Kevin Culligan provides the reader with a concise roadmap of the cartography of the spiritual journey as mapped out by St. John of the Cross. He focuses on two major works, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, both considered to be foundational resources for “understanding the phenomenon of darkness in the spiritual life” (44). Spiritual directors will find Culligan’s work helpful in assessing which stage of the spiritual journey their directees are currently experiencing and determining appropriate ways to assist them in moving forward. Additionally, it is always good to have an idea of where one is personally on the journey as well.
The author’s opening lines are familiar to anyone who has worked in spiritual direction for a few years. Directees come to sessions voicing concerns about their inability to pray, the “dryness” of their spiritual lives, their seeming inability to understand the “darkness” of their journey, and wondering if something has gone horribly wrong. Culligan’s paper provides the director with tools to address these questions and provide hope and support for the directee during these painful periods.
St. John’s understanding of the journey of faith is one of increasing darkness as “a metaphor that expresses the deprivation in human understanding that we experience as we journey toward union with God” (44). Based on this apophatic approach to God, St. John understands God to be “ultimately incomprehensible, far beyond the power of our human minds to adequately comprehend” (44) and therefore “we come to union with God by faith rather than by knowledge” (44).
Culligan points out the importance of recognizing the experience of “unknowing” is “a normal and predictable reaction when the human meets the divine” (45) and that the common experience of darkness and emptiness “characterize the normal ascent of the human person t union with a totally transcendent and incomprehensible God” (45). This is very counter-intuitive for most people on the journey who assume that as one draws nearer to God, things ought to become clearer, brighter, and easier. It is a case where experiencing “less” is actually as sign of receiving “more.” Culligan writes, “The darkness of the spiritual journey, rather than a pathological experience, transforms us in our knowing and loving so that eventually. . .we are restored to human wholeness” (45).
A key insight for spiritual directors is the realization that because God is communicating Himself to the human soul in a way that is “orderly, gentle, and according to the mode of the soul” (45) this process is one that “proceeds step-by-step in accord with the laws of human development, beginning in our sensory or external self and moving gradually into our spiritual or interior self” (45). It is a process tied to human nature, is able to be mapped out, predicted, and navigated according to universally applicable principles. The spiritual director does not need to re-invent the wheel for each directee, nor does God arbitrarily superimpose a new wheel at His whim. Culligan writes, “As normal developmental crises, they are predictable, each with its own specific challenges that must resolved before we can move on to the next stage of spiritual growth” (45). This makes “directing” actually possible, rather than simply “observing” where a person happens to be at any given time. This student is appreciative of the guidance given by previous spiritual directors, who were able to assure him of the “normalcy” of experiences along the way.
Culligan suggests that the cause of the “two critical transition points” (the dark nights of sense and spirit) is a progressive and deepening self-communication of God to the human soul. However, this revelation is in regard to “know what God is not rather than what God is” (47). The result is people who are experiencing the increased darkness are in fact experiencing a more authentic and pure revelation of God’s transcendence and incomprehensibility. Culligan notes that “the role of the guide is thus to help these persons to walk continually in faith, hope, and love, which alone takes them beyond the boundaries of self to union with and transformation in God” (47).
A key point for spiritual directors is to remind the directee that the dark night experience (of sense or spirit) is not something “to be overcome but only the ordinary course of the spiritual journey” (47). In other words, this is “par for the course”. Directees, however, will often want to return to the bliss filled times of the past, but Culligan points out that these feelings and experiences are really “obstacles in the way of God’s self-communication” (47) and “the spiritual guide can reassure these persons that they progress toward a deeper union with God by going deeper in faith into God who is incomprehensible Goodness” (47).
How does all of this come about? Culligan brings the reader alongside a typical Christian moving through the stages of growth. Beginning with prayer (discursive meditation) as “the way persons open themselves to God’s self communication” (48), the pilgrim on the journey soon experiences the “first crisis—the dark night of sense—in which initial fervor for prayer and good works cease. Persons begin to complain that they can no longer meditate on God or Christ” (48). Their experience is often described as dry and empty, lacking enthusiasm, feeling “lost”—yet all along maintaining a deep desire “for union with God” (48). Culligan, reflecting St. John of the Cross, believes this occurs “because God’s self-communication is penetrating beyond the external life of sense into one’s spirit” (48). God is now working to purify the senses of inordinate gross attachments.
Spiritual directors are advised that “persons are now at a critical point in their journey; if they continue, it must be for reasons other than the sensible satisfaction. . .they must decide to seek God for God’s own sake alone rather than for the sensory pleasure they find in prayer and serving God” (48). Additionally, spiritual directors can offer the good news that “this first crisis ordinarily does not last long” and gives way as one releases attachments and moves into contemplative prayer. This student can attest to the St. John’s wisdom here. The crisis does soon pass, but the familiar landmarks are now removed but the journey continues.
When directees move into the illuminative stage, “they discover that God is different from what they had previously thought or imagined. . .they are enlightened about the true motives of their behavior. . . persons continue to grow in the knowledge of God by ‘unknowing,’ more by understanding what God is not rather than what God is” (49). Culligan opines that “most Christians who begin the spiritual life reach this stage, yet few pass beyond it to the final stage of union” (49).
For spiritual directors, then, most of the work will be done with beginners who are in the purgative stage or with “proficients” who have passed through the dark night of sense and are progressing in the illuminative stage. It is important to thoroughly grasp the working of God in these two stages and the proper way to direct those who are there.
Culligan reminds directors that for the small group of Christians who do progress further, they “must first go through the second major crisis of the spiritual life, ‘the dark night of spirit’”(49). This threshold is characterized by “alternating periods of consolation and desolation” with extreme swings between “delight and anguish” and “recurring times of intense joy in the possession of God followed by the fear of losing God forever” (49). Culligan writes that these “experiences purify persons of those unconscious fixations and disordered attachments to objects other than God—essentially inadequate images of God and distorted perceptions of self—that still block their complete transformation in God” (49).
The spiritual director needs to be aware that “the dark night of the spirit may last a very long time, even years. According to St. John of the Cross, this crisis lasts as long as it takes for one’s spirit to be ‘humbled, softened, and purified’. . .the night of spirit continues until one’s psychic energy is completely redirected from being unconsciously centered in self to being consciously centered in God” (50). The implication for directors is the patience for long haul needed to journey with a directee through this period. Culligan suggests simple, yet profoundly powerful things as “offer empathetic support. . .do not endure their trials alone. . .help to discern the meaning of their experiences” (50).
In the final section of the essay, Culligan provides a very helpful discussion of the dark nights and clinical depression. How does determine if a directee is experiencing the dark night or simply depressed? Culligan lays out several important distinctions, including the physical differences related to eating and sleep disorders. However, the author summarizes his own discernment process, saying “I have found that perhaps the most reliable criterion for discerning whether a person is depressed or in a spiritual crisis is the person’s impact on me. Depression is contagious; it invariably communicates itself to others” (51). Culligan suggests that “by paying close attention to the feelings persons generate in spiritual guides during sessions, spiritual directors can more easily discern the presence of either clinical depression or spiritual darkness” (51).
The author concludes with the sage advice concerning the spiritual journey that “the more we know this path from our own experience, the more confident and effective we will be in guiding others along the dark road to union with God” (52). This reviewer has great resonance with Culligan’s closing statement. For this reason, it is extremely important for directors themselves to be on the journey, progressing forward, and under direction from someone who is also aware of St. John of the Cross’s roadmap.