Night of the Sense and Night of the Spirit


Q: I recently read Fr. Daniel Renaud's article on "Desire and Everyday Mysticism" and I see that over 25 years of Christian life I started on the positive way with lots of consolation and wonder, along with a daily experience of the transformative way. When I felt called to practice Centering Prayer, I started listening to Fr. Keating's “The Spiritual Journey” series and began to practice. Much to my dismay, I fell immediately into the Dark Night (the negative way). After several years of Dark Night and slow emergence, I did not "wake up to find that the ocean of nothingness [of the Dark Night] is the ocean of God's invincible and unconditional love in you, and you have become everything, including God and all creation" (as Fr. Keating describes); for the first time in 25 years of Christian faith, I don't have confidence that God is a reliable foundation for my daily personal life. I am concerned that if I have somehow and failed to this first round of the Dark Night I may need to adjust some underlying attitude or practice in order to make space to regain or rebuild my relationship with God. Do you have any guidance or resources that might help? 


A: Your fidelity to the spiritual journey as it unfolds in your life and your search for wisdom is a pure gift even if at times it does not feel like it. You are consenting to God’s presence and action in your life, trusting beyond your own understanding. I encourage you to read Fr. Keating’s book Invitation to Love, especially the chapters on the Night of the Sense and the Night of the Spirit to see how they can apply to your own experience.

The Night of Sense and then the Night of Spirit are ongoing processes, always recycling, always going deeper and gradually moving one to transformation. It seems that you have experienced the Night of Sense and are now being drawn into the Night of Spirit. What are the fruits of the Night of the Spirit?

1. Freedom from the temptation to assume a glamorous role because of our spiritual gifts or charisms.

2. Freedom of domination of any emotion.  

3. Purification of our idea of God.  

4. Profound purification of our attitudes about the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.  

5. A longing to let go of the selfishness that still lingers in us and to be free of every obstacle that might hinder our growth in divine union.

Please take the time to ponder those fruits. I found them so helpful in my own journey.


My friend Cynthia Bourgeault commented: “[Our friend] seems to be confusing the Dark Night of the Sense — moving beyond spiritual consolations, an early and in fact blessed purification — with the much deeper and later Dark Night of the Spirit, with its profound disorientation and relocation of one’s fundamental sense of selfhood. In fact, in a very healthy way, it seems that her concept of God is growing. She’s simply moving beyond being able to find pleasure and confidence by telling her old stories about God—in fact, based strongly in emotional consolation—and moving on to a more immediate awakening to the perception of God as a simple enfolding presence she doesn’t have words for. [My advice to her is]: Be truly present to where you are right now. This is not a falling away, but a joyous presence along a route that virtually all maturing spiritual seekers have traveled.”


To use Fr. Thomas’ words in Invitation to Love: “The way of pure faith is to persevere in contemplative practice without worrying about where we are on the journey … we can be spared all this nonsense if we surrender ourselves to the divine action, whatever the psychological content of prayer may be. In pure faith, the results are often hidden even from those who are growing the most.”


You are on the right track. Be aware that the nights are not done with you. The only thing one can be absolutely sure is that whatever we expect to happen will not happen. God is not bound by our ideas; we have to take the leap of trust into the unknown. Keep faithful to your Centering prayer practice as Fr.Thomas himself encouraged Centering Prayer practitioners to do “all I can say is persevere – keep doing it.” I would add, trust the spiritual process and let God love you.


I hope this was a help – please let me know.

Blessings, Fr Carl