Gerald May’s purpose in writing this book is to clear up confusions and distortions about the role of the dark night of the soul in the spiritual life. For example, he confronts the common notion that spiritual growth is achieved by surviving bad experiences. Rather, he argues that the dark night is a dynamic, mysterious, ongoing, often painful, process in which our souls unconsciously struggle for unity with the divine. Darkness refers not to negativity but to obscurity. The term of this process is a transformation of faith, hope, and love, where “one's life becomes participation in God.”
The author develops his thesis through a thorough analysis of the spiritual insights of the sixteenth century mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. In presenting their complementary life stories which attest to the dark night that each experienced, he provides a rich context for their deeply spiritual and psychologically astute insights. According to Theresa and John, union with the divine is our human nature; the human condition however is rife with barriers to the realization of this union, i.e., addictions, compulsive behaviors, idolatries, etc. The author argues that the mystics understood that these false attachments were embedded in the unconscious, suggesting that they were aware of these dynamics long before Freud. The dark night is a transformative process which involves breaking through defenses and resistances to develop insights about the ultimate purpose of one's life. Catholic readers will appreciate his metaphorical understanding of the dark night as a purgatory experience happening during this life. Such fluidity in linking psychological and spiritual concepts enriches our understanding of the depth and mystery of the dark night.
Readers looking for action oriented solutions for facilitating dark night experiences may be somewhat disappointed. For it is not action per se but rather receptivity to the present moment and willingness to receive and be acted upon that moves us through the dark night and engenders greater freedom and awareness.
Readers however will appreciate his ability to summarize psychological reactions to the dark night. Fornication, blasphemy, and spiritus vertiginis are described in a nonjudgmental fashion with examples that most people will be able to relate to. In presenting these concepts, he humanizes the common psychological reactions to pain and abandonment while offering a theological context for their transformative value.
His insights and clinical empathy are most evident in chapter 6 where he links the dark night experiences to depression, addiction, gender differences, and unhealthy social systems. He very responsibly distinguishes between debilitating clinical depression and liberating, though painful, spiritual experiences. He acknowledges that they may occur simultaneously, hence psychological consultation and treatment is essential. He stresses that “there is never an authentic spiritual reason to let any illness go untreated.” One of his most discussion-provoking insights is the notion of “sick” social systems and how they parallel the individual dark night dynamics in their daily functioning. One can see many instances of how social systems and cultural institutions unconsciously thwart human flourishing. From this it follows that social liberation and justice require more than the transformation of individual hearts.
This book will appeal to people interested in spiritual direction and a contemporary assessment of the psychological insights of Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Pastoral counselors and mental health professionals may wish for more clinical and ministerial examples of the elucidated concepts. Despite some repetition all will appreciate the author’s clarity, empathy, and focus.