John of the Cross now begins to describe “the dark night.” He says that there are, in fact, two different nights: a night of the senses and a night of the spirit. In a brief passage, he summarizes the content of the rest of his commentary:
This night, which as we say is contemplation, causes two kinds of darkness or purgation in spiritual persons according to the two parts of the soul, the sensory and the spiritual. Hence one night of purgation is sensory, by which the senses are purged and accommodated to the spirit; and the other night or purgation is spiritual, by which the spirit is purged and denuded as well as accommodated and prepared for union with God through love. The sensory night is common and happens to many. These are the beginners of whom we will treat first. The spiritual night is the lot of very few, those who have been tried and are proficient, and of whom we will speak afterward…. Because the sensory night is first in order, we will speak of it now briefly. It is a more common occurrence, so one finds more written on it. Then we will pass on to discuss more at length the spiritual night, for hardly anything has been said of it in sermons or in writing: and even the experience of it is rare.
The first night — the night of the senses — is God’s way of bringing the soul from its lowlier and less perfect way of communicating with Him into a life of contemplation:
[God] desires to liberate them from the lowly exercise of the senses and of discursive meditation, by which they go in search of him so inadequately and with so many difficulties, and lead them into the exercise of spirit, in which they become capable of a communion with God that is more abundant and more free of imperfections. God does this after beginners have exercised themselves for a time in the way of virtue and have persevered in meditation and prayer.
By “discursive meditation,” John means those forms of prayer in which the soul actively brings images / ideas / resolutions before the mind for reflection and meditation, as one does with the rosary, the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius, etc. All of this is a preparation for the “new thing” that God does in the soul via the night of the senses:
It is through the delight and satisfaction they experience in prayer that they have become detached from worldly things and have gained some spiritual strength in God. This strength has helped them somewhat to restrain their appetites for creatures, and through it they will be able to suffer a little oppression and dryness without turning back. Consequently, it is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door….God now leaves them in such darkness that they do not know which way to turn in their discursive imaginings…. He leaves them in such dryness that they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter.
This is a different experience than that of spiritual sloth, as John later points out, which makes it critical that a spiritual director be able to detect the difference so that he or she can provide appropriate counsel. If God is drawing the soul into the night of the senses, asking the directee to continue efforts at active meditation would be counter-productive to the work God is doing in the soul.
This night of the senses is common, and often happens early in one’s spiritual life:
A reform of the appetites is the requirement for entering the happy night of the senses. Not much time ordinarily passes after the initial stages of their spiritual life before beginners start to enter this night of sense. And the majority of them do enter it because it is common to see them suffer these aridities.
In the following chapter, John will offer advice about how to discern whether God is bringing the soul into this night.