Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Dark Night of the Soul

 By Toby Johnson 

The dark night of the soul refers to a kind of affective state, also called aridity, that is said to precede direct mystical experience. It refers to the notion that you have to go through a certain amount of suffering before you can realize joy and pleasure.  

The dark night is characterized by dissatisfaction, and boredom with the way “normal” people live their “normal” lives. Underlying this dissatisfaction is a “spiritual hunger” for something more than the world offers. This is interpreted as the experience of union with God. While this image applies to all people, it has particularly appropriate application to the experience of gay men, especially spiritually conscious gay men. 

There is a certain knowingness that goes with being gay, a sense of understanding a hidden dimension of reality that most people don’t seem to realize is there. We learn this early in life. At first, it’s just in reference to self. That is, we sense, often inchoately, that there’s something about ourselves we have to keep secret, something only we (and God) can know. We may develop a magical or religious vision of the world out of this sense of secretness or sacredness.

As gay men grow older we may come to understand that what we had understood to be the “secret dimension” was, in fact, the homosexual dimension, and that there have been others before us who’ve lived lives in secrecy and “darkness” as fellow homosexuals. We become fascinated with the homosexual slant which we—and our fellows—can see throughout history and culture. We want to know who was gay in the past, which movies stars, which politicians and celebrities, which spiritual teachers, shared our secret (often in their own “darkness”).

The people gay men—perhaps too cavalierly—call straight, the “normal” people, may not perceive this hidden dimension at all. There is, after all, no reason for them to mistrust what they’re taught by their parents, teachers, priests, etcetera, what some may call: “the authorities”—at least, no reason felt in their flesh. Of course, as they develop and deepen their own psychological and spiritual lives, they are liable to realize there is a secret dimension. That is, after all, the discovery of all those called “mystics.” An important part of the gay contribution may be precisely the revelation of the hidden dimension to life.

The dark night is a common step in coming out as gay. That is, gay men often experience confusion, depression, and loss of social identity as they realize their homosexual orientation.

First, perhaps, we sense that something is missing in heterosexuality; we long for something more. Then when we realize what it is we long for, we may feel humiliated or betrayed or at least may feel this is something we must keep secret.

Later, often through a life-changing moment of emotional intensity, we come to understand what homosexuality really is. Then the guilt and misconceptions are transformed, and we experience relief and joy. We have gone through the dark night, through the way of purgation, and discovered a whole new world and new self-concept.

The dark night is an image from a poem by St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic. To one who sees the gay slant, this poem is an account of an anonymous sexual encounter that results in a mystical experience.

It tells how John sneaks out late at night in disguise and goes to a deserted spot outside the city walls and there meets a man, makes love with him, then realizes that this is Christ making love to him and he goes into a swoon. He wakes to find himself and his Beloved lying in a field of lilies, an allusion to one of the loveliest of Jesus’ sayings: Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, yet even King Solomon in all his glory was not adorned as one of them.

Gay men go through that darkness as a necessary part of being who we are. And thus we potentially see the mystical message behind religion. We potentially discover what St. John of the Cross was talking about: in every man we meet, especially those we have sex with or fall in love with, we can see Christ. Indeed, this is what “Christ” means: the real divinity of human incarnate life, here and now. As Jesus said, “What you do to the least of my brothers, that you do to Me.” And also: “The Kingdom of God is spread across the face of the Earth, and men do not see it.” The trick is to open our eyes.

This is not the wisdom of family values which is understandably concerned with maintaining the status quo, holding on to certainty, protecting the nest for the sake of the children. But precisely because, as gay, we don’t fit into the status quo, we don’t experience certainty and righteousness, we potentially have available to us the mystical vision of the dark night.  We can open our eyes and see in the darkness.

The Dark Night*
By St. John of the Cross

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

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.

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.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

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.

*From The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, rev. ed., Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991.

+Toby Johnson, PhD, gay spiritual writer, novelist, former editor of White Crane Journal, freelance editor/publisher was a student and personal friend of the renowned comparative religions scholar Joseph Campbell.


  1. I was so happy to see your posting on the EDS blog. I am an EDS alum and also a long time employee. As a gay man, I have been a big fan of your work for many years and had no idea you had any connection to EDS! Thank you!

  2. As a gay man, I am sympathetic with your point of view. However, I think your interpetation of John of the Cross's great poem is too literal. This poem stands in the long tradition of interpreting the imagery of the Song of Songs as depicting the relationship between Christ and the soul. John's encounter is not an anonymous gay encounter. Else, why would he speak of himself in the feminine -- "transforming the beloved in her Lover"? Rather, he sees his soul as feminine encountering Christ's masculine. What is interesting to me is that many great male spiritual writers have relished in describing their relationship with God in terms of loving a man. Perhaps we men who find ourselves so connected with our feminine dimensions have a special gift of more readily receiving the eros of God. I agree with your larger point, that we gay men often have a great capacity for mysticism.
    - David

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