, “That He will dwell in the soul and He will make her perceive this presence.” This ‘immanental’ presence (of St Teresa) does not obstruct one’s normal duties in one’s daily routine. However in those artistic or unstable types this infusion of Absolute into the soul may render the individual into psychic and uncontrollable phenomena of ecstasy and rapture. To others in deep contemplation, the mystic is lifted to this presence of God, when seeing, feeling and thinking are all suspended. This period is filled with joy and gladness. This orison of union in the Illuminative State, to some, is indistinguishable from true union. This is merely a foretaste of the Ultimate State. The crucial distinguishing feature here is that in the Illuminative Path the individual consciousness still remains separate and in the Unitive state the individual is totally obliterated. In fact the individual’s faculties may even be heightened with regards to mundane things. To a few, they simply wallow in the peace and tranquillity of this stage of Illumination.

This illumination is invariably accompanied by a radiance that grows brighter all the time and it never blinds the eyes. This light is full of splendour and brighter than the sun and it floods all space. It is akin to the light at the end of the tunnel in Near Death Experience. This is the transcendent way when the soul ascends to the supernal plane of perception, where all the mysteries of heaven are hidden in its silence. This cosmic external vision of infinity is expansive and outgoing towards the Divine Light, but the soul must first traverse the Divine Dark in its ascent. So it is either transcendent or immanent, positive or negative and it is both near and far. The introvert, however, turns its focus inwards to its heart, where God pours his love into its soul, whereby the soul may return to its source.

B. The Illuminated Vision of the World

It is also shown to some that every tree, ocean, mountain and anything that the eye can see is filled with God.  There is nothing in the universe that is not God. That means that when God visits a soul, It also exhibits its power to the extent that the soul must respond with utter humility and delight. This is immanence. This means that in the illuminated consciousness, God is seen in all things. If one could see God in a flower, one has already progressed somewhat in one’s spiritual path. The seeing of divinity in the smallest of things, like grass and herbs, is looking with the inner vision and not the external eye.

To know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being with great certainty especially of those we love is to live fully in the Illumined State. We then can enjoy ‘all creatures in God and God in all creatures.’ The illumined self is then conscious of the living reality of the World of Becoming, which must include all things divinely created. This also means that the mystic has reached quite an advanced state of transcendental consciousness. Seeing beauty is simply viewing Reality through the eyes of love, and this may mean there is radiance even in cow dung or human spittoon. This cleansing of the doors of perception is the result of the mystic’s progress towards the Absolute life. He is now not distracted by things of the phenomenal world. His consciousness has been taken over by the New Man of the transcendental personality. He has now new vitality and increased intuitive powers.

This consciousness of illumination is now able to adjust the inner to the outer life to a fine balance. He has advanced enough not to distinguish between the inward personal relationships and outward apprehension of the Real: the world is seen and known in God, and God is seen and known in the world. The Divine Light shines on both.

However the illuminated mystic is placid because he has to indulge in the growth process of enlightenment. Although there is peace, there must also be an active discipline achieving higher reaches of spiritual realms. Having felt or glimpsed the presence of God, there is no turning back. The craving and perpetual hunger for full enlightenment or union with God is too strong for the mystic to relax and flow with the tide. He is restless to move forwards. He is now destined to plough through the turbulent seas of the Dark Night.

We have completed the first part of the Mystic Life, and we will now embark onto the Mystic Death.

4. The Dark Night of the Soul

This is the fourth stage of the mystic way. It is the penultimate stage before the final part, The Unitive Life. The second stage was the purification of the senses. The Dark Night is the purification of the spirit. After the jubilant stage of Illumination, there is still a subtle identification of one’s spirit to the mundane self, although there is no more lure or enticement of the senses. This identification is seen in the fact that the soul is still deemed as separate from God. The Dark Night is then the last cleansing of the soul before merging with the Absolute. This is the beginning of the second mystic life, which is the great swing back from the Illuminative Way. The Dark Night is the pendulum swinging back to darkness, stagnation, blankness, solitude and pain. The oscillations of ‘states of pleasure’ to ‘states of pain’ start with equal duration of both states, but as the path proceeds, there is less and less pleasure until the mood is totally abysmal, depressed and bitter. There is not the slightest reprieve of joy at this stage. After the period of Illumination, the consciousness becomes fatigued and darkness and deprivation set in. Coupled with negativity and misery it is the onset of The Dark Night of the Soul.

1.         Psychologically, it is a period of negative reaction to the stress of a continuous and active transcendent life of Illumination. The exhaustion and lassitude is the result of continuous strain of the brain and body of a mystic who is in an overworked service with contemplation, perhaps accompanied by voices and visions. To a true mystic, this is a new purification of the spirit to the gateway to a higher plane of transcendence. Here they part company with the nature mystics, poets and artists. Many mystics suffer the oscillations of the pendulum for years. Some call it a game of love with God.

When the Dark Night has truly set in, they are plagued by evil thoughts and temptations and totally lost in falsehood and illusion. This will lead to the breakdown of mental stability and morality, both in their spiritual and worldly life. They are deemed to have an unbalanced mind. Loss of health and friendship kept pace with internal grief. There is no more power of concentration or understanding. The old temptations of the world keep creeping back to entice them.

The Dark Night of the Soul is not only a state of exhaustion, but it is also the growing pain of an organic process of attaining the Reality of the Absolute. It is like a child who is first attending school after its childhood period of comfort and protection at home. The mystic feels the same loss of confidence, as if forsaken by God. The former calmness and passion are lost in this forsaken state, and when she tries to elevate herself she sees only dark clouds of unknowing. There is no map of guidance. This period of suffering may last for months or years before a new and unified consciousness is formed. At this stage, the mystic realises that it has to totally abandon the old self with its weakness and imperfections and to gauge the distance to the Absolute.

2.   The transcendental aspect of the Dark Night. As far as the mystical journey is concerned, the Dark Night is merely the intervening stage between the Illuminative and Unitive Life, no more, no less. To some it is an emotional anguish of a lover, to others it is an intellectual darkness and confusion and to the rest it is a passive purification. The latter amounts to a state of utter misery with which the self can do nothing and the greater power is allowed to do anything with the mystic. This is now the complete cleansing of what was not touched in the first purification. After seeing the illumined light, the self is now back to do a drastic purification of the heart, the source of love and will, the total personality of the whole man. The main object of the illumined man is the love of Reality. In the Dark Night this light is withdrawn and thereby the suffering is most bitter, more so than the first purification.

The following are some characteristic forms by which the Dark Night presents itself.

A. The mystic feels that God has abandoned him. The anguished soul now suffers pains and torments of death and hell. His friends and colleagues have also let him down with contempt. This ‘mystic death’ and its deprivations have not only come with the absence of God, but there is also the loss of impersonal support of the transcendental Ground or Spark of the soul. That means God has left one forever and one’s foundation of the spiritual world has also collapsed. What is left here is the belief that one-day he will be redeemed.

B.   To the mystics, who believe that the self must conform to the transcendent, the pain of the Night is less arduous. However the new vision of the Good overwhelms one’s own sense of sin and imperfections. Comparing the purity of God the soul can only see imperfection, aridity and emptiness of understanding in oneself.

C. Another negation is a combination of a sense of sin and abandonment by God. There is now no more interest or energy. There is only emotional ennui and boredom, which the self detests. This lassitude is due to emotional fatigue. This autumn period is a necessity for spiritual growth.  The previous joys, warmth, love and intimate sweetness have all but gone. The lack of interest is reinforced by his loss of memory of his past learning and good work. At this lowest point he has only fear and misery.

1.   Some mystics suffer from stagnation of will and intelligence. There is no will to suppress or control impure thoughts and desires. Every vice is reawakened. Vision of lust and evil are of frequent temptations. Externally mental activity is dull and dim. The whole self seems to have been enveloped by the Cloud of Unknowing. This form of the Dark is not uncommon to some mystics who find themselves completely impotent to this distress.

2.   The highly strung and temperamental types, who rapidly oscillate between pain and pleasure, would like to see God urgently. Their idea for ultimate Reality can only be satisfied by death. This negative ecstasy or rapture causes desolate feelings of helplessness and rises to a height of anguish. They cannot remember their own existence and the catatonia makes action and movement very painful. This separation from the Divine tortures mostly the soul rather than the body. Although the soul is tormented by the supernatural fire, the body heat is failing, and this stage can easily end one’s life. There is a thirst that cannot be quenched by any form of fluid or water.

All the above forms of the Dark Night have but one purpose, which is to finally purify the will and the stronghold of the self. It is to eradicate the spiritual joys when contemplating Reality. It is also to abolish the spiritual gluttony of the childish happiness hitherto engendered in illumination. In Illumination, the soul enjoyed the divine light and its sweetness. Though the “I” is spiritualised, the “me” was happy and rich whilst in the transcendent divine nature, in spite of the mortification of the first purgation. But before the self can merge with God, all personal joys and gratification must be totally eradicated. Therefore the final purgation of the Dark Night must come to pass. The delights and enjoyments of the Illumination are not piety, holiness or perfection. They are incorporated in a foundation of selfishness with a will, desires and imagination. Between the self and God is still this selfishness of will. This last has to be shredded and thrown to the winds. The Dark Night is a purgation of the will or a “self-naughting” so that the soul can then have a direct contact with the Absolute. This process is also called a “ passive purgation”, because it will run its natural course whether the self wants it or not. This has to come as a death of the mundane self in the form of deprivation, detachment and desolation of the spirit as the first purgation did to the senses. Having been thus stripped, the motto of “I am nothing, I have nothing, I desire nothing” is most apt. This is total surrender, seen in mystic paths of most religions. This utter humility sinks the soul into ‘nothingness’, again a result achieved by some eastern religions. The essence of the Dark Night is also to transform the realisation of multiplicity to unity, to prepare for the union of the soul with the Absolute. This transmutation can only be accomplished by the ‘baptism of fire’, i.e. the pain and suffering of the Dark Night. As the Dark Night takes some time to complete itself into the Mystic Death, so it also takes some time for the Dark Night to be dissolved. Rays of light will start to pierce the Cloud of Unknowing. The new man is now conscious of the illumination of the Uncreated Light and he is being joined with the Absolute Life of God. The self-naughting of the personal will has now resulted in a new stage of reality per kindness of the Divine Will.

5. The Unitive Life

How does the mystic student know what it means by the Unitive Life? As this life is wholly ineffable, one can only glean a little of what it is like by the symbolic expression of those who have been there. In practical terms, they exhibit themselves as supermen in their good works or their art, etc. They are national heroes or social reformers with highly intuitive characters. Their energy is superhuman. Though they live in the world, they are never of it. They act and behave at a much higher level than us. Generally, their symbolic expressions can be subdivided into either a) the transcendent-metaphysical or b) the intimate-personal. The former is called deification, whilst the latter is named Spiritual Marriage of his soul with God. Both terms are subjective and not an objective description of the union. The Unitive State is the result of arduous years of suffering in the Dark Night, and after the total destruction of selfhood. The naughted soul is now free to participate in Eternal Life. The marks of this state are 1) a complete absorption in the interests of the Infinite; 2) a consciousness of sharing Its strength, which results in a complete sense of freedom and serenity resulting in some heroic effort or creative activity; 3) the establishment of the self as a “power of life,” a centre of energy and a source of spiritual vitality.

With these three characteristics, psychologically the Unitive Life means the final and successful establishment of that higher form of consciousness after struggling through the Mystic Way. The self, having attained the light and freedom, is transformed and unified. There is no more stress, and therefore the energy is released for creative purposes. The Divine Self has replaced the old primitive self. This new personality in this Universal Life possesses amazing strength, total calmness and intuitive power to deal with all circumstances. This real, eternal Self has finally realised its destiny---just to be.

The mystic’s union with God is described as a droplet being swallowed by the sea, the Ocean of Life and Love. “I live, yet not I but God in me.” Having completely removed the obstacles of separation, he is now “that which he beholds”. According to the Sufi, he is now not only travelling to God, but is also in God.

A)    Deification. To the impersonal mystic deification means he is imbued with the Eternal Divine Light, consumed with Eternal Divine Love and is a partaker of the Divine Nature. Deification is a symbolic metaphor hinting at transcendent Reality, which is beyond the apprehension of normal humans. To those enjoying Unitive Life, they deem themselves as co-equal with Deity after they have annihilated their selfhood. To those who are reborn, Reality is a place and not a person. Although frowned upon by non-mystical types or lesser men, most Christian mystics long for deification exemplified by the following: “the Body of God deifies me and feeds me; it deifies my spirit and feeds my soul in an incomprehensible manner”. This is a necessary corollary of the Incarnation or humanising of God. “He became man that we might be made God.” Also one must be deified to know the secret life of God. It truly means a divine transfusion of the awakened soul with God-like properties. Deification is like the firing of a piece of black iron, which becomes red and white, emitting light, and finally turns to liquid. The iron therefore is like the cold soul made incandescent when hot, a process enacted by divine love. The values (love and will) of the person is reduced to a minimum when divine love has carried us above all things to be one with the Truth which is God. Now our contemplation is at a plane of Beatific Vision of Goodness, Truth and Beauty most of the time. The deified man’s consciousness being together with the Divine Being is a forerunner to transcendental reality, a place when ordinary men can achieve only after death or enlightenment. The deified man after self-naughting has stripped himself off the I, the Me, and the Mine when he attained the Unitive life. He has no personal will as it has been swallowed up by the greater Divine Will. His being remains, but in another form, in another glory, and in another power after his complete renunciation of his worldly attachments.

B) Spiritual Marriage. The metaphysical aspect of Reality must be experienced personally and emotionally and this encounter is usually expressed in the language of love. The usual terminology of theological philosophy is too arid to express the intimacy of self-fulfilment of the Union with God. Some of the language used borders on the “erotic.” The Divine Union in which the ‘heart speaks to heart’ is also the infusion of a greater life into the personal consciousness of the mystic. It is a tightening of the bond of their growing intimacy and splendour. This speaks of complete fulfilment of Perfect Love, a one spirit with God.

In order to obviate the sexual connotation, some authors use the term ‘glue’ or ‘ghostly glue’ as in this passage, “And when in Thee I shall love myself, nothing else but Thee do I love, because Thou art in me and I in Thee, glued together as one and the selfsame thing, which henceforth and forever cannot be divided.” The Mystic Way has been a growth of love to climb up towards its source. After eradication of all worldly attachments, the final step is union or spiritual marriage. The coupling together of the lover and the loved also has to bring forth duties and responsibilities. This union also confers on the mystic a new vitality for creative work and be a cause of other good things to happen. From the history of the mystics, we find that having been infused by the Absolute, they were superhuman in their personal achievements of their visions. There is no more resting in the Quiet, but there is active practising of the Eternal Life. Because of the mystic’s union with the Absolute, he is able to receive the powerhouse of the supernal energy and vitality infused into his human body to serve the temporal world with acts of goodness and piety. Thence he has accepted both the absolute World of pure Being and the active World of Becoming as a mature mystic to “incarnate the Eternal in time.” He is enjoying the fruits of the Divine Goodness, Truth, and Beauty” in the transcendent Absolute and also energetically creating Eternal Wisdom as a normal citizen of the temporal world. He is trying to salvage the world as well. Although he appears as a superman outwardly, it is his knowledge that he has earned eternal life in himself that gives him internal satisfaction and confidence. As a ‘secret friend’ he has been working up the Mystic Way towards the Godhead, and having united and married God, he himself has now been reborn as a ‘hidden child’. This child has now inherited the earth. “Tranquillity according to His essence, activity according to His nature; absolute repose, absolute fecundity” is how he dominates his existence because he is the secret child of the Absolute participating in this dual character of activity and rest. This exemplifies the richest and noblest flavour of Western Mysticism. In this fashion, the intellect is immersed in the vision of truth, the will, in the interest of the Transcendent, conquers new worlds with new strength to match and the heart begins to live upon high levels of joy. This new-born ‘child’ is now so joyous and happy that he is in constant laughter and playfulness so that it could be mistakenly viewed as premature senility. The other consequences are that they begin to love animals and nature, and songs start to spring out from their lips. All these tend to lead to utter peace and tranquillity internally in the mystic who have been lovingly ensconced in the lap of God.

As an example, let us go into St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and find out about his method of contemplation.

Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

Juan De Yepes Y Alvarez was born in the sixteenth century in Spain. He was inducted as a Carmelite monk at the age of twenty-one, and was ordained as a priest four years later. He was a junior contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila and was asked to organise the Barefoot Carmelites in a life of austerity and contemplation. In his effort to transform the Carmelites he was imprisoned in Toledo, and during this confinement he wrote some of his best verses. This was the time he attained his union with God. He did this by renouncing the pleasures of the world so that this lover (contemplative) could attain union with God. He became famous for his concept of the Dark Night of the Soul. It is only without earthly desires that his spirit can soar up to the heavens for the spiritual marriage. Even the thoughts of Christ’s crucifixion or God’s resplendent qualities must not be entertained for the union. The soul must be emptied of all forms so that the formless spirit can attain Divine union.

In this loving thirst of the Divine, he suffered great pains with insipid worldly life. His depression and desolation came about because of his cutting out all senses and his erasure of thoughts making him dead before death. He cut out all fetters to the world so that he could climb up higher and higher to the Divine realms. This difficult journey was punctuated with bleak nights and exhaustion, but he still persevered determinedly because of the frequent embraces of the beloved. The sweet and tender caresses can only be described by someone who had had the actual experience.

He spent his final 5 years in solitary confinement in contemplation of the Divine. He died at 49 years and was canonised in 1726. We will cite the whole poem of the Dark Night of the Soul first and comment on it afterwards. This is the soul’s spiritual path on the way to union with God through love. The first two stanzas are of purgation of the 1) the sensory part and 2) of the spiritual part. The last six stanzas describe the wonderful results of the spiritual illumination and union with God.

The Dark Night of the Soul


1.      One dark night,

fired with love’s urgent longings

----ah, the sheer grace----

I went out unseen,

my house being now all stilled.


2.      In darkness, and secure,

By the secret ladder, disguised,

-----ah, the sheer grace----

in darkness and concealment,

my house being now all stilled.


3.      On that glad night,

in secret, for no one saw me,

nor did I look for at anything,

with no other light or guide

than the one that burned in my heart.


4.      This guided me

more surely than the light of the noon

to where he was awaiting me

---him I knew so well----

there in a place where no one appeared.


5.      O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

the lover with his beloved,

transforming the beloved in her Lover.


6.      Upon my flowering breast

which I kept wholly for him alone,

there he lay sleeping,

and I caressing him

there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.


7.      When the breeze blew from the turret,

as I parted his hair,

it wounded my neck

with its gentle hand,

suspending all my senses.


8.      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.

There are 2 levels in this poem. One is his personal experience. And the other is his doctrinal reflection. In the first purification, God is likened to a mother, who suckles, nurses and carries the child. Then the mother has to wean, and teach the child to grow up in walking and learning etc until the child has grown into an adult. This is purifying the sense. The latter cleansing is that of the spirit and is likened to fire working and transforming a log of wood.

The Dark Night of the Soul is divided into 2 books. Book One containing 14 chapters refers to the passive night of the sense. Book Two consisting of 25 chapters explains the passive night of the spirit. What is at stake here is the cleansing and purification of the whole individual until it is pure enough to merge or unite with God whose holiness is immaculate. Personal effort must be at first initiated, but latterly God must come in for the journey to continue. That means human effort can only prepare the self for God’s intervention. Poverty, purity, nakedness, void and death are only emptying oneself for God’s grace. The emptying of self permits divine intervention into the fullness of God. In the latter part of the passive night of the spirit, St. John calls it the spiritual betrothal. The last six stanzas read more like a lover’s poem than a theological thesis.

The individual undergoing the dark night will suffer privation, erasure of the intellect, aridity in the exercise of love, loss of memory with regards to all possession and generally afflicted by torments. Depressed and disillusioned he cannot fathom how to escape from this misery. The mental faculties are bound and restricted; all external help is useless. The belief that God has abandoned him appears to him a hopeless situation. This is because the only desire left in him is his overwhelming love for God.

It is much better for the reader to study the texts of the two books of The Dark Night of the Soul himself. St. John’s own commentary and explanation of his doctrine are elaborate and lucid.


1.   Evelyn Underhill. 1993. Mysticism. Oneworld Publication.

2.   St. John of the Cross. (1542-1591). The Dark Night from The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. 1991. Institute of Carmelite Studies. ICS Publications.

3.   William James.1961. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Collier Books. Macmillan Publishing  Co., Inc.

4.   Robert Ullman and Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman. Mystics, Masters, Saints and Sages. 2001.Conari Press. Berkeley, California.