(Q) How would you define a dark age – are we in one now? Is it possible for the planet as a whole to experience a ‘dark night of the soul’?
(A) There have been several dark periods in our history. We call them dark, but these unofficial monikers are more descriptive than anything else. Still, when significant challenges affecting a large part of the globe are spread over a few hundred years, they deserve to be called out.
Several characteristics are associated with dark times. I’ve listed a few here in no particular order, see what you think: Frequent warfare including civil wars and continued border skirmishes, disappearance of urban life, intellectual stagnation, lack of forward thinking ideas, implosion of infrastructures, lack of cultural developments, increase in illnesses and infectious diseases, deep class and racial divisions, extended periods of economic downturns, various hardships spread over a large percent of the population, lack of natural resources, extinction of established species of plants and animals, disintegration of established values and norms, widespread fragmentation of political systems and parties, increase in catastrophic geophysical anomalies, absence of leadership, significant loss or disinterest among younger generations, civil unrest, disobedience and revolt, widespread climate change, lack of adaptivity to change or innovation.
I checked a few boxes, how about you? But even if we checked all the boxes, we could not say with certainty that we are in a dark age. Not yet. We need to move further into it, learn from it, understand our predicament, then determine how to emerge from it collectively. There will be plenty of time to name it later on. I do think we are in a difficult time that will challenge us in a variety of ways. We can’t see or know it all yet, but recorded history is a good reminder of what didn’t work, and the future is inviting us to make different choices.
A ‘dark night of the soul’ and/or a ‘dark night of the senses’ is more personal. These powerfully unique, specific, and recognizable terms were first used by Juan de la Cruz, St. John of the Cross as we know him today in the West. He was a contemporary of Theresa of Avila, also a saint, in the mid-1500s.
John believed in a spiritual life that consisted of three stages, a beginner’s journey, or the Purgative Way; the path of proficiency, or the Illuminative Way, and the perfect unknown, or Unitive Way. These stages roughly mirror childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. He described the stages in detail, noting that each was marked by an unavoidable (destined) crisis. A transition beyond the crisis required understanding its nature and healing the misery created by it. Today we might call this, paying our dues.
Teachings attributed to St.John of the Cross differentiate between the Dark Night of the Senses and the Dark Night of the Spirit (Soul). The transition from the Purgative to the Illuminative is the result of overcoming the senses, while the transition from the Illuminative to the Unitive is the true work of Spirit.
The Dark Night of the Senses is a crisis in which the consolations of the senses are purposefully withdrawn. In other words, we lose the things that make life too easy or too comfortable. If everything around is always warm and fuzzy, why would we bother growing up? Characteristically, a dark night of the senses turns our life upside-down.Things rarely go as planned, we no longer get our way, physical comforts become discomforts, friends and lovers may look upon us with disfavor, the things that we value most may be lost or stolen from us. We are designed and destined to encounter these initiations. We are meant to awaken to a life of meaning and purpose. A dark night turns the senses off, teaches us to see in the dark, hear in whispers. When eventually, our senses are turned back on, they lead straight to the heart, the home of the soul. We gain an appreciation for life; we are grateful when things go our way.
The Dark Night of the Spirit is what one of my teachers calls ‘an invitation to get scared straight.’ We may fool ourselves into thinking that we are having a few bad days early on, but soon enough we recognize that something larger is at stake that cannot be ignored or set aside. A Dark Night is sometimes referred to as a Saturn Return. An astrologer friend, reminding me of the wisdom of no escape, told me that when a planet is sitting on you, that is where you will remain until you have learned its lessons. Saturn is the great equalizer, the task master of tough love. Dark Night lessons can be crushing, humiliating, and even bring about disgrace. Eventually, life will cleanse and heal us. And if we pay attention, the experiences of our dark night may point to liberation.
So yes, I do believe that we, as a race of human beings on the cusp of great change, may undergo these crises/initiations on our journey toward wholeness – together. Until recently, we have (mistakenly) believed that we are singular beings who may do as we please while ignoring the wellbeing of the planet and future generations of plants, animals, and people. But if, as many believe, we discover that we are One Being before all and after all, then we should get to work. This inconvenient truth seems to be following us closely these days. I cannot say with certainty that these are dark times, but I think we should not ignore the shadow that is eclipsing our light and dimming our future.