January 2009


Next in the queue for Catholic Company book reviews on this blog is The Apostles by Pope Benedict the XIV, illustrated edition.  Of course it’s a good book, you don’t need me to tell you that.  I’ll read the whole thing anyway before I post my review — though SuperHusband says it is worth owning just for the pictures.  (Fantabulous art, mostly renaissance, some earlier, some later.)  But I wanted to go ahead and let you know about it, because it was a real pleasure to be reading the holy father’s comments on the calling of the apostles at the same time as we were hitting those texts in the daily and Sunday mass readings.

–>  So, point of this post is to say: If you’ve been following along with the church in the Bible readings, and you were planning to pick up this book sooner or later, go ahead and do it sooner, while the relevant texts are still fresh in your mind.  Much happiness.

[If you’re undecided, you can wait a few weeks or so for my review, in which I’ll probably go tell you to buy the book anyway.]

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Dark Night of the Soul

St. John of the Cross

Translated by David Lewis

Edited and with an introduction by Benedict Zimmerman, O.C.D.

Saint Benedict Press Classics, 2008

So as you may recall, I was somewhat wary of selecting this book for my next review for the Catholic Company, what with the perennial concern that I was choosing something too advanced for me. It is one thing to have been meaning to read a book for six months and suddenly discover you can get your very own copy for free; it is another to find yourself committed to actually reading the book.

So I did what any thorough housewife faced with the prospect of reviewing a work of classic catholic literature would do, I borrowed a copy from my nearest carmelite playdate hostess, to preview before signing up. The version I was lent was part of a collected works edition translated by Kiernan Kavanaugh & Otilio Rodriguez – a more recent translation than the version I was slated to review. My first thought on reading those opening lines of the Dark Night one otherwise too-quiet evening in November? Ho, now, Saint John! Have mercy on us married ladies!

Ahem. St. John, of course, being a person whose use of analogies concerning the marital embrace, are, well, strictly analogies. Some of us, in contrast, when we read words like “fired with love’s urgent longings” or “upon my flowering breast which I kept wholly for him alone”, find our minds firmly in the earthly half of that most excellent mystery which is our vocation. Oh dear. Thoughts of terror at having to show up at a book study of the Dark Night led by my parish priest.

Two bits of good news:

  1. After that initial bit of opening poetry, the rest of the book is much more what you were expecting.
  2. The St. Benedict Press translation by David Lewis (the one I’m reviewing) uses much tamer language in its rendering of the St. John’s poem – if you do get the chance to study this book with someone other than your spouse, this older, more subdued translation is the way to go.

[And more good news: if you are the kind of person who blushes at reading the Kavanaugh & Rodriguez translation, probably means you’ve successfully cleaned out your media diet. Good for you.]

So what will you find in the book?

There is of course the short opening poem, an allegory for the dark night of soul, reminiscent of the Song of Songs, only with more darkness and no gazelle metaphors. After which follows twenty-five mostly-short chapters which can be divided into three general sections:

First, are some general comments on the hazards of the spiritual life. Specifically oriented towards pointing out those pitfalls into which beginners fall – spiritual pride, sloth, envy, etc. The advice is practical and spot-on; if you didn’t know you were born a few centuries too late for it, you might get that squirming feeling St. John had you in mind as he wrote his observations. Describing those beginners who fall into spiritual pride, for example, he writes:

Sometimes, also, when their spiritual masters, such as confessors and superiors, do not approve of their spirit and conduct – for they [the beginners] wish to be praised and considered for what they do – they decide that they are not understood, and that their superiors are not spiritual men because they do not approve and sanction their proceedings.

And here’s an amusing conclusion to a long exploration of anger due to impatience with one’s progress:

There are some people, however, who are so patient, and advance so slowly in their spiritual progress, that God wishes they were not so patient.

[Your hostess looks around, whistling innocently.]  If neither of those have you pegged, keep reading – somewhere in these opening chapters you’ll probably find yourself.

Makes a good examination of conscience, and an unexpectedly thorough one.  What surprised me most – and this gives you an idea of how practical St. John is –  in using the seven deadly sins as an outline for examining the problems beginners face, St. John of the Cross includes a chapter on spiritual lust (translated ‘luxury’ in this edition, fyi). In describing the problem he explains:

. . . in the midst of their spiritual exercises, and when they cannot help themselves, the impure movements and disturbances of sensuality are felt; and sometimes even when the mind is absorbed in prayer, or when they are receiving the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. These movements, not being in their power, proceed from on of three sources. . . .

And from there you get some very straightforward advice about why this might be happening, and what to think about it.

After this section, St. John moves into the heart of the book, which is a description of the dark night of the soul. The dark night, for those who don’t know, is a time of extreme spiritual dryness. Extreme to the point of feeling entirely depraved, hopeless, abandoned by God – and yet wanting nothing more than to please God, to the point of being willing to suffer anything at all so long as it be God’s will.

Dark Night of the Soul is the seminal work on this topic, and St. John is thorough. In chapter after chapter (most of them are pretty short), we learn what the dark night is like, how to distinguish the dark night from ordinary depression or slothfulness, how the dark night presents itself, why and how it comes and goes, and so forth. Might be titled Your Guide to Spiritual Desolation – though from the sound of it, if you’re in the midst of it, no amount of You Are Here signs will help.

The Dark Night (the book) is abstract in the sense that it deals with a spiritual situation, and so there is little in the way of concrete, physical sorts things to discuss. And this, if you’ve never experienced the dark night nor known someone who has, might leave you a bit curious, and a bit wanting to see the problem fleshed out, so to speak. For that reason, you might consider reading a book such as St. Therese’s Story of a Soul, or the biography of Mother Theresa on this topic Come Be My Light, or some other similar biography that gives you a specific person experiencing the dark night to serve as an example to illustrate. (St. John never describes specific people – this is not one of those “I had a penitent once who . . .” kind of books.)

Finally, the book concludes with a catalog of the benefits of this spiritual purgation. Enough to almost make you want to suffer the dark night, if you’ve lately gotten rather sick of your still-decrepit soul. Hopeful stuff: there is a purpose to this suffering, and your eternal happiness is that purpose.  Do keep reading through to the end, so you don’t miss the good news.

**

You may be still wondering what I was wondering before I got the book: Is this book to hard for me? and, perhaps Should I ask Lent-a-Claus to give me this one for Ash Wednesday*?

Here are my thoughts, I being a person with no qualifications as a spiritual director, nor any particular knowledge of this topic; my only qualification is that I am a lowly catholic layperson who tried it myself:

1. The quotes I excerpted above are typical of the text. If you are comfortable reading at that level, you’re good. This translation is an older one – originally published in 1916 – and although the editors have americanized the text and made some other minor edits, the text reads with the academic thoughtfulness of that era. I think that’s a strength (see my comments about that opening bit of poetry above), but it does give a less punchy, more measured pace to the reading.

[Also note that if you happen to read spanish, you may appreciate that the translator occasionally puts the original text in the footnotes, presumably where doing so would be useful.]

2. In my opinion, you really need to have spent a good bit of time attempting the christian life before you jump into this book. If you are freshly converted and still enjoying the excitement and pure pleasure of new life in Christ, and haven’t really been made yet to struggle, as a christian, with yourself and with God, I’m not sure the book is going to make a lot of sense. It may be a bit beyond anything you’ve ever experienced to date, and leave you kind of puzzled.

[For the same reason, given that many of my readers may not experienced the dark night itself first hand, I again recommend that you either read concurrently or have read before the biography of some saint who did so.]

–> I do think this is a book non-catholic Christians could appreciate. I haven’t asked the SuperHusband (our resident protestant) to give it a test-read, but for the most part I found the book to be strictly “Christian” in tone, not dripping with catholic-isms that would be off-putting to a non-catholic. Certainly the existence of purgatory is taken for granted, but I think any protestant who believes in a process of ‘sanctification’ – that is, of actually being transformed from sinner into saint, rather than merely re-labled – will find this book resonates with that reality. You could agree to disagree on when and where that process is generally completed. If you’re a protestant comfortable enough with catholicism to read a catholic blog, you could probably take what is good from The Dark Night and charitably set aside this or that occasional theological difference with the author.

3. The chapters are shortish, and there are about twenty five of them, plus a little introductory material. Each chapter, though, is chock full of meaty stuff to contemplate. You really need quiet time to read this book. Even if you are the sort of person who thinks nothing of reading most books while simultaneously supervising ten children, knitting a hat, and making a month of dinners, this book is the exception. Plan to sit down without interruptions and give it your full attention while you read. For these reasons, Dark Night of the Soul would make an excellent book for Lent. Figure you’ll spend maybe fifteen minutes a night reading a chapter; if you allow for some nights that you just can’t get to it, the book should fill your Lent nicely without being too much to handle.

**

So, in summary, of course it’s a good book. Not an easy book; this is spiritual training, not spiritual strolling on the beach. But a good one. If you are at the right point in your christian life, this is worth your attention.

*Ha! are you trying to tell me all you get is ashes in your stocking, or, er, on your forehead, for Lent?! Goodness, you need to spend more time at your local catholic bookstore.  (Or if you lack one, trolling your favorite catholic internet retailer.)  And unlike other holidays, you don’t have to be a good little girl or boy to get something for Lent – indeed, we already know you aren’t really good enough yet, that’s why we have Lent . . .