In the Real Dark Night of the Soul, it is Always 3:00 in the Morning

Have you ever felt like your soul was wandering around in darkness? Have you ever felt emotionally confused or depressed or overwhelmed with a sense of mourning?

“The dark night of the soul” was a phrase first used by the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross in 16th century.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”

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In the book of John a man came to Jesus at night, perhaps because he wanted to avoid the inconvenience of the large crowds that followed Jesus during the day. Perhaps because the man was a Pharisee, and it wouldn’t have been a good career move to be seen with Jesus.

But whatever the reason, for convenience or secrecy, I find it remarkable…that Jesus accepted him. Jesus didn’t berate his laziness or the cowardly nature of his visit, coming under the cover of darkness. In fact, this was one of the first people with whom Jesus shared the purpose of his life:

God sent his son not to condemn the world, but to save the world.

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Imagine walking on a path at night. You have a flashlight, but there’s someone walking in front of you who doesn’t, and they keep tripping. Would you walk up behind them and smack them over the head with the light? Would you walk up beside them and shine the light right in their face? Would you just pass them and leave them in darkness once again?


You’d probably walk up and join them, keeping the light low so you didn’t blind them, invite them to walk beside you so that you could both see better.

* * * * *

This makes me wonder: how do I interact with people who come to me during a dark night of their soul? When someone comes to me to mourn, do I mourn alongside them, or do I try to cheer them up? When a friend confides in me about a difficult decision they’ve made (a choice I might see as unhealthy or risky or just plain dumb), do I pound them over the head with the light of truth, or do I walk up beside them, illuminating their path with a loving presence, perhaps even dimming my light at first so that it doesn’t blind them?

* * * * *

The writings of St. John of the Cross make it evident that this dark night through which the saint traveled actually made the light brighter. Without the blackness of night, he would not have been drawn to the burning flame.

If you are in the middle of one of these dark nights of the soul, keep your eyes open. A light will come.

If you have a friend walking in the shadows, move up beside them, put your arm around them, travel with them.

* * * * *

Come out to The Red this week as we talk more about “Night.”

Have you been through a dark night of the soul? What was it that helped you through?

9 Replies to “In the Real Dark Night of the Soul, it is Always 3:00 in the Morning”

  1. It has always been God, my family and friends that have gotten me through the dark nights. More specific my children have carried me by just being themselves.

  2. shawn, i hope my words don’t come across as disagreement. rather they’re written for clarification and/or out of genuine curiosity.

    it’s been a long time since i’ve read any st. john of the cross, but it was my understanding that his description of “the dark night of the soul” was intended to specifically address those times in which our devotional lives seem to yield little or nothing in the way of pleasure, satisfaction, encouragement, or feelings of closeness to God.

    but i do often hear people refer to “dark nights of the soul” as being simply hard times or times of mourning or depression, etc. are you familiar enough with the st. john stuff to know if what i’m saying is right or wrong? or are there others who have written about these “dark nights” who have broadened the idea to be what it is now generally accepted as?

    1. good question james. i think the original work from which this phrase is pulled can be found here:

      i think you are correct to say that when st. john of the cross wrote, it would seem that his intended audience would have been people who had a deep relationship with God but suddenly found themselves in a time of darkness.

      you are also correct in saying that, more recently, the meaning seems to have morphed into any sort of dark time.

      now that i think more about it, st. john of the cross’s original intent is very interesting when placed as an overlay against nicodemus’s visit to jesus.

      finally, your comment raises interesting questions in my mind regarding the weight we should give to a writer’s intended audience, or the writer’s intended meaning, and how we go about interpreting/extracting truth while keeping those intentions in mind.

      1. ..when considering St. John of the Cross it is worth remembering that it was penned/felt in the Counter Reformation. A time when among other activities the church again embraced mystical experience, as a direct counterpoint to the protestants. The context plays a roll. Also translation, there is quite a mountain of scholarship dedicated to understanding this sparse poem/pray. For a visual counterpoint look at Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy.

      2. i think i remember st. john offering reasons (though i didn’t look this up again to be sure) we may go through a time of unrewarded discipline and devotion in our spiritual lives. reasons like us not depending on our feelings, or not becoming proud of our relationship with God, or not thinking of our devotions as a magic formula for closeness to him.

        and now we think of the dark night as something bad that is happening to us — a breakup or divorce, the death of a loved one, joblessness, or just depression in general.

        st. john was saying God himself withholds joy from us in times of devotion in order to teach us something. but our current understanding involves encouraging christians to patiently endure outside circumstances until they are able once again to have the joy that God will give them.

        st. john’s dark night is due to God and his discipline. ours is due to a fallen world and outside circumstances. his is God withholding joy. ours is God waiting to give joy.

        i’m not saying either idea excludes the other, or that one is better. just that they’re not at all the same.

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  4. Thank you for this. I was just looking for the Fitzgerald quote, but what I really needed was what you said here. In a dark place. This helped more than you can know. Soli Deo gloria.

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