The Dark Night of the soul has several stages. The first is the detachment from sin willfully committed, especially mortal sin. This requires a “darkening” of the intellect on our part: that we cease to view sinful things as good, and recognize them for what they are: evil. This requires effort and oftentimes disgust with the consequences of sin. It also requires, before any of that, the light of God’s grace to penetrate our conception of reality. This is why He oftentimes allows those consequences when we go down the wrong path and suffer for our own mistakes. It can take many attempts on His part to break us free, since we tend to be stubborn and prideful, the root of all sin.
The next stage is seeking to practice virtue, which is the beginning of our ascent. We encounter opposition: from our sinful nature, from the world, and, sadly, from those who are around us and want us to be “the way we used to be”. At this point, our hearts are being broken up between the high aspiration to be good and the concupiscence that is the result of original sin and our own past choices. Yet, God is even more active in us now, as each victory elevates us a little bit more, and each fall, if seen in the light of faith, provides us with new information about what “not” to do.
Spiritual lights can begin to shine and enlighten us in this stage, but often in brief glimpses. Yet, they remain at the level of the imagination and the senses: good in themselves, but not the end of the journey. They are like little missives from heaven about what awaits us, pale in comparison to the reality, but good. The danger on this level is thinking that we’ve somehow already “made it” because we no longer commit big sins, even if we are blind to the little faults that can precipitate a later, larger fall. Caution must be taken that we are not safe until heaven, and humility must be the basic virtue to keep us on the path. Humility, with a mix of a developing trust that God certainly does want us to be saints with Him in heaven. That trust begins to require more and more effort on our part, because we can see more and more faults as we get closer to the light, and feel as if we are backsliding. That’s a good thing in so far as it keeps us humble; it’s a danger if we get discouraged, which is the principal tactic of the devil at this point. His voice is often very clear: it’s not worth it; just give up; why are trying so hard?, life could be easier if you just go along with the world. The clear voice of the devil is allowed by God in certain moments so that we will see that he, the devil, is always trying to lure us off the path, and not just when we “hear” the voice of discouragement.
As we progress in the spiritual life, care is needed that we rely more directly on God for growth (even though He is responsible for all progress), because the sensual awareness of God is not really directly from God. Since He is beyond our senses, we cannot really sense Him. This sense of His presence is a result of a spiritual grace that has already touched our innermost soul and spirit. His presence is always there in the soul filled with sanctifying grace, but He does not always show Himself to our intellect, much less to our senses.
If we get caught in the sensual perception of God, we remain stunted, for God is far greater than our ability to feel Him. We have to take steps to withdraw from those sense feelings of Him, and this is done by fidelity to prayer for set times and methods. It can happen that when the sense feelings of God’s presence cease, we will be tempted to stop praying or trying. The rhythm of the Church’s liturgy understands this, which is why the Liturgy of the Hours is so regular, and that we are called to formal prayer at least once a week at Sunday Mass, and even daily if our schedule permits.
At a certain point, God withdraws from our senses, and begins to draw us more spiritually. He takes over, as it were, and grants us graces that are not sensible. We may not even realize that He is doing this, but prayer can become routine; meditation can be dry; thoughts of heaven seen unreal and unrealistic.
The true “dark night” is when our minds themselves cannot clearly focus on a thought about God. The apparent absence of God is like the darkness that Abraham felt when He offered the sacrifice and was overtaken by a dark fear. The exterior sacrifice was necessary, for God commanded it, but it was only a prelude to a deeper communion with Him.
So, our senses no longer feel God’s presence; our minds no longer focus on Him. That’s a good thing, even though it can cause tremendous suffering interiorly. We are still like little children, and our souls cry out and we “believe” we are not being heard. Faith in its purest form begins to actuate our souls and spirits. Since God is not just beyond our senses, He is beyond our imagination and our intellectual capacity. Even the angels are struck by His Glory and can only cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” There is nothing more to be said.
This process can take years to develop, or in some few chosen souls, a matter of an instant. Saint Paul received such a “blast” of divine inspiration, as a reminder in his person of the absolute Gift that is knowledge of Christ. But even Saint Paul had to go through the rest of his life in faith, and still underwent sufferings of soul and body before he was to accomplish his mission.
God is present everywhere and in everything. Logic and faith know this, but the ultimate knowledge of God is what He gives us when He wills and when He has prepared us for that moment.