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Excerpted from Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore. Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Moore. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Putnam, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.

"The dark times, too, like enlightenments and achievements, leave their mark and make you a person of insight and compassion."

  Thomas Moore
Dark Nights of the Soul

Part 3

The phrase "dark night of the soul" comes from the Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross (15411597). John was a member of the Christian religious order of Carmelites and, along with St. Teresa of Avila, tried to reform that order. Many in the order were so against reform that they imprisoned John for eight months, during which he wrote a series of remarkable poems. His later writing is chiefly commentary on those poems, one of them entitled "Dark Night of the Soul."

John writes about the night of the senses and the night of the spirit. The first phase is a purifying of intention and motivation, the second a process of living by radical faith and trust. John's work is used especially by those who devote themselves seriously to cultivating a spiritual life through community, meditation, and various forms of service. Less technically, the term sometimes refers to depression or to bleak and trying periods in a person's life.

In my use of the phrase, I fall somewhere in between. I see a dark night of the soul as a period of transformation. It is more like a stage in alchemy than an obstacle to happiness. Usually it lasts a while – you wouldn't call a day's worry a dark night of the soul. It doesn't always end happily with some new personal discovery. In fact, we will see several examples of people who committed suicide or succumbed to illness. To appreciate these episodes as transformations in the soul, you can't judge them by any simple, external measure. You have to look deep and close, understanding that you can make significant gains by going through a challenge, and yet it's not always obvious how you benefited from the darkness. Sometimes a dark night makes sense because of what it contributes to others, not what it does for you.


I am always slow to label difficult emotions as sick. Usually I would rather see them as trials that make you more of a person. I keep in mind the many men and women of the past I admire, who were complicated, who were neither whole nor healthy. You will find many such people described in this book and held up as models, even though their imperfections and failures showed luminously in their lives. In general, I place a higher value on soulfulness than on health and propriety.

One chapter of my book Care of the Soul in particular made an impression on many readers – "Gifts of Depression." I have learned from many sources – ancient medical books, thoughtful artists and writers, and the work of C. G. Jung and James Hillman – to value visitations of melancholy and sadness. I tried to be specific about the rewards that can come from depressive moods. As overwhelming and distressing as it is, what we call depression is, after all, a human experience, tied to all the other meaningful events in your life. You do a disservice to yourself when you treat your feelings of despair and emptiness as deviations from the normal and healthy life you idealize. The dark times, too, like enlightenments and achievements, leave their mark and make you a person of insight and compassion.

This book begins with some strong images from ancient ritual and religion. People of the far distant past knew secrets to dealing with trying times that have been forgotten; the image of the night sea journey, the notion of catharsis, rituals to help with life's passages, and a moon spirit with rather unholy but helpful blessings. Then we look at intelligence and love, how to think and how to be connected, as important lessons to learn from a dark night. Finally, we consider various aspects of ordinary life in which a dark night of the soul might well appear: in attempts to be creative and our need for beauty, in anger and in those times when we "lose it"; in illness and in old age. Each of these experiences might spawn a special kind of dark night.

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