Nine Levels of Christian Prayer

How does one advance in prayer?

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The Dark Night of the Senses

Most people are familiar with the work of St. John of the Cross called "The Dark Night." However, not many have actually read it or really understand what he means by "Dark Night." First, there are actually two Dark Nights: the Dark Night of Sense and the Dark Night of the Soul (or Spirit). The first forms the bridge between the purgative and illuminative ways and the second is the bridge between the illuminative and unitive ways of prayer.

Unfortunately, "Dark Night" has become a term used very loosely to designate any difficult or depressing time in life. But this is not the meaning St. John of the Cross gives to "Dark Night." These two stages are not brought about by external events, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. Instead, they are brought about by God alone, who uses the Dark Nights to purge the soul of attachments to the things of this world.

Let us look at the first Dark Night, that of the senses. As said previously, this stage of prayer forms the bridge between the fourth and fifth levels of prayer, or between the purgative and illuminative ways. At this stage, God becomes the primary initiator of prayer, not man. Whereas in the purgative way, man's primary duty is to actively cooperate with grace, at this level, man's duty is to be passively receptive to grace.

But what does the Dark Night of Senses consist of? Primarily it involves a prolonged series of aridities in which the soul experiences dryness in prayer. It is a painful state that tests the soul to see if it desires prayer for the consolations or because it desires God Himself. At this stage, the ability to meditate becomes difficult, even painful, as no fruit comes from it and the Holy Spirit wants to move the soul from meditation to contemplation.

Why is this painful stage necessary? Why is it the bridge between the purgative and illuminative ways? It is necessary so that the soul can be purged of defects that still exist within it, defects which prevent the soul from being passively receptive to God's grace. Note that at this stage the person is very spiritual and is basically living a life of virtue. But that does not mean that the soul does not still have defects that keep it from God. What are some of these defects? There are three primary ones:

(a) Spiritual Gluttony: the soul has an inordinate attachment to consolations and begins to see them as ends, not means to the end.

(b) Spiritual Sloth: a laziness which creeps into the soul in which it does not strive for perfection anymore but is content with mediocrity in the spiritual life.

(c) Spiritual Pride: Since at this stage one is truly advancing in virtue, it is easy to become spiritually proud and to look down on others. But of course pride is the worst of sins and keeps one away from God.

This stage too is a spiritually dangerous one, perhaps the most dangerous of them all. Up to this Dark Night the soul has advanced in virtue, holiness and prayer. Yet at this stage it appears that one is backsliding: consolations disappear, temptations become greater and meditation dries up. So a person might flee from the Dark Night and regress into lower levels of prayer. The proper response to this temptation to regress, however, is renewing your trust in God, continuing to utilize acquired recollection in prayer, abstaining from seeking consolation, and seeking counsel from a good spiritual director.

If one does make it through the Dark Night of Senses, then he can move into the illuminative way of prayer, in which God becomes the primary initiator of prayer.

Previous Page: The Purgative Way, Levels 3 and 4Next Page: The Illuminative Way




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