1. The fire of love is not commonly felt at the outset, either because it does not have a chance to take hold, owing to the impurity of the sensory part, or because the soul for want of understanding has not made within itself a peaceful place for it; although at times with or without these conditions a person will begin to feel a certain longing for God. In the measure that the fire increases, the soul becomes aware of being attracted by the love of God and enkindled in it, without knowing how or where this attraction and love originates. At times this flame and enkindling increase to such an extent that the soul desires God with urgent longings of love, as David, while in this night, said of himself: Because my heart was inflamed (in contemplative love), my reins were likewise changed [Ps. 73:21]. That is, my appetites of sensible affection were changed from the sensory life to the spiritual life, which implies dryness and cessation of all those appetites we are speaking of. And, he says: I was brought to nothing and annihilated, and I knew not [Ps. 73:22]. For, as we pointed out,1 the soul, with no knowledge of its destination, sees itself annihilated in all heavenly and earthly things in which it formerly found satisfaction; and it only sees that it is enamored, but knows not how.
Because the enkindling of love in the spirit sometimes increases exceedingly, the longings for God become so intense that it will seem to such persons that their bones are drying up in this thirst, their nature withering away, and their ardor and strength diminishing through the liveliness of the thirst of love. They will feel that this is a living thirst. David also had such experience when he proclaimed: My soul thirsts for the living God [Ps. 43:3], as though to say, this thirst my soul experiences is a living thirst. Since this thirst is alive, we can assert that it is a thirst that kills. Yet it should be noted that its vehemence is not continual, but only experienced from time to time, although usually some thirst is felt.
2. Yet it must be kept in mind that, as I began to say here, individuals generally do not perceive this love in the beginning, but they experience rather the dryness and void we are speaking of. Then, instead of this love which is enkindled afterward, they harbor, in the midst of the dryness and emptiness of their faculties, a habitual care and solicitude for God accompanied by grief or fear about not serving him. It is a sacrifice most pleasing to God - that of a spirit in distress and solicitude for his love [Ps. 51:17].
Secret contemplation produces this solicitude and concern in the soul until, after having somewhat purged the sensory part of its natural propensities by means of this aridity, it begins to enkindle in the spirit this divine love. Meanwhile, however, as in one who is undergoing a cure, all is suffering in this dark and dry purgation of the appetite, and the soul being relieved of numerous imperfections acquires many virtues, thereby becoming capable of this love, as will be shown in the explanation of the following verse: - ah, the sheer grace! -
3. God introduces people into this night to purge their senses, and to accommodate, subject, and unite the lower part of the soul to the spiritual part by darkening it and causing a cessation of discursive meditation (just as afterward, in order to purify the spirit and unite it to himself, he brings it into the spiritual night). As a result they gain so many benefits - though at the time this may not be apparent - that they consider their departure from the fetters and straits of the senses a sheer grace. The verse therefore proclaims: " - ah, the sheer grace! - " We ought to point out the benefits procured in this night, for it is because of them that the soul says it was a sheer grace to have passed through it.2 All these benefits are included in the next verse: I went out unseen,
4. This going out bears reference to the subjection the soul had to its senses, in seeking God through operations so feeble, limited, and exposed to error as are those of this lower part, for at every step it stumbled into numerous imperfections and much ignorance, as was noted above in relation to the seven capital vices.3 This night frees the soul from all these vices by quenching all its earthly and heavenly satisfactions, darkening its discursive meditations, and producing in it other innumerable goods through its acquiring of the virtues, as we will now explain. For it will please and comfort one who treads this path to know that a way seemingly so rough and adverse and contrary to spiritual gratification engenders so many blessings.
These blessings are attained when by means of this night the soul departs from all created things, in its affections and operations, and walks on toward eternal things. This is a great happiness and grace: first, because of the signal benefit of quenching one's appetite and affection for all things; second, because there are very few who will endure the night and persevere in entering through this narrow gate and treading this constricted road that leads to life, as our Savior says [Mt. 7:14].
This narrow gate is the dark night of sense, in which the soul is despoiled and denuded - in order to enter it - and grounded in faith, which is foreign to all sense, that it may be capable of walking along the constricted road, which is the night of spirit. The soul enters this second night so that it may journey to God in pure faith, for pure faith is the means whereby it is united with God. Few there are who walk along this road, because it is so narrow, dark, and terrible that, in obscurities and trials, the night of sense cannot be compared to it, as will be explained. Yet the benefits of this night are incomparably greater than those of the night of sense. We will say something now about the benefits of the night of sense as briefly as possible in order to pass on to our exposition of the other night." St John of the Cross