Dark Nights, Depressions and the Loss of the Affective Ego


John of the Cross' "dark night" has entered into our common vocabulary. People will talk of suffering a dark night when going through some interior crisis. But what did these words mean for St. John himself, and how do they relate to depression and what could be called the loss of the affective ego?

John recognized a link between his dark night and depression, which he called melancholy. In a rather subtle analysis in his book The Dark Night, he tells us that melancholy can accompany the dark night and increase its intensity. But this implies a distinction between depression and the dark night. Depression is a loss of energy that leaves us feeling unable to get on with our lives, and which can stem from both external and internal causes. We may, for example, be depressed over the loss of someone dear to us, or from some biochemical imbalance, and while St. John recognizes that depression can play a role in the dark night, he makes it clear that the dark night is not depression.

St. John also realized that the dark night had various aspects, or phases; there is his well-known distinction between the dark night of sense, and the dark night of spirit. But he makes another implicit distinction that is not often focused upon. There is a dark night that we can call the dark night in the wide sense of the term, which stands in contrast to the dark night in the strict sense. He tells us that many people who devote themselves to the life of prayer are seen to enter the dark night, and often fairly quickly. By this he means that they discover that they can no longer pray like they did before. The sense of consolation and progress that accompanied their serious conversion to the life of prayer has disappeared. This may happen either gradually or suddenly and can be very disorienting. These people can even worry that God has abandoned them. But this dark night is not identical with the dark night that St. John wishes to discuss. How do we know this? It is because it is only after John describes this general situation that he goes on to give his famous three signs for the passage from ordinary prayer to infused contemplation. If every inability to pray like we did before was the dark night, then there would be no need for the signs. The signs are meant to differentiate between this general situation and the dark night that leads to contemplation. It is this dark night that St. John concentrates upon.

The first sign - following the order given in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel - is this very inability to pray. But since it might arise from reasons other than contemplation, St. John gives us a second sign. Our inability to pray should not be accompanied by a particular interest in the things of the world. This sign is to rule out lukewarmness or some moral fault as the cause of our disability.

But even this sign is not enough. We may, St. John tells us, have no inclination for anything because we are suffering from some kind of melancholy or depression. Therefore he gives us the third and most important sign. This is the beginning of infused contemplation, itself. We are drawn to that mysterious experience of loving union even though we are disconcerted by the fact that it is not coming to us through the normal working of the natural faculties, i.e., the senses, imagination, intellect, memory, and will, but is welling up from the depths of the soul. Without some inkling of the beginning of contemplation, St. John tells us we cannot leave the ordinary practice of prayer.

Thus, the dark night that John wants to talk to us about is the dark night directly connected to infused contemplation. In fact, it is brought about by contemplation. Contemplation causes this dark night because it is communicated to the spirit, not by the ordinary channels of the faculties, but in the depths of the soul, and this causes a withdrawal of energy from the faculties, and thus the experience of the dark night. There are, therefore, distinctions to be made between depression, the dark night in the wide sense of the term, and the dark night leading to contemplation.

It is equally important to distinguish between this dark night brought about by contemplation, and what we could call the loss of the affective ego. This is an issue that is rarely talked about and difficult to express. Yet there seems to be a family of experiences that center on the loss of self. We may, for example, look at the no-self experiences described by Bernadette Roberts, whose work was touched upon in our last issue. Philip St. Romain's book on kundalini and Christian spirituality, which has also been discussed in these pages, contains a striking passage in which he realized that the old Philip St. Romain was dead. And while his memories remained, they had lost the affective character that is so much a part of normal memories. David Spillane has called my attention to similar no-self experiences recounted by Ann Faraday, an English psychologist, who woke up one morning to discover that her self had disappeared, and Michael Washburn, in his Ego and the Dynamic Ground, reports on the work of a psychiatrist who described psychic black holes. It would be a valuable project to analyze these kinds of accounts, and try to come to a better understanding of what they mean in terms of the loss of self. I would appreciate hearing from Forum members about their own experiences, or ones they have come across, for I believe that this is an important issue.

But what do these experiences mean? I don't think that it is a question of what could be called a metaphysical loss of self. There is someone who reflects, makes decisions, and acts, even after this kind of loss of the ego. But what runs through these various accounts is a sense that the interior landscape of these people has been vastly altered. Their ego is, indeed, lost in some very real way. They don't possess the same sense of self as they did before, and I would like to venture a preliminary sketch of what might be happening. Our egos, or sense of self - taken in a concrete or empirical way and not in a metaphysical sense - are glued together by the acts we make with our natural faculties, and these faculties, in turn, are driven by our desires and the gratification we receive by fulfilling these desires. In other words, what holds the empirical ego together could be called affective energy. It is this affective energy that motivates us to act, and is a vital part of our sense of identity which is intimately connected with our memories. Our memories contain affective energy, and that is what binds them to us and allows us to recognize them as our own.

But in the various experiences of no-self it appears as if this affective energy drains out of consciousness. Then, in a very real way, the ego disappears, and this is what is reported. But, as I said, I think it is better to qualify this as the loss of the affective ego, and not give it a metaphysical meaning, as if there is no ego in the sense of no human soul, or spirit.

Clearly, descriptions of the loss of the affective ego have a certain affinity with the way that John of the Cross describes the onset of the dark night that leads to contemplation. The inability to pray in the way we prayed before is an affective disability. We no longer, St. John tells us, experience the satisfaction we did before. In some fashion the energy that animated our desires for the things of God is quenched. Indeed, the second sign says that this energy is quenched not only in regard to the things of God, but the things of the world, as well. John is not saying that we suffer a complete inability to use the natural faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory and will. If we did, we would be nonfunctional, or comatose, or even catatonic. Instead, we no longer have the affective energy that bound us to our former spiritual practices.

This loss of affective energy could therefore be seen as a dimension of the dark night that leads to infused contemplation or brought about by the beginning of contemplation. As contemplation begins in the depths of the soul we can imagine it drawing into those depths the psyche's affective energy. This means that as the affective energy leaves the ego it gives rise to St. John's first two signs. The third sign, the active presence of contemplation, is the critical one because other factors, like depression, could cause this loss of energy.

Jung described the psyche as a closed system of energy. Therefore, if affective energy drains out of consciousness, we would expect it to appear somewhere in the unconscious. And St. John does, in fact, describe in graphic detail certain temptations that manifest themselves on the road to contemplation. These temptations, i.e., of blasphemy, scrupulosity and sexual excess, can all be understood from a psychological point of view, as manifestations of psychic or affective energy in the unconscious. In a similar way, the disorientation of the ego, or its fear that God is displeased with it, can come about from a loss of the ego's affective energy. Further, since it is this affective energy, itself, which gives the ego its sense of identity, its loss can lead to a feeling of ego disintegration, or death.

Despite the fact that there appears to be a dimension of the loss of the affective ego, in St. John's descriptions of the beginning of infused contemplation, it would be a mistake, I think, to identify the two states. There is no particular reason for believing that every loss of the affective ego is brought about by the beginning of contemplation. We are thus left with four closely allied but distinctive states: depression, the dark night in the wide sense, the dark night due to the beginning of contemplation, and the loss of the affective ego.

Summary: Let me summarize these four states, and some of the practical consequences of this kind of analysis.
     1. Depression.
          A. Organically based depression, which can, and should, be treated physically.
          B. Depression due to external circumstances, which can be treated psychologically and spiritually.

2. The dark night in the wide sense of the term. This inability to pray can stem from depression, or our own faults, or our need to pray in another fashion, or from the beginning of infused contemplation. If it stems from a need to pray in another fashion, this may be a call to psychological work in which we integrate various aspects of our personality which, in turn, provide the foundations for a new way of praying.

3. The loss of the affective ego. Clearly there is some sort of loss of affective ego in depression and other psychological disorders, but I would like to use this phrase to describe a loss of ego that is not necessarily connected to any psychological illness or to any impairment of the natural faculties, themselves. It may accompany the beginning of contemplation, or some state of enlightenment, or arise from unknown causes. What is critical is to see it for what it is, and not let it trigger depression by construing it as something that is negative in itself.

4. The dark night intimately connected with infused contemplation. This dark night demands the taking up a new attitude of loving receptivity in which we do not insist on maintaining our old ways of praying, which are based on the working of the natural  faculties.

In actual situations I imagine we will find various combinations of these four states, but I think it is important to attempt to distinguish them if we are going to respond appropriately.


See also: Is it Depression, or is it the Loss of the Affective Ego Leading to Spiritual Gain?



I was greatly interested in your essay, "Dark Nights, Depressions and the loss of the Affective Ego." What you are exploring in that essay, albeit speculatively, is the Darkness of God or the Apophatic Mystical Tradition of the Church.

There is no doubt that there are many kinds of darkness which can beset us in this life, not all of them, in fact, very rarely, are these darknesses associated with the infused contemplation of Christian Mysticism. To discern what is authentic and what is not is an extremely difficult task to accomplish speculatively. As Evelyn Underhill has pointed out, and I agree with her, only the mystics can discern what is authentic darkness and what is not, for only they share in that common Life with their Head and each other.

Like you I have pondered deeply the differences that exist between the darkness of psychological illness on the one hand, and the darkness which the Christian Saints and Doctors of the Church have experienced ultimately as supreme psychological integrity and well-being on the other. To that end I have studied the works of St John of the Cross since 1995.

My explorations into Mysticism are not, and have not been, however, motivated by academic interest, but by the need to find a written account of the same lived experience in another, and to learn from that account how I might 'word' and faithfully correspond to the promptings of an interior life which has unfolded itself in my psyche over the course of the last 26 years.

In Book 1 of John's Dark Night of the Soul, he explains why our journey into God comes to us as a dark night to the psyche. He gives three reasons, these are;
1. "The point of departure, because individuals must deprive themselves of their appetites for worldly possessions. This denial and deprivation is like a night to the senses.
2. The second reason refers to the means or the road along which a person travels to this union [with god]. Now this road is faith and for the intellect faith is also a dark night.
3. The third reason pertains to the point of arrival, namely God. And God is also a dark night to the soul in this life. These three nights pass through the soul, or better, the soul passes through them in order to reach union with God."

But, in fact, only two of these nights mark clearly the development of an infused interior life as it progresses through its various stages, these are; The Night of Sense - the point of departure, and The Night of Spirit - the point of arrival. Both nights are interlinked and permeated throughout with the luminous darkness of faith which is the road which we must travel to union with God.

For John, faith is the only proximate and proportionate means of union with God. The faith he speaks of is synonymous for him with infused contemplation or, as the Cloud author would put it, knowing in unknowing,an obscure dark habit of the soul which, at the same time as being dark, is filled with luminosity.

What is it then, that we must unknow in order to know God as He is in Himself in Luminous Darkness? Experience teaches that we must renounce, or unknow, our own affectivity as belonging to us. For it is the misuse of that affectivity, and its power to drive our Will and the soul's other faculties of Intellect and Memory which keeps us tied and distracted by, and to, what John calls "worldly possessions". In that respect our affective Ego, when we consent to its darkening, is not destroyed, but redeemed, recentered, enthralled and held captivated by the Will of the Other, Who, by His grace, is in us, but not of us.

From my own experience of working with depressed patients, and from comparing and contrasting their dark experience with my own, it seems to me that the most telling difference between depression and infused contemplative darkness is this; those who suffer from a depressive illness, unlike the mystic, never come to the point of finding within their darkness a loving, intimate Presence revealing Itself, and in that revelation, healing and psychological integrity.

In depression there is loss of affectivity with concomitant darkness and psychological upheaval in which the person struggles vainly to regain some semblance, albeit in a more stable form, of the 'status quo ante'. The result is psychological breakdown as the two poles of the psyche war against each other. In infused contemplative darkness there is also loss of affectivity, darkness and psychological upheaval, and though there is a struggle to begin with to recover the 'status quo ante', eventually there is acceptance of the darkness and a desire to move with it rather than against it. The two poles of the psyche begin to come into line with each other and the result is breakthrough rather than breakdown.

The element of faith which is supremely important for moving us away from breakdown and into the breakthrough of infused contemplation, the element which is most overlooked by those who teach and study such things, is the volitional element of faith. It is by a movement of our own will, albeit aided by grace, that we must consent to the loss of affectivity, no longer desiring to experience it as belonging to us. Our Lord has promised us in Scripture, "That whoever humbles himself will be exalted". And, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. Anyone who loves his life [the life of affectivity and the associated possession of 'worldly goods'] loses it; anyone who hates [such a] life in the world will keep it for eternal life."

Ultimately, such a movement of one's own will, an identification with Our Lady's Fiat and Christ's, "Not my will but Your Will be done", the renunciation of what Evelyn Underhill calls the " Me, My and Mine", is a movement of supreme detachment and heroic charity. It is the movement of this charity in the will which begins the unification of our own will with God's Will, since it renders our charity connatural with Christ's.

From this connaturality spring the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit which, through the gifts of Understanding, Knowledge and Wisdom, principally, comes breakthrough and illumination to the psyche. One moves from the Purgative Way of Beginners into the Illuminative Way of Proficients in which one attains conformity of one's own will with the Will of God. It is in the Illuminative Way that Spiritual Betrothal is wrought.

In the Illuminative Way, though one has lost the desire to be master of his own affectivity, it still functions, but in relation to things of the Spirit and no longer the 'world'. There is, consequently, much affective prayer in the Illuminative Way. One has only to read the Song of Songs, or John's Canticle and what passes between the Bridegroom and His Bride, to catch glimpses of the deeply sensuous nature of the Illuminative Way. Often there are raptures and ecstasy as one's own affectivity 'swoons' and is drawn out of itself in, and into, His Presence. All this, as John tells us, in order to capture and accommodate the senses to the Spirit.

But there is yet to come another Night, much darker than the Night of Sense, the Night of Spirit, or point of arrival, as John puts it, which must also be borne in order to arrive at Transforming Union or Spiritual Marriage.

Each of the stages of an infused spiritual journey mark the long slow movements of the soul or psyche. Although John's Nights form one suppositum, as he tells us, they are nevertheless staged, each of the stages holding sway over the psyche for a number of years. Hence the images of journey and climbing to a mountain top.

Each stage i.e., The Purgative Way of Beginners with its Night of Sense, The Illuminative Way of Proficients, and The Unitive Way of the Perfect leading to Transforming Union or Spiritual Marriage, marks clearly the organic process through which the psyche must pass in order to reach maturity and psychological well-being in Christ. Each of these stages can be thought of in fact, in a similar way to the stages which mark the organic process of our physical growth, i.e., Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age and Death. I labour this point here, for it seems to me that those who write of the infused spiritual journey without having first lived through all its movements, often give the impression that its three stages happen all at once and together, and not only to individual souls, but to society in general, my point is that they do not, and cannot. Our God is a personal God and He converts our souls to Himself gradually and individually, and only with our explicit consent.

In the Night of Spirit then, the latter of the two Dark Nights which reform and redeem our affectivity, the affective Knowledge of God which was enjoyed in the Illuminative Way, is withdrawn, cut off. It is the withdrawal of this affective Knowledge, which causes the feeling of being abandoned by God and indeed all one's friends,. Of being brought into a vast unbounded desert of solitude, for if one can no longer enjoy the Knowledge of God affectively, neither can one enjoy affective knowledge of 'creatures' either.

A huge void opens in the soul's faculties, for the Will has been dispossessed by Love Himself, the Intellect by Faith and the Memory by Hope. In effect the mystic is Transformed into God's Affectivity. But, since Love is interior to Itself and Knows only Itself, albeit, in this case in a human frame, nevertheless, such Love, such Affectivity, is its Own Cause, and does not depend on the will of another to move it. Such self-causing Affectivity is as Nothing to the our natural intelligence, will and memory, for such Knowledge moves in the soul secretly, unobservable to our natural faculties.

All that can be known of God in Transforming Union is a feeling of having lost oneself and yet, curiously, at the same moment, of having been found. ''No longer,'' as John puts it, ''Seen or heard on the common,'' for the soul knows that it no longer functions in the way that is common to all, i.e. to be moved by one's own affective needs, but is now moved by the Affectivity of Christ.

St Paul, and all the Christian Mystics who have followed after him, say of this conversion of their minds into Christ, ''With Christ I hang upon the Cross, and yet I am alive:or rather, not I: it is Christ who lives in me. True I am living this mortal life. But my real life is in the faith I have in the Son of God, Who loved me, and gave Himself for me.''

In Transforming Union, the soul's faculties and their affectivity are so captured and made one with God that they seem to be entirely lost to the soul, and indeed they are, for now God is their Affectivity alone. As John says of this union, Flame,2; 34, ''Accordingly the intellect of this soul is God's Intellect; the will is God's Will; its memory the Memory of God; and its delight is God's Delight; and although the substance of the soul is not God, since it cannot undergo a substantial conversion into Him, it has become God by participation in God, being united to and absorbed in Him as it is in this state.''

You may recall that in my Journey Into God story, which I sent to you some 2 years ago, I tried to capture in words this paradoxical state of having at the same moment the perception of having lost 'myself' and yet of being found thus;

Of losing one's own affectivity and its powers -


'' I live in a vast unbounded desert in which no-one and nothing appear. By day my eyes are blinded by the Brightness of the Sun and my mouth parched with Its Heat. At night, when I lie down to sleep, my body and soul are frozen to death in a wide-eyed awareness of my own absurdity.''

The eyes refer to the lack of understanding one experiences in the intellect and memory. The parching of the mouth, the loss of one's own will under the 'Gaze of God'. The freezing of the body and soul, the acute awareness of supreme poverty of spirit under that same Gaze, which is faith.

Of finding oneself held in the Affectivity of God-


How strange it should be,
That we who seemed four,
Are now become Three.
And We Who are Three
Are yet become One,
Father, Spirit and Sons in the Son.

One 'sees' through the indwelling presence of Wisdom the union that has been effected in the soul into the Interior Life of the Trinity.

It is difficult to write of such sublime things, not only because of the lack of a suitable medium in which to express them, for language cannot capture fully what I would like to say of such an habitual experience, but also because I am mindful of Cardinal Newman's ''Secretuum Meum Mihi'', my secret is my own. It seems almost blasphemous to divulge such a Secret to another. And yet, I would like very much to enter into dialogue with another who has more than a passing interest in such things.