This is an excerpt from The Dark Night of the Spirit by John of the Cross:
The soul does not immediately progress from the night of the senses into the night of the spirit. It may be years—for some, perhaps, never. As a prisoner released from captivity, the soul enjoys a greater sense of satisfaction and freedom. Meditation and anxiety of the spirit no longer bind him.
. . . it now very readily finds in its spirit the most serene and loving contemplation and spiritual sweetness without the labour of meditations; although, as the purgation of the soul is not complete . . . it is never without certain occasional necessities, aridities, darknesses and perils which are sometimes much more intense than those of the past, for they are as tokens and heralds of the coming night of the spirit, and are not of as long duration as will be the night which is to come (Dark Night of the Soul. Trans. E. Allison Peers. Ed. P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, C.D. New York: Doubleday, 1990, 91-92).
IMPERFECTIONS THAT BELONG TO PROFICIENTS
The soul, having yet to be completely perfected through the night of the spirit, retains two types of imperfections: habitual and actual.
Habitual imperfections are like roots that run so deeply that the purgation of the senses is unable to reach them. For the purgation of the senses is only a precursor to the purgation of the spirit, accommodating sense to spirit rather than uniting spirit with God.
But there still remain in the spirit the stains of the old man, although the spirit thinks not that this is so, neither can it perceive them; if these stains be not removed with the soap and strong lye of the purgation of this night, the spirit will be unable to come to the purity of Divine union (John 93-94).
Another habitual imperfection is the hebetudo mentis (deadening of the mind) or a natural roughness contracted through sin, which cannot co-exist with the perfect union with God.
Actual imperfections vary, depending on the soul. Those with a more shallow spirituality may still struggle greatly with pride and Lucifer’s deceitful ways:
. . . wherein they oftentimes see imaginary and spiritual visions (for all these things, together with other delectable feelings, come to many souls in this state, wherein the devil and their own fancy very commonly practice deception on them), and, as the devil is apt to take such pleasure in impressing upon the soul and suggesting to it the said apprehensions and feelings, he fascinates and deludes it with great ease . . . (John 94).
Vanity takes hold of the soul and convinces him that he is seeing visions and false prophecies, presuming that God and the saints are communicating with him. He is apt to perform outward acts such as raptures and other demonstrations of holiness.
Thus, they become bold with God, and lose holy fear, which is the key and the custodian of all the virtues; and in some of these souls so many are the falsehoods and deceits which tend to multiply, and so inveterate do they grow, that it is very doubtful if such souls will return to the pure road of virtue and true spirituality (John 95).
GRIEF AND TORMENT
During the dark night of the spirit, God immerses Himself into the soul, purging it from all ignorance and imperfections, in a process known as “infused contemplation” or “mystical theology.” God works silently and unnoticed, teaching the soul in the ways of perfection of love, without the soul’s awareness or need for any action on the soul’s part.
Inasmuch as it is the loving wisdom of God, God produces striking effects in the soul, for, by purging and illumining it, He prepares it for the union of love with God. Wherefore the same loving wisdom that purges the blessed spirits and enlightens them is that which here purges the soul and illumines it (John 100).
It may seem contradictory to refer to such an illumination as a dark night. However, for the soul, this Divine Wisdom is not only darkness, but affliction and torment as well. Our souls are weak and incapable of observing God, much like our eyes that are blinded if we look directly at the sun.
In the same way, when this Divine light of contemplation assails the soul which is not yet wholly enlightened, it causes spiritual darkness in it; for not only does it overcome it, but likewise it overwhelms it and darkens the act of its natural intelligence. . . when God sends it out from Himself to the soul that is not yet transformed, this illumining ray of His secret wisdom causes thick darkness in the understanding (John 101).
Pain comes from the inconsistency between the miseries of the soul that cannot coexist with the perfection of God. The two battle against each other, causing excruciating torment for the unworthy soul. Dark and impure as he is, the soul suffers tremendously when he receives the light and wisdom of infused contemplation.
And when the soul suffers the direct assault of this Divine light, its pain, which results from its impurity, is immense; because, when this pure light assails the soul, in order to expel its impurity, the soul feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God. This causes it sore grief and pain, because it now believes that God has cast it away . . . (John 102).
The soul can now see its imperfections clearly and recognizes his unworthiness. The pain increases as the soul is given knowledge of his evils and miseries, perceiving that he will never be worthy or free of pain, again. His spiritual weakness is no match for the Divine contemplation, causing the soul to nearly faint away from the powerful force that subdues him.
This is especially so at certain times when it is assailed with somewhat greater force; for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death (John 103).
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”