The Dynamism of the Spiritual Life

Church of John of the Cross with modern art of his major works

Possible stages in spiritual life development.

In his presentation of the dynamic development of the spiritual life John was originally considered a disciple of Pseudo-Dyonisius the Areopagite, who divided the spiritual life into three main stages: beginners, proficients, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive periods of life. Writers dependent on this insight generally considered the three stages to be important but rarely gave any importance to the transitions from one to the other.

John’s own experience together with extensive knowledge gained through spiritual direction gave him better insight into the stages than anyone prior to him. To the traditional three-fold division John highlights the two crucial transitions. John knew from his own experience of night that crises can be moments of grace and progress, and he called the two transitions the night of sense and the night of spirit. The former was the transition to contemplation, and the latter the decisive moment of life as the complete trusting abandonment to God. The three stages of prior understandings remain and the second becomes a plateau of rest between the nights.

Thus, the nights become so important that John describes the entire journey to God as a dark night. “The darkness and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it” (A Prologue, 1). Dedicated people who have started the journey come to a point where they advance no more. The problem is clear to John; for one reason or another they do not abandon themselves to God’s guidance and enter the dark night. “[A] soul must ordinarily pass through two principal kinds of nights. . . . The first night or purgation . . . concerns the sensory part of the soul. The second night. . . concerns the spiritual part” (A.1. 1.1-2). The first night occurs when beginners transition to contemplation, the second night occurs when proficients move to union. The dark night is an experience of purification, but the motivation for entering it is love. There are three reasons for calling this journey a dark night. The point of departure is a commitment to the denial of one’s appetites and to a rejection of self-centeredness and gratification as motives in life which is a dark experience of privation for the senses. The means or way to union is faith which is a dark unknowing experience for the intellect. The point of arrival is God who is an incomprehensible mystery—a dark night to any individual in this life (see A.1. 2.1).

The two nights, of sense and of spirit, have two parts, one active and the other passive. The active is a time of ascetical preparation and a deliberate practice of the three theological virtues. The latter is the beginning of contemplation and the inflow of God’s transforming action by means of the three theological virtues. Some writers see the active night of sense to be first, followed by the passive night of sense which is the entry into contemplation. However, the active night of sense will continue through contemplation. In fact, the illumination of contemplation throws further light on more unconscious levels that need active purification. The active night of sense is the effort to remove faults and sins one can see, but there are lots of faults one cannot see without God’s illumination in contemplation. Some have periods of rest after which comes the active night of spirit, followed by the passive night of spirit.

Others see the active night of sense as first, followed by the active night of spirit along with the passive night of sense as two parts of the same experience. Then the passive night of spirit follows. However, the experiences of active night of spirit and passive night of  sense continue to surface and purify even during any respite or plateau periods.

Reflections: In our spiritual journey we enter the thick darkness where we encounter God (Ex 20:21) and God gradually turns our darkness into light (Is 42:16). The journey through the passive nights is entirely in the hands of God. “In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more” (F. 3.28). The point of departure is not our efforts but a loving God who is drawing us through the darkness to the light (N.1. 1.1; N.2. 1.1).

This is a journey that consists in the pursuit of no thing, a new discipline that the soul imposes on itself or allows and undergoes in God. John speaks of the nothingness of all creation in comparison with God and of all created and spiritual things as means to union with God. It is not that he despises any of them but that he sees everything as nothing in relation to God (N.1. 4.4-7). This can be a disconcerting aspect of John’s teaching unless we constantly remember his goal of everything re-found in God; through poverty and nakedness in God we possess all (see “Prayer of a soul taken with love”).

Poverty and negation, or mortification of voluntary, habitual imperfections that move us away from God are means to liberate us from what is false in ourselves, in our world, and in our understanding of God (A.1. 11). This becomes a spiritual empowerment and gives us the freedom to choose the good, to eliminate all that is not of God, and to pursue eagerly only what is of God. Thus, we become dry and ready to be set on fire. “For to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God” (A.2. 5.7).


Seeing life in these categories can be helpful but there is generally overlap. The passive night of sense can be from the beginning provided an individual is open to receive and understand the challenges. Then again, there is a way in which the active night of spirit is also connected to sense in that it is about gratification concerning spiritual things of intellect, memory, and will that spills over into the senses. Furthermore, the passive night of sense can be about unconscious sins, attitudes, and gratifications that are discovered through contemplation.

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
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