Salvific Suffering and the Dark Night of the Soul

Oh, night that guided me,

Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,

Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,

Lover transformed in the Beloved! 1

Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived nearly three years in Nazi concentration camps from 1942 to 1945. At Auschwitz and Dachau, he witnessed both the barbarity of his captors and the moral degeneration of inmates who fell into despair. “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future,” Frankl wrote, “also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”2 In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl would find hope by looking beyond himself: “It did not really matter what we had expected from life, but rather what life expected from us,”3 he concluded. In this way, his memoir introduced logotherapy, a theory founded on the belief that man’s primary motivational source is his search for meaning in life. Frankl believed that suffering becomes tolerable, valuable even, when endowed with an external purpose. It begins to subside at the moment it transforms into sacrifice.

Sadly, this view is at odds with the conventional wisdom of our day. We live in a hedonistic culture that sees personal comfort as an end in itself and considers “human well-being” to be the ultimate moral value. For many, suffering is the worst of all evils, the harsh reflection of a world without purpose. Any pain, whether physical or emotional, is to be avoided. It is thus unsurprising that some doctors now exult physician-assisted suicide as a compassionate alternative to palliative care and routinely prescribe drugs for even the smallest of medical problems. We have begun to “anaesthetize our existence,”4 writes biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. Our public discourse often assumes that the most difficult lives are simply not worth living.

Yet suicide and medication cannot cure the spiritual poverty that afflicts us all. Suffering itself does not cause one to lose hope but merely tests one’s resolve. Our hedonistic culture, however, often fails to recognize this. If we allow pleasure or personal well-being to determine our happiness and dignity, it will naturally seem impossible to endure times of hardship. Viktor Frankl’s experience, like those of all who endured and survived Nazi persecution, undermines this narrowminded view of human dignity and human suffering; he challenges us to search for a deeper understanding of suffering, a deeper understanding of the human person. The psychiatrist appropriately echoed Nietzsche when he wrote that “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”5 Nevertheless, it is not enough to suggest that each man individually determine what drives him. For suffering to really have purpose, it must be rooted in the objective truth of sacrificial love. And this is precisely what Christianity, the religion of Christ the Crucified, offers.

For Christians, the fullest expression of this sacrificial love is found in the passion and death of Jesus Christ. By dying for our sins, Jesus changed his anguish into an act of self-giving love. He voluntarily chose to suffer so that we, who are completely incapable of bridging the gap between God and man, could experience the joys of eternal life. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured…upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.”6 Christ’s death thus provided the perfect model of charity (the Christian virtue of love; agape in Greek). It transformed mere suffering, which appears inseparable from human existence, into a loving sacrifice. As he himself said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”7

In attacking Christians, agnostics and atheists often raise what is known as The Problem of Pain: why would an all-powerful and good God let innocent people suffer so much? But such an attack overlooks a central truth of Christ’s religion: Christianity does not try to explain away the evil of suffering. It does not run from hardship but embraces it for the sake of love. In his apostolic letter Salvafici Doloris, Pope John Paul II reiterates that our Savior’s love for us is the fullest answer to the mystery of suffering: “Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love.”8 The risen Christ purposely retains his wounds (his pierced hands and feet from the nails, and his pierced side from the lance) as a testament to this sacrificial love. If we are to follow his example, we must be willing to likewise suffer, to earn our own wounds. Indeed, the real value of our personal sufferings lies in their ability to unite us more fully with Christ’s own passion and death on the cross. By looking beyond ourselves, we also build compassion for others. Suffering, John Paul II explains, can then “unleash love in the human person.”9

By opening himself up to human suffering, Christ thus elevated it to something purposeful as an expression of love. John Paul II explains that, “In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.”10 We can offer up our pain as a sacrifice for the redemption of others. It is for this reason that Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans entreats Christians to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God, just as Jesus offered himself for the sins of mankind. To be clear, Christ’s sacrifice was all encompassing and final.11 However, as members of his body, we can, in a sense, become co-redemptors in the work of salvation. Although Christians differ as to the precise soteriological method by which this is achieved, it is enough to say that in so far as Christ lives within us, his perpetual sacrifice is made present through us. Contrary to popular criticism, Christian salvation is not a fairy tale promise of everlasting life in exchange for a vow of obedience; it is unequivocally, unabashedly realistic. It faces head on the worst realities of human existence and discovers, through the historical action of God in the person and life of Christ, meaning.

Every affliction is thus a type of opportunity from God, a chance to become a martyr in the present by baring pain silently for the sake of other souls. We cannot add to Christ’s salvific work by our own effort, but we can become instruments for him. It is through the daily sacrifices of normal Christians guided by the Holy Spirit that Jesus draws souls to himself. This explains the Christian practice of self-denial, which is often misunderstood and criticized. Christians do not sadistically embrace suffering for its own sake nor do they malign the material world as evil. We fast and mortify our bodies in order to offer ourselves as reparation for sin and the redemption of the world. We suffer for the sake of love, a love through which we become united to the God who so loved the world that he gave up his only Son to be crucified.

Paul expresses this profoundly in his epistle to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”12 Faith in Christ gives the believer a share in his very life and love, and most poignantly in the sufferings by which he showed it. At the same time, the Christian humbles himself by fully submitting to the will of God. It is only by suffering, by dying to self, that one can become united to Christ. What then does this portend for modern man? Is it even possible to develop spiritually in our age of egocentrism?

Though some still espouse the importance of delayed gratification, many today adhere to a pleasure-pain ethic based on their own contentedness. Sadly, this epicurean philosophy can become a real impediment to those seeking truth in a world filled with suffering. If goodness and pleasure are the same, sacrificial actions appear nonsensical, almost immoral. As the popular atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens so frequently pointed out, Christ’s teachings and death on the cross could be perceived as sadistic. That is why Hitchens harshly criticized Mother Teresa when her posthumously published letters revealed that she had suffered a lifelong period of spiritual aridity. He was unable to understand that Mother Teresa’s unflinching faith amid such personal suffering stood as a testament to love, not as proof that she was living a lie.

To fully understand the redemptive power of suffering, we must turn directly to this great mystery of Christian mysticism: spiritual dryness or “the dark night of the soul.” This phenomenon, experienced and discussed by such famous mystics as John of the Cross (1542-1591), Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), and Mother Teresa (1910-1997), is considered a type of “passive purification” that draws a soul ever closer to Christ. Though it is by no means essential for salvation, or at all common for that matter, the dark night is deeply grounded in the Christian tradition and its unique understanding of suffering. Most profoundly, the dark night of the soul shows us that Christianity presents a stark countercultural worldview and makes philosophical assumptions that distinguish it from other world religions. Whereas a Buddhist quenches desire in order to end suffering, the Christian embraces the suffering of a dark night in order to draw closer to the person of Jesus Christ.

In his exegesis Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross describes two periods of spiritual purgation or “nights,” so named because the soul is said to walk in darkness.13 These nights are a time of increasing spiritual asceticism. In order to achieve a state of perfection, the soul must first be purged of its desire for all things of this world so that it can learn to be content with God alone.14 Importantly, John explains that things do not harm the soul per se, but our desire for them can prevent us from loving Christ, from loving what is higher. This first dark night of sense and desire is surely difficult, but it pails in comparison to the subsequent dark night, the passive night of the soul in which the believer completely loses his or her experiential awareness of God.

During this second period, prayer and spiritual devotions lose their taste. As John explains, believers are trapped “in such total darkness that they do not know where to turn with their imagination and their thoughts. They are no longer able to advance another step in meditation, since…everything seems to have turned into its opposite.”15 Believers will feel as if they have been completely abandoned by God but must nevertheless strip themselves of all apprehension. They can only mitigate the overwhelming feeling of absence by recalling previous experiences of Christ’s love.

Though the soul will likely feel that God has abandoned it, a purer light is in fact replacing sensual experience. The relationship is no longer a means to an end but an end in itself. The soul then recognizes its lowliness in comparison to the divine majesty, realizing that its misery is not caused by God but rather by its seeming need for sensual satisfaction. John writes that, “The darkness and the other adversities which the soul experiences when this divine light first strikes it, are not inherent in or caused by this light, but are darknesses and faults of the soul itself; and this light illumines the soul so that it may see them.”16 The dark night thus provides a nourishing light that enables the soul to love God in all things.

This blissful night darkens the spirit, but only in order to illuminate it afterwards with respect to all things; it humbles the spirit and makes it miserable, but only in order to raise it up and exalt it; it impoverishes the spirit and deprives it of every natural possession and affection, but only to enable it to rise, divinely, in unfettered spiritual freedom, to a perfection of all things in Heaven and on earth.17

The dark night is like a fire; we are the wood. Fire initially can make wood seem black and ugly, but this occurs for the sake of a transformation. The two can then become one. So too, the dark night leads to a union with the Godhead. Christians would, however, reject comparisons to Buddhist nirvana. We do not practice self-abnegation in order to achieve the extinction of self. “The Buddhist mystic seeks absorption into an impersonal whole, looking to rid himself of desire and suffering,” writes apologist Carl Olsen. “The Christian mystic, on the other hand, desires neither the loss of personality nor an impersonal oneness with all but a deep and abiding communion with the Triune and personal God.”18 Christian asceticism and mysticism is not a self-abandonment but a self-discovery, a discovery of oneself and the others with whom one is called into communion. Christians are meant to embrace suffering, yes, but not a meaningless suffering: like Christ, their suffering is instead a sacrifice of love.

Still, this is a subtle distinction. In John’s time, many well-intentioned Christian mystics fell prey to a spurious theology known as Quietism. Quietists argued that by emptying oneself sensually and spiritually to the will of God, a soul rightfully loses its identity in union with its maker. In order to be fully self-giving and altruistic, the quietist taught, the soul had to be even willing to sacrifice its own desire for salvation. This led many quietists to dispose of all virtue, believing that a passive state of indifference was nobler than any fervent effort. This was a clear distortion of the Gospel message. According to French historian Henri Daniel-Rops, Christ advocated for “Total abandonment and abnegation, indeed, but of our self-centeredness, and not of the very faculties and activities of the soul itself.”19

But if this is true, then isn’t our love of God through suffering always marred by love of self? Thomas Aquinas firmly answers no. Christ himself asked us to love our neighbor as ourselves. As charity is the friendship of man for God, self-love is charitable when it is for the sake of God and in God.20 “It is one thing to desire this for myself, and another to desire it because of myself,” explained Thomas Cajetan, a Reformation era cardinal known for his commentary on Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.21 Indeed, the proper object of hope is our own eternal happiness because this infinite good is the very enjoyment of God’s Essence, the result of our subordination to Him. Aquinas speaks of our natural desire for the beatific vision. Whether this desire is innate or somehow elicited remains the subject of much debate. However, it is clear that by sacrificing beatitude, the quietists were in fact sacrificing a supreme expression of charity, the desire to perpetually glorify God. They no longer wanted to love at all! “We must die daily,” CS Lewis reminds us, “but it is better to love the self than to love nothing, and to pity the self than to pity no one.”22 By conflating love with egoism, ironically sharing in the same mistake as hedonists, the quietists were in reality exhibiting a false humility.

In Christianity, our own happiness is directly linked to our subordination to Christ, for it truly is our happiness and we cannot be but who we are, human beings, subordinated and yet also made in the image and likeness of God. Our willingness to suffer with Christ, to love him, is what makes us most fully ourselves. Few of us sympathize with the extreme selfdenial of the quietists, but considering their error is nonetheless illuminating for all of us. Indeed, we are mostly selfish, worried that Christ may ask too much of us. In reality, this fear is laughable. For, contrary to Quietism or Buddhism’s eagerness for the obliteration of self, Christianity teaches that we lose nothing by following Christ and serving God; it is only through the cross that one learns the way of love and becomes most truly free. In fact, we are most ourselves when we are subservient to Christ. All that we love, we do not lose. Once again, Lewis says it well: “Our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and natural desires…It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”23 Christianity is the religion of Christ Crucified, yes, but even more it is the religion of Christ Resurrected.

In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of meaning for everything that exists. Pope Paul VI says that man cannot “fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”24 Those who experience the dark night are asked to give the utmost gift, the relinquishing of all personal desires to the will of Christ, yet not as if a recruit before the recruitment officer but rather like a husband before his wife. It is only by embracing suffering, not for its own sake but the sake of God and others, that we can bring an end to our modern expressions of nihilism, whether quietist or hedonist, and truly create a culture of love, of self-gift, of the communion of persons.


1. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, ed. Kurt F. Reinhardt (New York: F. Ungar Publishing Co., 1957) 2.

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, revised updated edition (New York: Pocket Books, 1997) 95.

3. Ibid. 98.

4. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Living Gospel, (New York: Contiuum, 2004)

5. Frankl 97.

6. Isaiah 53:4-5.

7. John 15:13

8. John Paul II, Salvafici Doloris, On the ChristianMeaning of Human Suffering, Vatican Website, February 11, 1984,, sec. 18, accessed August 14, 2012.

9. Ibid. sec. 29.

10. Ibid. sec. 19.

11. Cf. Hebrews 10:14

12. Galatians 2:19-20

13. Cf. Psalm 23:4

14. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, 27: “For if you desire to possess anything at all, you cannot have your treasure in God alone.”

15. Ibid. 171.

16. Ibid. 204.

17. Ibid. 196.

18. Carl Olsen and Anthony E. Clark, “Are Jesus and Buddha Brothers?” This Rock, May-June 2005, 8-13.

19. Henri Daniel-Rops, “The Quietist Affair,” Thought 32 (1957-1958): 485-515, accessed August 14, 2012,

20. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q.19, a.6.

21. Cajetan, In IIam IIae, q. 17, a.5, no.6, quoted in Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “The Errors of the Quietists on Contemplation and Pure love” in The Three Ages of the Interior Life, trans. by Timothea Doyle (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books and Publishers, 1999), accessed August 14, 2012,

22. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970, 195.

23. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960) 189.

24. Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vatican Website, December 7, 1965,, sec. 24, accessed August 14, 2012.


Robert Smith ’14 is from North Wales, PA. He is a Government major with minors in Music and Anthropology.

“Salvific Suffering and the Dark Night of the Soul” has been awarded the Fletcher Prize for Christian Apologetics for 2012-2013 by the Tucker Foundation.

Image by kconnors from

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