53: Night of Sense: The Biblical Desert, Part 1

Photo by Daniel Jensen

In Part 4 of our program, Contemplation: The Divine Therapy, Fr. Thomas introduces us to the Christian model of growth and transformation, the heart of which is contemplative prayer. By using the modern sciences and the language of psychology to introduce the spiritual journey in Parts 1 – 3, he has translated the Christian spiritual journey in a way that makes it more understandable and palatable for our time. While the Christian model may use unfamiliar language, be assured that the experiences of the mystics and the saints that have gone before us are the same as ours. Fr. Thomas’ teaching helps us to reframe the language to make it meaningful for us today.

“The Dark Night of the Soul” is the great teaching of St. John of the Cross, influenced by his mentor and spiritual guide, St. Teresa of Avila. According to Gerald May in his book The Dark Night of the Soul, “when Teresa and John speak of the soul, they are not talking about something a person has, but who a person most deeply is: the essential nature of a human being.” He goes on to say, “Centuries before Freud ‘discovered’ the unconscious, contemplatives…had a profound appreciation that there is an active life of the soul that goes on beneath our awareness. It is to this unconscious dimension of the spiritual life that Teresa and John refer when they use the term ‘dark.’”

Fr. Thomas introduces us to two aspects of the Dark Night, the night of sense and the night of spirit. In the Session 53 video, he focuses on the night of sense which brings about the dismantling of the emotional programs. The first sign that we are experiencing the night of sense is a generalized aridity in both prayer and daily life, an experience of God’s absence rather than God’s presence. We might feel as if something has gone wrong in our prayer life, which is the second sign we are in this night. In the video Fr. Thomas says, “…in the night of sense, when we experience dryness in our relationships with God, we also experience a lack of satisfaction in these former means by which we desperately sought for happiness or pleasure.” This is the beginning of the dismantling of the emotional programs. We begin to realize that God alone can satisfy our boundless longing for happiness, thus the third sign, our desire to be alone with God even though God seems to be a million miles away.

“God helps us to disidentify from our preconceived ideas by enlightening us from within by the contemplative gifts of the Spirit. Through the infusion of his light and the assurance of his love, he lets us in on our weaknesses and deficiencies – not to overwhelm us with discouragement, but to encourage us to entrust ourselves completely to his infinite mercy.”

– Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love


Thus, the divine therapy begins in earnest.

A Meditation

The Dark Night of the Soul
St. John of the Cross

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me—
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

To Practice
  • View the video excerpt “The Night of Sense: The Biblical Desert – Part 1” which is about 25 minutes in length.
  • Sometimes people use the term “dark night of the soul” to mean an experience of bad or hard times in life. Gerald May says, “The dark night is a profoundly good thing. It is an ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions and empowered to live and love more freely… The darkness of the night implies nothing sinister, only that the liberation takes place in hidden ways, beneath our knowledge and understanding…mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control…[and] always works to our benefit.” Reflect on the teaching in this session’s video – this journey God leads us through to dismantle these emotional programs – alongside the poem, The Dark Night of the Soul. Do you see the profound goodness in where God is taking us, even if painful?


“Night of Sense: The Biblical Desert, Part 1” excerpted from The Spiritual Journey Series Part 4, 27 mins.
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Audio for this Narrative

“Night of Sense: The Biblical Desert, Part 1” excerpted from The Spiritual Journey Series Part 4, 27 mins.
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Resources for Further Study:

You may wish to read Chapter 11 – 14 in Invitation to Love (20th anniversary edition), Chapters 10 – 13 in older editions.

You also may wish to read The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May.

Additional Resources