by Father Anthony Morello, OCD


I have chosen to write about "Night in Christ." By "Night in Christ" I refer to the doctrine of St. John of the Cross on the interrelation between contemplative darkness and contemplative light. To understand contemplation, one must understand aridity (darkness), otherwise an undeveloped notion of contemplation ensues.

Yes, contemplation may be correctly understood with St. Ignatius as "consolation without previous cause." But that is only one category of contemplation, the "cataphatic" (luminous and fruitive [enjoyable]); there is another category of contemplative experience called "apophatic" (dark and arid). It was the genius of St. John of the Cross that gave us a correlation of the dark and luminous phases of the ascetical-mystical ascent, and we need to appreciate his contribution for our own good.

It is the purpose of this conference to clearly and simply explain the four nights of St. John of the Cross and to relate them to contemplative light. The contemplative experience is not only "light in Christ," it is also "Night in Christ" as we now hope to see.


At the outset let us recall the Teresian-Juanistic perspective: the goal of the Christian is transforming union. Transforming union brings about the utter perfection of faith, hope and charity. Our Saints see this union as the perfect conformity of one's will to the will of God, in which perfect charity consists. This moral union, however, flows from an analogous quasi-substantial union with God: God's pure spirit transforms man's spirit through the divine communication of life to the very substance of the soul.

Contemplation is seen as a desirable short-cut to the perfection of faith, hope and charity, and for that reason alone it can be desired. Contemplation for St. Teresa is supernatural, infused or passive prayer of any degree.(1) For St. John of the Cross initial contemplation is "a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God which, if it be permitted, enkindles the soul with the Spirit of love."(2)

St. John calls contemplation "general knowledge"(3) and "loving knowledge."(4) The Saint explains that this general knowledge is "obscure, confused"; he means it is not the knowledge of distinct ideas: it is loving, passive and tranquil, wherein the soul drinks in wisdom and love.(5)

"General knowledge" can be received without even being "perceived or observed."(6) Contemplation is a new kind of knowing and a new kind of loving. Thus the understanding and the will must learn to adjust to the new action of God. This adjustment entails knowing the doctrine on spiritual "night," for one generally passes on to contemplative light through the adjustment of infused night.(7)


St. John of the Cross very clearly explains why he used the term "night" to designate the "journey to God":(8) First, because the point of departure is like a night in that the individual must deprive himself of the objects of selfish sense appetites. Second, because the road of travel is faith, which is darkness to the intellect. Third, because the point of arrival is God who is pure mystery to the faculties.

St. John of the Cross teaches us that there are two nights that we should enter by our own conviction and practice. There are moreover two nights which are infused contemplative nights. Two nights are ascetical in that they depend on our effort (associate "ascetical" with exercise and effort); and there are two nights that are mystical (passive, infused).

I am particularly interested in the Active Nights because an understanding of them contributes much to a substantial personal spiritual life. Each Active Night anticipates a Passive Night. Thus the Active Night of the Senses anticipates the Passive Night of the Senses; and the Active Night of the Spirit anticipates the Passive Night of the Spirit. The nights are seen in that order by St. John of the Cross: - The Active Night of the Senses. - The Passive Night of the Senses. - The Active Night of the Spirit. - The Passive Night of the Spirit.

Now let us study some aspects of each night and see how they are Nights in Christ, Nights in the Contemplation of Christ.

IV. THE ACTIVE NIGHT OF THE SENSES (Moving towards contemplation in Christ)

Carmel has always known that one must prepare for contemplation by striving after "purity of heart."(9) "Purity of heart" is the ascetical goal which strives to rid oneself of everything that hinders the growth of faith, hope, and charity, and therefore obstructs infused divine intimacy which contemplation is.(10)

Thus St. John of the Cross, anxious that we enter into the dying of Christ so as to move effectively towards his life of faith and virtue, would have us meditate on Christ's life and withdraw ourselves progressively and realistically from every inordinate sense satisfaction. He directs us to work on the desires. The desires fragment our interest and keep us from that ideal "recollection of the soul in one simple desire for God."(11)

The withdrawal of deliberate desire from the objects of inordinate sense satisfaction is what the Active Night of the Senses consists in. St. John addresses himself to habitual, voluntary, inordinate attachments. Some attachments may be voluntary only in cause.

In modern terms, St. John would have us rid ourselves of compulsive behavior, whimsical and erratic self indulgence.(12) Compulsive eating, talking, Compulsive smoking: no-purpose going and coming: selfish sexual indulgence, etc., all contribute to disorientation, a lack of personal centering and synthesis. Again, St. John would have us learn to DESIRE God, rather than unnecessary things. One would become responsible for one's life at each turn.

In my experience, one moves from inside to outside and back again inside. I mean that first learning to center in God within and acquiring a taste for Him, one then gains the motivation and energy to begin abstaining from what dissipates the Spirit.

One thereby enters into the poverty of Christ whose only food and drink (desire) was the FATHER.

Withdrawal from non-purpose sense satisfaction is truly a night. Darkness, a void, is experienced.(13) Experience proves St. John correct: if we do not pursue sense desires we are miserable, but if we do we are more miserable.

Such a night of abstention best guarantees progress in meditation and in the social virtues, two essentials for progress.

The Night of the Senses leads the senses into the dark of no-satisfaction so that another kind of light may be known, the light of Contemplation in Christ.

In parenthesis let me assert that one should pursue the Active Night of the Sense prudently and progressively. We must withdraw from outside things as a result of moving in love towards God. The motion is slow but steady when it is energized by the love of God. Spiritual direction is called for so that a realistic approach to the effort may be had in relation to the person's actual potential.

V. THE PASSIVE NIGHT OF THE SENSES (Entering into contemplation in Christ)

When one has progressed in meditation through meditative reading (or other methods) to affective simplicity, ordinarily one comes to the term of meditation and must learn to pray in a new way.

God blocks the ability to use the imagination and progressive reasoning (discursive meditation). He begins weaning the person from the satisfaction of the inner senses and emotions. Meditation and acts of piety give no more spiritual pleasure. A person is being introduced to the illuminative way (the prayer of Teresa's fourth mansions).

St. John of the Cross is at his best as he discerns the only authentic signs which indicate that one should leave aside meditative forms of prayer. He analyzes the causes of aridity (dryness) and then gives the prescription of a competent spiritual director.

If one's health is good (for bad health can cause dryness at prayer), if one has not returned to sense satisfaction and to the attachments of sin (for these rob one of the taste for divine things), if one is not naturally given to scruples (for a weak mind hinders the dynamics of meditation), then one ought to look to the possibility if praying in a contemplative manner.

St. John's famous 3 simultaneous signs are the principles of positive discernment:(14) 1. if the imagination can find no satisfaction in or ability to engage in the elaboration's of meditation, 2. if the person finds no pleasure in the thought of creatures either, 3. and if one suffers from the anxiety of being distanced from God (divine absence), with a deep craving to serve Him, then one must decide to completely abandon meditation as his regular manner of praying and learn contemplative listening.

Contemplative listening is the answer to the PASSIVE Night of the Senses.(15) "Senses" here refer to the complex role of the imagination. A person at this point learns to entertain the simple gaze of faith - "loving attentiveness to God"; he learns "to do nothing" at prayer but be present to him who has begun to communicate to the spiritual faculties completely independently of the workings of imaginative and rational discursive meditation.

It is through this simple divine company-keeping, first experienced as darkness, as the inability to pray at all, that one is ushered into the quiet contemplation of the fourth mansion and the illuminative way. It is to be appreciated how precious this night is. A major change in one's manner of prayer is a trial to be sure, but growth in Christ demands that we come to know the Father as Jesus did - in the simple stance of loving presence. Jesus rested in the Will of the Father. The Passive Night of Sense is passive, in Christ, to the light of a new spiritual communication to the faculties. In this communication we begin to enjoy the intuitive knowledge and love that Jesus had for the Father.

VI. THE ACTIVE NIGHT OF THE SPIRIT (Moving towards transformation in Christ)

Our own withdrawal from selfish sense satisfaction and the corresponding relating of all desire to God constituted the Active Night of the Senses.

God's action which bound the meditative faculties and introduced us to the cloud of unknowing through simple loving attention to Him constituted the Passive Night of the Senses.

When one has been brought into the simple contemplation of the prayer of passive recollection and quiet of the fourth mansions, he must learn the exercise of yet another night: the Active Night of the Spirit. Beginning with the illuminative way and enduring in broken succession throughout the unitive way of the fifth and sixth mansions, extraordinary phenomena are commonly enough experienced. Things like hearing inner voices, seeing representations of spiritual things, experiencing divine delights, etc.

Since no experience is God, St. John of the Cross wants to guide us through all experiences to God alone. Even if experiences are of God, they are not God. One has to learn to desire only God, not the consolations and experiences of God. It is most instructive to know that our two doctors would have us directly desire and dispose ourselves for contemplative prayer(16) (the infused general presence of God as light and/or love) but would have us entertain no desire whatsoever for those possible fringe companions of contemplative prayer.

Thus we are instructed to positively ignore with utter detachment and indifference all visions, revelations, locutions (voices) and the like.(17) To be firmly set on the way of Christ is to seek God, not the self. To be established in this attitude is to be in the Active Night of the Spirit. One prefers the darkness of "confused, dark, general knowledge of God which is contemplation given in faith."(18)

This is the safest way. We ourselves and the devil can produce pseudo mystical experiences. If things are of God they will have their good effects automatically: if things proceed from auto-suggestion or the devil, we have wasted no time on them or been sidetracked by them.

VII. THE PASSIVE NIGHT OF THE SPIRIT (Entering into transformation in Christ)

Somewhere between the forth and seventh mansions, after the relatively long illuminative phase of initial contemplation and quiet, and before transforming union is attained, St. John sees a person undergoing the Passive Night of the Spirit.

The first great and sustained crisis of prayer ensued when God began infusing his light and love directly to the spiritual faculties by-passing the discursive faculties. That was the Passive Night of the Senses. The second great and sustained crisis, of even greater intensity, happens when God begins to communicate himself to the very substance and core of the personality, by-passing even the spiritual faculties.

"God strips the faculties, affections and feelings, both sensual and spiritual, both outward and inward, leaving the understanding dark, the will dry and the memory empty: the affections are left in the deepest affliction and bitterness and anguish: the person is deprived of all spiritual experience and satisfaction."(19)

Here the principle purification of the soul is met. "The sensual part of the soul is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptives and the spirit is purified in thick darkness,"(20)

The purpose of the Passive Night of the Spirit is that "the union of love may be introduced in the Spirit" - a very positive purpose.(21)

The causes of this dark night are first of all God who, psychologically speaking, causes a jolting revolution to be experienced as he communicates infused contemplation from pure Spirit to pure spirit (the substance of the soul). The faculties are left completely in the dark.(22)

The Second Cause is the soul itself for a person never saw more clearly his own limitations and impurity as when touched substantially by divine holiness.(23) The person has a "Job" - experience, and the lamentations of Jeremiah become his own. God seems so far away.(24)

The Third Cause is the devil who adds to one's disquiet by suggesting all sorts of added fears.(25) The devil may even counterfeit mystical experiences to deceive and mislead one into pride.(26) The upset of social problems caused by the devil may be added to one's woes.(27) In a word, the devil does what he can to deceive the person, to distract him form the needed convictions of faith, hope and charity.

At prayer, one's experience is very negative.(28) Fr. Marie Eugene in I Am a Daughter of the Church writes that "not only is meditation, or the forming of concepts, . . . impossible, but also that loving attention which was so advantageously substituted for reasoning during the first night. Because it now attacks the roots of the faculties, the powerlessness is general, extended to all the soul's operations. It even bears on temporal affairs which the soul no longer seems capable of coping with. Lapses in memory make one lose consciousness of time and of what he is doing..."(29) All in all, one has moved from the sweetness of the illuminative way to a near certitude that God has abandoned it.

A person not only experiences aridity, but desolation, coupled with an insatiable yearning to serve God to whom he seems so displeasing.(30)

The Passive Night of the Spirit is truly Night in Christ. It is the darkness of the cocoon of Christ's Paschal Mystery. The silkworm dies to emerge as the Christic butterfly.(31) One suffers the abandonment of Christ's passion and waits for the divine plan to unfold.

The Passive Night of the Spirit is the night of faith in Christ. Faith in this state feels totally impotent. Abandonment to God alone who can transform us is the answer: Faith that hopes against hope and loves with fixed determination.(32)

The Night of Spirit is the divine anesthesia of the faculties as God performs major surgery on the very core of the personality. Just as we cannot justify ourselves in the order of grace, neither can we transform ourselves into the perfect image of Christ.

The Night is the patience of Christ in his agony and in the tomb. The Night is the Night of Christ who waited for the divine answer of deliverance. The Night of Christ is waiting until God finishes working on oneself in a way beyond all understanding and category. For God gives Himself to the very root of all our behavior - the most spiritual dimension of our soul. All one can do is endure the Night in trust.

VIII. THE CHALLENGE OF SUBSTANTIAL SPIRITUALITY (Darkness and Light in Christ through faith, hope and charity)

When we reflect on the doctrine of the Nights of our School of Spirituality, we see the role of the theological virtues emerging in high relief. The Nights call us to substance, to authentic spirituality which is not content with anything less than God. And the theological virtues alone attain to God.(33)

The Active Night of Sense removes our desire from sense objects so that we can recollect the soul in one simple desire for God. This is the work of the theological virtues. In the Night of Christ one moves through the darkness of deprivation of the senses to the luminous desire for the Father alone.

The Passive Night of Sense removes us from clear images and concepts of God and casts us into God as a mystery. Not being able to meditate habitually anymore, one learns to just be in God looking into the dark cloud of his glory. Only the theological virtues measure up to the task; they adequately receive the new, subtle, contemplative light and love; they measure up to the simplicity of God and his illuminative communication. And we begin to see and love in Christ as we move out of the Night.

The Active Night of the Spirit is an ascetical exercise of attitudes. We (in the Night of Christ) refuse to place our concern and affection on any kind of supernatural experience that is not contemplative, general, obscure faith. The detachment of this Active Night is simply the work of preserving the freedom of Christ to know and trust and love God alone. Passing up the gifts of God in favor of a pure preoccupation with God himself is the work of the theological virtues.

The Passive Night of the Spirit is the utter submission of the theological virtues to the absolute transcendence of God. Understanding nothing, one waits for God to transform the Christian personality. Nothing but faith, hope and charity can sustain to so terrible a purgatory on earth. Faith, hope and charity alone bring one to the peak of Mount Carmel. To understand that is to understand both darkness and light in Christ. It is to know in darkness that we are but adjusting to the unfathomable light of God which mysteriously is at work reconstructing the totality of the self in grace.

Not too long ago, a woman whose primary goal in life is "an intimate relationship with Christ," as she puts it, wrote these words to me: "If to enter this relationship I must experience NOTHING, I'm more than willing. Lately there is even a reluctance to experience anything other than nothingness. In prayer I am in a state of unknowing - and yet it is more REAL somehow." That is a person in the Night of Christ, a most substantial person.

My dear Carmelites, as the years wear on we must become more and more substantial people. Let us put the emphasis on the work of the theological virtues in prayer and out of prayer in order to become substantial Christians.

If we are theological people, in the sense explained, two things will surely happen which will be progressively detectable to the self and to others. These two happy results are effective self knowledge (self-in-touch-ness) and a new sensitivity to the social virtues. Both are essential. For to know God we must know ourselves in our need for God. And to love God whom we cannot see we must love our neighbor whom we can see. So let us hurry to enter into Night in Christ through pure faith, hope and charity and thereby come to transforming Contemplation in Christ.


1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of Life, Articles 2 and 4.
2. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran     Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, ICS Publications.


1. Relation V.  
2. Dark Night, Bk. I, Ch. 10.
3. Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 14.
4. Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 13.
5. Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 13.
6. Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 14.
7. Living Flame, Sts. III, 42 &49.
8. Ascent, Bk. I, Ch. 2.
9. Ancient Carmelite document: The Institution of the First Monks, Ch. 1.
10. Ascent, Bk. I, Ch. 3.
11. Ascent, Bk. I, Chs. 10 & 13.
12. Ascent, Bk. I, Chs. 10, 11 & 12.
13. Ascent, Bk. I, Ch. 6.
14. Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 13; Dark Night, Bk. I, Ch. 9; Living Flame, III, 32.
15. Dark Night, Bk. I, Ch. 10.
16. Ascent, Bk. II, Chs. 10, 13, 14 & 15; Bk. III, Ch. 28.
17. Ascent, Bk. II, Ch. 10; Bk. III, Chs. 1-5.
18. Ascent, Bk. II, Chs. 10, 13, 14 & 15; Bk. III, Ch. 28.
19. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 3.
20. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 6.
21. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 3.
22. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 5.
23. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 5.
24. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 7.
25. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 28.
26. Dark Night, Bk. II, Chs. 2 & 28.
27. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 6.
28. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 8.
29. Fr. Marie Eugene; I Am a Daughter of the Church, vol. II, p. 320.
30. Dark Night, Bk. II, Ch. 5.
31. Fifth Mansion.
32. Dark Night, Bk. II.
33. Ascent, Bk. II, Chs. 6 & 7. 9