Questions Answered

Saints who experienced the dark night of the soul: (l-r) Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila.

Question: Can you explain to me just what is referred to as the “dark night of the
soul” in the mystical life? Should all Christians experience these?

Answer: The question of the dark night of the soul is central to any description of the progress of the soul in prayer. To understand what the mystical authors, especially Teresa of Avila, mean by this it is important to keep in mind that it is a part of a much longer process of the ascent of the soul in prayer to experience a deeper union with God.

Catholic spirituality has traditionally divided this ascent into three great stages, called “three ages,” by analogy with physical life. Grace is spiritual life in the soul, as it is the divine indwelling of the Trinity. Scholasticism calls it a created habit in the essence of the soul by which man participates in the very nature of God. This is expressed scripturally in 2 Peter 1:4 where it is stated that by grace, man becomes: “a partaker in divine nature.” The three ages of the spiritual life in which one participates more and more psychologically in the unity of the Trinity are: the purgative way (“spiritual childhood”), the illuminative way (“spiritual adolescence”) and the unitive way (“spiritual maturity”).

The dark nights of the soul characterize the experience of the second great way of prayer, the illuminative way. They presuppose what is called “acquired contemplation” or “active purification” of the soul developed in the purgative way. This is not based, nor dependent on, methods of prayer, or strange phenomena. Spiritual authors tell us that the primary experience of the purgative way is actually the rooting out of faults, and assiduous desire to grow in the virtues of one’s state in everyday life. This culminates in meditation. This involves the understanding of something God has done for the soul, the union of love which this causes, and an accompanying action step which practically underlies the works of the virtues, common to the ordinary generosity of daily life.

Once one has experienced this, the soul is ripe for the second great way of prayer—the illuminative way. God takes the soul at its word in cooperating with grace, and begins to act in the soul through the sanctifying gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is no longer one’s acting in a human way, but in a divine way. One must emphasize that this is NOT produced by human effort, but an action on the part of God himself. The first thing that happens is that a person who has perhaps enjoyed consolation, and emotional satisfaction, finds that these end abruptly. This is called the dark night of the senses.

The person feels that their soul is a desert. Mother Teresa, for example, expressed this condition in her spiritual journal by saying: “I feel aridity, darkness, solitude, torture. I sense silence, and a deep void within.” The feeling of divine desertion is crucifying. If the person perseveres through such a state, they then enter the second dark night of the soul which is the dark night of the spirit. This is even more terrible than the first because the person realizes his/her very ideas of God, and expectations of what his mercy entails, cannot come up in any sense to who he is. Mother Teresa expressed this thusly: “I suffer because I look for Christ without finding him, because I listen without hearing.”

Some compare this to depression, or an emotional problem, but this understanding could not be further from the truth. The dark nights are not an emotional difficulty. They do not involve any of the things which take place with depression. There is no introspection in them. The soul is objective and realistic. It is cheerful. A competent explanation of this problem will clear it up easily. The person does not have any difficulty in life, except when they go to pray. They feel God is far from them. This experience increases love and humility for someone who simply goes on to pray, and practice the virtues, despite this feeling of desertion.

This is because the dark night is really not caused by an absence, but by a presence. It is compared to the darkness which is caused in the eye when a bright light is shone into it. The intellect and will are blinded by the light. The fact is that God is elevating the soul to know as God knows, and to love as God loves, which is the purpose for which it was given grace. This is so different from man’s way of knowing and loving that the soul must become used to this way of knowing and loving. One must just be patient with the way God works in him or her.


Question: Is the resurrection of the dead the same as reincarnation?

Answer: A number of people have often asked me why a Catholic could not believe in re-incarnation as taught by Eastern religions. It should be obvious, but it perhaps needs to be better defined philosophically. Reincarnation and resurrection involve two completely different world views on the ultimate destiny of man and the relation of the soul and the body.

The only experience the human race has of resurrection is that of Christ’s, which entails certain important conclusions, distinguishing Christianity from reincarnation. Reincarnation is based on the union of all matter in one sort of soup, which is governed by absolute laws. If there is a soul, it is a one-world soul in which each individual being is merely a participant. The general laws of matter are thus absolute and deterministic. Matter can be both good and evil, which is much like the good and evil forces in such popular films as the Star Wars series. There is not an idea of personal salvation, but one kind of being can become another kind of being in an endless succession. Since there is no personal, spiritual soul, there are no rewards or punishments for what is done in human life. This is an attempt to overcome the fact of death, by denying personal immortality, or mortality, and shifting the issue to the eternity of matter.

Resurrection, on the other hand, is not only deeply personal, but demonstrates correct philosophy. First, the only experience man has of a resurrected body is that of Christ. He demonstrated certain characteristics of this body in the forty days he spent on earth after the resurrection.

For instance, Jesus proved that his body could pass through walls, which he demonstrated for his apostles after his resurrection from the dead, appearing to them in the Upper Room, despite locked doors. He also ate a piece of fish in front of them to show the apostles gathered there that he was not a ghost, but flesh and blood. Jesus showed them the marks of the wounds in his body, to prove to them that this was the same body which was crucified, and which now stood before them. Also, although Mary Magdalene, and the apostles, did not recognize him at first, this could have been for several reasons. Resurrection is, after all, a miracle and, though he had predicted it, this did not mean that they could conceive of such a thing. Also, his appearance may have been hidden in such a way to call forth faith from them. For example, though the wounds were preserved, they were glorious. Generally, the Church teaches that all bodily defects and wounds will be healed in the resurrected body. The Church is clear that the Lord Jesus rose so that his immortal soul was joined again to his own body, which was miraculously preserved for all eternity.

This truth corresponds to objective and realistic metaphysics. Aristotle solved the problem of the relation of the body to the soul by demonstrating with Plato that the soul was immortal because of the act of intelligence, which goes beyond the order of the senses. But contrary to Plato’s ideas on the subject, Aristotle did not then devalue the body, or the senses, as unnatural to man, or compare the body to a prison. Since knowledge comes through the senses, the body is a substantial part of human nature and is also good.

The relationship between the two was described by Plato as the form of the body which is its proper matter. The Church has taken up this description, and made it her own. “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body, i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 365)

This truth is applied in the necessity of resurrection. If the soul is immortal and the soul and the body are in a substantial union and the body dies, then this is an unnatural condition. Aristotle maintains that an unnatural condition cannot exist perpetually. This would be the case if man were to exist in a permanent condition in which the soul existed without the body, such as happens in death. Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas maintains that the though the soul of man can be perfectly satisfied with the beatific vision, there would be something lacking in the nature of man if the body, and not merely the soul, could not participate in this vision. So as an adjunct good, the body must participate also in happiness. This does not increase the happiness of heaven intensively, but only more extensively. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 5, 6, ad 5)

Of course, this is not any proof of the fact of resurrection, but rather the recognition that any humanism without the possibility of resurrection is philosophically inadequate. Aristotle did not know about the fact of resurrection, but the necessity was clear to him. He was like the fox before the grapes who went away sad. Since the soul and the body are in the relation of form to matter, one person cannot have the body of another, let alone of another being. Though matter which does not have a spiritual soul passes into continuous generation and corruption, man is freed from that. The radical character of human individuality must be preserved, as is the fact that one determines one’s personal happiness by personal human choices on earth.


Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Hello Fr. Mullady,
    Thank you for your excellent response to the question concerning the “dark night” of the soul! I hope that the questioner could hear the need for this experience of prayer, in the lives of ordinary Catholics, in order to advance toward our vocation to holiness. I tried in my essay published last month here in HPR to respond to a similar question – “Is someone who has not successfully experienced the interior purgations of the Dark Night of the Senses—that is, a Beginner in the interior life—capable and ready to “make disciples”?”

    I notice a current emphasis in parishes these days to “make disciples”, with little if any concern (it seems to me) or awareness of the traditional process that you describe here (although briefly) very well, of the three ages or stages of the interior life. I hope that many pastors will read this response of yours, and perhaps grow in appreciation of the crucial need among the laity to hear, understand and receive our vocation to holiness – and to a vibrant and growing interior life of prayer.

  2. Avatar Martin B Drew says:

    The Light from light, God from God in the Nicene creed renders the soul and intellect and will of each man dark in the presence of the Holy Trinity, which helps one to pray especially at Mass and at the transubstantiation. Catholics and myself are thankful to Jesus Christ that we have this dark night of the soul. Simply stated seen in Genesis in the creation of man shown by the four ways there is one person with one soul as the Council of Trent states each person by faith must work out his eternal salvation.

  3. Avatar Martin B Drew says:

    The papers and questions are excellent theology and philosophy. Thank you

  4. Avatar John Larkin says:

    Dear Fr Mullady.
    It seems odd to me that God would plunge anybody into darkness.
    Indeed if any normal catholic receives Holy Communion with the correct dispositions then such darkness is not possible.
    I do have admiration for St Teresa and St Johns writings but their experiences are specific to them as individuals. With a few small exceptions I do not feel their intense soul life experiences can be extrapolated as broad general rules for everybody else.
    I would also apply this caveat to the Ignatian exercises.
    The simple reality is that God arranges everybody’s life in a very very different way to everybody else’s.
    For catholics the basics are careful observances of the fundamental church rules. Ie Mass, prayer and reception of the sacraments.
    None of that above is exceptionally demanding.
    Getting involved in so called ‘mystical spirituality” with a view to experiencing God can be, in my opinion only, problematic , on the basis that it devolves to the individual an active first force that in reality belongs to God.
    That first force of a human seeking God may interfere with Gods infinite and ETERNAL force that seeks the human.
    God constantly seeks the interior being of every human. It is done gently and we are mostly unaware of it. This is as it should be.
    Gods action in our lives is never fully understood because our lives are a mystery. Let us accept that mystery and also accept that our relationship with God is not something we can understand or rationalise even.
    Therefore normality must be the rule and that involves acceptance of a great great number of events throughout our lives that are not fully comprehensible including and most especially our sufferings.
    Suffering is perhaps one of the greatest mystery of all. The answers of course lie in the Cross of Christ
    though we all run from it including myself.
    But I digress. I will end by advocating that readers always trust in God to bring their earthly lives to a happy completion and that will happen if they try their best to abide by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.

    • Hello John – forgive me for responding, since you asked Fr. Mullady, not me, but….
      Fr. Mullady did respond to the apparent contradiction that you objected to (“It seems odd to me that God would plunge anybody into darkness.”). He wrote,
      “… the dark night is really not caused by an absence, but by a presence…. The intellect and will are blinded by the light. The fact is that God is elevating the soul to know as God knows, and to love as God loves, which is the purpose for which it was given grace. This is so different from man’s way of knowing and loving that the soul must become used to this way of knowing and loving.”

      In apparent darkness, the soul is being introduced to a supernatural seeing and knowing, by the activity of the Holy Spirit. This promised Paraclete does – in human persons – what He is sent to do:
      Jn 16:8  And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:
      Jn 16:9  concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;
      Jn 16:10  concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more;
      Jn 16:11  concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
      Jn 16:12  “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
      Jn 16:13  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
      Jn 16:14  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

      This divine work begins in “darkness”, convincing and convicting, and leads into supernatural illumination, “the truth”, the glory of the Son.