This post is primarily intended for those Christians in my audience. Dark Night of the Soul is a book on spiritual development, and is obviously intended for already mature Christians. Thus, if you do not fit within this demographic, then regardless of this review, this book is probably not for you at this time in your life. That being said, Dark Night of the Soul is not a fiction book, and so it cannot be reviewed in the format that I normally use to review books. Thus I am going to be using a completely different format entirely.
There are a few books that I would recommend that every serious Christian read at some point in his/her life. Cost of Discipleship and Life Together by Bonhoeffer, Celebration of Discipline by Foster, Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee, and The Church Impotent by Podles among others. Dark Night of the Soul has recently been moved very high up on this list. Wayne, one of my frequent commenters, posted a couple of weeks ago that he views this book as a manual for spiritual growth. I agree with his concept, but I disagree with his wording. Dark Night of the Soul is an extremely organic book, and I believe that manual has taken on too technical of a meaning to accurately reflect it. The book is an expanded commentary of a poem written by the author, and the organic and artistic nature of the poem is deeply reflected in the form and structure of this book. Of the Mortification of Sin by John Owens is a manual to for spiritual growth, but Dark Night of the Soul serves more as a guide book – perhaps comparable to a hypothetical tourist’s guide to Everest. The author points out land marks of spiritual growth, explains what they will look like – and also what they will not look like. He also offers necessary encouragement to the supplicant to stay on the path, much like our hypothetical tourist’s guide to Everest might offer. One of the best aspects of this book is that, unlike many modern books on spiritual growth, it does not offer a simple five, seven, or ten step plan to becoming a spiritual giant. Instead the author is very plain that there is no easy or quick path to spiritual growth – maturity takes time, effort, pain, and endurance (which is why I have compared it to climbing Everest). This willingness to deal realistically with the issue of spiritual growth makes this book one of the best texts that I have ever read on the subject.
Saint John of the Cross was a Spanish Roman Catholic Carmelite Friar and Counter-Reformer within the Church who lived in the second half of the 16th century. He worked alongside Teresa of Avila to reform the Carmelite order which eventually resulted in the creation of the Discalced Carmelites (as opposed to the Calced Carmelites) These reforms were largely unpopular within the order, and let to John’s imprisonment, humiliation, and torture. After nine months of imprisonment John escaped to rejoin his newly formed Discalced Carmelites, and continued to work with them until his death.
Intended Audience: Priests and Initiate Priests
It is clear from the contents of the book and the situation at the time of its writing that John’s intended audience for this book were priests within his order who were responsible for the spiritual training of young initiates, and those initiates themselves. The book at times addresses itself to a mentor or teacher, and at times to a supplicant seeking spiritual growth. The high level of spiritual maturity among the intended audience is one reason for the straightforward, sometimes harsh honesty displayed in John’s treatment of his subject. This honesty is, however, one of the most valuable resources of the book itself. The primary subject matter is discussion of the inevitable pain that comes in spiritual growth (in the dark nights of the spirit and the soul especially), and John’s honest appraisal of its necessity is likely too difficult for many young believers to apprehend.
Treatment of Subject: Personal – 10/10
Dark Night of the Soul is a book of theology, but it is not written as a book of theology. John addresses two primary trials through the course of the book, first the dark night of the spirit (or the deprivation of sensual pleasure) and then the dark night of the soul (or the deprivation of spiritual wellness). His thesis is that completion of both of these trials is necessary for one to enter into complete unity with the loving goodness of God – i.e. the highest spiritual maturity that one can find in this life. He is also open about that fact that these trials can often take years, decades, and sometimes the entirety of a person’s life to complete. While it is clear that John knows his theology, and that he has specific theological goals and points for this text, he does not approach his subject as a theologian – systematically breaking down and analyzing each theological and philosophical aspect of his thesis – but as a teacher and mentor; guiding his initiates through these trials, and the inevitable pain and fear that come with them. This approach makes the book intensely personal, and relatable in a way that the vast majority of theological texts are never able to achieve. It is clear that John’s purpose in writing was not to discuss some particular theological problem, but instead to see to the well-being of men and women in the midst of a terrifying experience.
First of all, it must be noted that this book was originally written in 16th century Spanish, and so any English translation will necessarily suffer. That being said, the translation that I read, also available here for free, is quite readable, but sometimes difficult to follow. The grammar is often…wonky (having done translation myself, I don’t think the word wrong can be applied in this case), and sometimes leads to a couple of readings for complete apprehension of the subject matter.
As I said at the beginning, if you are not a mature Christian, then this book is probably not for you. If you are not a Christian, then I doubt that you would care, and if you are an immature Christian, then you may not be ready to face many of the things that John discusses. If you are a mature Christian, especially if you are in a place of spiritual darkness that you do not understand, or a place of deprivation that seems meaningless, then this is definitely a book that you should read.