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The Dark Night of the SoulReview - The Dark Night of the Soul
A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth
by Gerald G. May
HarperSanFrancisco, 2004
Review by A.P. Bober
Jun 17th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 24)

Facing death by cancer and a serious heart condition May experienced a seeming epiphany making him forget much of his former psychological training and overlook "embarrassing" aspects of his topic. Still he retains a rich dyadic experience gained with "fellow-seekers" though packaging it in committed language. Moreover, though it often seems he achieves his claim of "[grasping] much of the original meaning" (p. 10) of the writings of Teresa de Ávila and Juan de Yepes de Álvarez (hereafter "Teresa" and "Yepes" or "Juan" respectively), his claim that "here and there I have also added some of my own distortions" turns modesty into hubris. He likely imposes on them a vague and referent-free theology not of their making. The only available "jacket" of the times that could gloss the "peak-experiences" they reported was "theology." I'll continue underscoring the relatively few merits of his votively investigated opus concluding with deficits unfortunately numerous. 

Reviewing extensive research on the subject yielding three dozen moot issues, I find May reveals degrees of misconception re the following. "Mysticism":

1.  has no essential connection with (at least monotheistic, "Western") religion.

2.  is, therefore, available to all humans at very least (against p. 12), including "pagans," agnostics, atheists, adiaphorists, humanists, satanists, and shriners.

3.  does not require ego-suppression, self-conquest, or purification (against p. 166, "The ego seems to begin in . . . arrogance, feeling it can . . . master its own destiny." The journey, he claims, goes "from delusional arrogance through humiliation to self-acceptance.") In reality, the Jungian "center of my consciousness," the "ego," "feels" small within the "center of my totality," the "self."

4.  has no connection with dubious notions of "mental illness" (about which May is at least ambivalent).

5.  may or may not involve lights, sounds, smells, "voices," or other "sensory" modalities.

6.  has a rich, complex relationship with "passivity/activity," "withdrawal," and the like.

7.  is not "epilepsy" (a vague, non-organic category). (If discussed, May would likely have claimed the opposite.)

8.  does involve "split-brain" (whether left-right or anterior-posterior). (May's "theurgic" commitments makes him ignore this.)

9.  doesn't require guides or gurus.

10. is as "effable" as any objectifiable, wordless experience can be but almost certainly not before cool Monday-morning quarterbacking. Failure of the hard work of poetized or other expressive communication of "raw" experience [Apparently words "cook" it!] stands in the way as a kind of anticipation of the "agony of realization."  "Las palabras sólo permiten un intento de aproximación a lo inefable." (Rossi [4.], p. 239; "Words only give us a hint of the ineffable.").

Oddly, May includes Teresa in a book that explores a subtitled "darkness and spiritual growth." Having read key works of prose and poetry by and about Teresa, I'm unable to recall any reference to "darkness." She is a writer of light, "diamond" (the "rey/king" at the center of the "moradas/chambers"), verdant "palmitos" and other items with mandalic centrality, lyrics and sounds of an uplifting sort, and perfumes (whose scent her strict "ordered" life did not prevent having her sheets imbued with). Juan himself may only be situationally attracted to darkness, one filled with the Toledan starlight. Brennan (1.), p. 30, refers to Juan's being imprisoned in a six-by-ten-foot closet -- perhaps inspiring a "womb"-obsession I shall not carry to Freudian lengths -- "lit by a loop-hole three fingers wide" through which I seem to recall he was barely able to see the night. Though May, pp. 34-6, summarizes the stories of Juan's escape, he'd have done better inserting text like Brennan's report even more heart-thumping (p. 28, the abduction; pp. 34-8, the actual process of escape) than the Conan Doyle I read as a teen. (The companion abducted with Yepes was indeed "Germán de San Matías" [May, p. 203, note 19]; a confusion may arise from the fact that Juan was "Juan de San Matías" before he was "de la Cruz.") Brennan notes (p. 48) "his predilection for retiring to some dark and confined place that opened onto a wide view." At the location referred to, Iznatoraf, Yepes would repair to a cupboard-sized belfry where "through a loop-hole [another!] in the wall one had a view of hills and green fields."

May, p. 56, misses the brain-lateralization in Yepes' sketch (Brennan, p. 48) of Mount Carmel. It's not hard to see in it the "mushroom-cloud" nature of its vertical centrality representing the human brain trailing into a "medulla oblongata" showing a very modern, balanced sense of "left- and right-brain." On the left are "scientia" and "intellectus," as we would expect of that crudely narrow "ego" side. (Unfortunately also there is the "sapientia"/"wisdom we'd expect on the right.) On the right we "properly" find the expansiveness of "c(h)aritas," "gaudium" ("joy," "ecstasy"), "patientia," "pax," "continentia" (perhaps best rendered as "moderation," with a sense of "balance," "centeredness"). The "split" may further be reflected in the "dos maneras" (May, p. 206, note 8) of "activa" and "passiva." Further, the reference, p. 119, to Teresa's "gustos" versus "contentos" may further underscore the split. 

That Teresa's view of the "integration of the personality" is like a Jungian "mandala," not a serially arranged "periwinkle" of "rooms"/"stages" one behind the other, is seen when she says "estaban colocadas como las hojas de un palmito, un fruto compuesto por una serie de hojas estrechamente unidas alrededor de una parte central que es la que se puede comer." (Rossi, p. 231) Or again at the center one finds a "Rey" or "sol"  "como un palmito, que para llegar a lo que es de comer tiene muchas coberturas. . . ." (de Jesus [1.], p. 11). There is a radial symmetry of "leaves" such that one arrives at the central fruit much like eating an artichoke by peeling away each covering leaf - not a bad metaphor for the modern humanistic psychology these intrapsychic geniuses anticipate.


May idealizes by (unconscious?) suppression certain unusual facts regarding his heroes and a period he admires: after contracting pleurisy and despite Teresa's opposition to extreme practices Yepes "was found to be wearing a chain with points that cut into his flesh, which in places had grown over it." (Brennan, p. 63); thought dead Teresa had been laid in a casket with the usual wax drippings covering her eyes when she "woke up," whether from a meditatively induced comatose-like state or from a "catatonia" likely to be a questionably imposed "diagnosis"; a certain Sor María de la Visitación developed "stigmata" -- shown in the last century easy to produce by "somnambulists" who go into the "other-guided focus" of "hypnosis" with relish and depth -- until the Inquisition questioned a nun who peeked through a keyhole claiming to see her "painting her wounds and proved the truth of this evidence by washing them. . . ." (Brennan, pp. 61-2)  (By the way, palm wounds logically would tear through while "spikes" placed between radius and ulna would hold.); "He was not allowed to bathe or change clothes." in May, p. 35, becomes in Brennan, p. 32, "His tunic, which was clotted with blood from his scourgings, stuck to his back and putrefied. Worms bred in it. . . . " lest anyone have illusions about inter-order amity.

To his credit May leans on the issue of paradox as when Teresa says: "I find it helpful to speak nonsense." (p. 125); "The understanding, if it does understand, does not understand how it understands." (p. 126). This is the "classic theme," p. 208, note 28, of "understanding by not understanding" as in the "docta ignorantia" of Nicolaus Cusanus, where we may say the full powers of "both sides of our awareness" are mediated as "insight" through the corpus callosum, or, as a student of humanistic psychology, Linda Walterreit (5.), stated it, as "the moment when everything comes together, all at once." (Even the famous "gestalt gorilla" in the cage put boxes and sticks "insightfully" together to get at suspended bananas.) There are simply times in our lives when words of experiential conviction pass our lips such that we absolutely "know" in a way not reducible to syllogism or "scientific" inference. That paradox partly expresses itself in the psychological "obscurity," p. 67, May rightly distinguishes from physical darkness.

The numerous faults in May's argument include the following: May beats to death a claimed derivation for "contemplation" as some kind of  "holy" ["con (cum) templum (-o; the correct ablative ending)")] process, one unfortunately with absolutely no epistemological basis and whose most specific meaning is "taking aim," as with a weapon, such as a bow and arrow ([3.], p. 445). He tends to view "oración" more as "prayer" in a devotional sense incompatible with the self-unifying, focused meditation Teresa drove through the restrictive forms of her time. Teresa used numerous terms -- "arrobamiento" (a being "robbed up into"?), "traspasamiento," "recogimiento," etc. -- the last of which May meaninglessly renders as a kind of cognitive transcendence, "The Lord made me recollected during conversation. . . ." (p. 22). "Recoger," and the many related terms Teresa uses, when not devoutly taken to indicate a physical "elevation," probably speaks to the kind of total, unplanned, somatopsychic sense of having one's unified forces "gathered together and up-stolen" into an exalted feeling -- "me dejaba toda abrasada en amor grande. . ." ("left me aflame in great love"; de Jesus, p. 238  [Vida, end of chapter 29]) -- that made her embarrassed to be in public while thus enthralled. (We overlook, in our own embarrassment, the "spearlike object" ["dardo"] that seemed to have fire at its iron tip "arriving at my entrails" ["entrañas"] -- wherever Freud would have imagined those to be -- at the risk of overdoing the oft-noted "dovetailing" of "sexual" and "mystical" experience. This certainly explains the modern yen for the metaphors of Yepes, vaguely sexual in nature, as superior to those of Teresa and of Fray Luis de León, when an inverted order of valuation is likely more sustainable.) He entirely misses what would be for him the compatibility of the "Penn school" of "neuroscientific" explanation of mystical experience of researchers like d'Aquili and Newberg, the most developed, when it doesn't descend to churchiness, and easiest to understand of that genre.

Thus, May leaves us with the proverbial "mixed bag" in which we can still find some well fashioned goodies.



(1.) Brennan, Gerald. Saint John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry. Cambridge, 1973.

(2.) De Jesus, Teresa. Las Moradas/Libro de su Vida. Mexico, D.F.: Porrúa, 1992.

(3.) Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

(4.) Rossi, Rosa. Teresa de Ávila: Biografía de una escritora. Barcleona: Icaria, 1984.

(5.) Walterreit, L.C. What is the experience of the moment when everything comes together all at once? Unpublished master's thesis, Merrill-Palmer Institute, 1980.



© 2005 A. P. Bober 


A. P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neurophysiology.


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