The Desert and the Dark Night

Spirituality and Pastoral Care

Spirituality and Pastoral Care

In the Christian tradition, there are two symbols which recur frequently in the literature of contemplative prayer: the symbols of Desert and of Dark Night. The Desert symbol spans the spiritual history of the people of God from Abraham’s movement into unknown territory, through the wanderings in the wilderness, the desert movement of the early church, to Charles de Foucauld and the revival of desert spirituality in the twentieth century. It stands for the realities of purity, of simplicity, of conflict, and of revelation. The Dark Night, a term popularized by St John of the Cross, takes up the symbolism of darkness from the eastern tradition of negative theology. It stands for the life of faith, and specifically for the point in the journey when words and concepts have run their course, and one enters a dark night. Together the symbols of Desert and Dark Night accurately represent the spiritual path beyond the limitations of language, a path calling us to a radical purification and to an encounter with darkness.

— Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care

What do you think Ken Leech means when he speaks of a “radical purification”? I don’t think he’s calling for some sort of interiorized piety, where I selfishly engage in some sort of internal self-restraint in order to present myself without blemish to God. That’s how it seems so many people understand “purity” and “purification” which have all but become code words for sexual abstinence. I think Leech is after something more holistic in its fidelity to the fullness of Christ’s teachings: loving God and loving neighbor. I think such a purification is not just about our relationship with our bodies, but also our relationship with our neighbors (all our neighbors, not just the ones we like!), with money, with material goods, and with privilege.

Seen that way, such a “radical purification” sounds like an utter dying-to-self. Which, after all, is what we signed up for in our baptism. I’m not trying to preach here so much as trying to confess my own timidity and resistance to where the love of God might be calling me. Such a call, frankly, frightens me. The desert and the darkness, after all, are scary places. And yet part of the reason why it scares me so is because I recognize that this is precisely where I am called to go. “Take up your cross.” May God help us as we respond to the call to enter these places of utter transformation.

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Life is a Pilgrimage — So Embrace the Journey
  • Julian

    I think the whole notion of a “dark night” has taken on many connotations that may not apply. At its simplest, I see our dark nights as those crucial transition periods where we are transformed below the threshold of consciousness, prepared for a whole new way of relating to God and neighbor wherein the previous rules we’ve become familiar with no longer apply. The journey is “dark” because we are being led beyond the only horizons we’ve ever known. Once we’ve exhausted all the means we employ to escape the pain of inevitable loss of meaning, direction, of our narratives dissolving before our mind’s eye, and attend to the only thing we can attend to–the “no-thing” of God, in silence, beyond all concepts, perceptions, and feelings–then we can allow ourselves to be ushered through more gracefully.

    I still think we face the same issue today that John of the Cross railed at in his own day, which is: the lack of competency among would-be directors in discerning the dark night and encouraging those undergoing such nights to simply relax into non-doing. As Christians, generally, I think we still tend to be so fixated on thinking/feeling/doing that, when we’ve exhausted these as a means to God as it were, we are at a loss to give ourselves permission to simply let God lead without our thinking/feeling/doing mucking up his work!

    • kathryn

      Thank you for your insights. They ring true for me.

  • Sr.Sheila Patenaude, fmm

    I think the desert and dark night can certainly lead to a radical transformation–as long as we are open to the grace mediated through them, the suffering and emptiness that accompany them.

    One problem might be in taking these symbols too literally. I myself live in a desert area of the USA, so am really looking forward to the green trees and ocean of California when I visit my family there next month! The desert CAN become routine and “old hat”, if we don’t use it –to speak parodoxically–as a living fountain of grace and living water!

    Likewise, the darkness of night time is two-sided. It can be oppressive, lonely, saddening, painful–or it can become a fountain of LIGHT! Much depends on how open we are to God and His Spirit speakaing to use through these two very rich symbols.

  • suzanne

    I’m trying hard to remember where it was I recently read that “purity of heart” means an undivided heart. (A heart open focused, present to God.) I know that you were speaking of “radical purification”, and since I have not read this book by Leech, perhaps Leech is speaking of something altogether different, that purity of heart!

    Continued appreciatiation for you blog, Carl.


    • Carl McColman

      I think your image of an undivided heart might be very much in line with where Leech is trying to take us.

  • Max Sabellius

    I think that the radical purification is a casting off of shackles; then we are able to take flight. Shackles like the daily cares and toils that dim our vision. When we land, when we touch down – we are finally alone and free … in the darkness and in the quiet whispering wind. We are enabled to hear the still small voice.

    Good gawd … I’ve got to get back to the country! And soon. Too many freeways every day. First time commenter. A friend sent me here.