Joseph’s Initiation to the Dark Night of the Soul

Joseph had suffered much. One would think that it was time now for God to relax his heavy hand and give the man a break. But God knew the task for which He had called him and saw fit to take him deeper into the dark interior regions of his soul. In fact, God sends him down to the bare bottom of his being. He invites Joseph to experience what has become known as the “dark night of the soul.” This terminology was coined by St. John of the Cross who described this experience in the two great works, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, and its sequel The Dark Night of the Soul. In the Ascent John describes the ascent to God as an active dark of the senses and spirit. By “active” he means that we can and must orient ourselves to the task by taking an active role in the purgation of our senses and spirit. We have touched upon this in our last post “Joseph’s Self Mastery” (May 5th, 2014). In the Dark Night sequel John describes what he calls the passive night of the senses and spirit, which is far more intense and difficult than the active night, for here God seems to abandon the soul so that we learn to love Him for Himself, and not for the feelings and gifts He gives us. This will be described in the next post. For an excellent translation and comments on the Saint and his works, see K. Kavanaugh, and O. Rodriguez, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Washington D.C.: ICS Pub., 1991).

This phrase, “the dark night of the soul” is very dramatic, and this is intentionally so. No doubt, one’s first impression of it will depend on one’s temperament, and most probably this first impression would be wrong. For instance, many will find the phrase disheartening, especially in a culture where such imagery is more likely associated with the old Saturday afternoon horror matinees. Mystics tend to be fond of shocking and volatile words, however, for their experience is so intensely beyond the “normal” that they grasp for whatever words they can to wake us from our slumbers. They know that those who are really desperate to know what they are talking about will work their way through their vocabulary.

It is a fact that God does not let all of His children experience this “dark night.” There are some who say that God reserves such experiences for only a chosen few. What is behind such thinking is not so much an elitist attitude but a desire to protect a sacred experience from being misunderstood and misinterpreted to mean something other than it is. In fact, there are signs that this may be happening in some circles where this particular phrase has been kicked around a bit too much of late, and has increasingly become common. Still, there is no reason not to believe that this experience of the “dark night” is in fact one which many Christians have passed through to some degree or another. Be this as it may, it is a truly biblical experience and one which the life of Joseph opens up for us to see.

We have seen that Joseph prospered in the dungeon because God was “with him.” While we cannot minimize the trauma of his situation, or the anguish of soul brought about by this trial, things were not as bad as they could be for him. The fact is that when someone senses the presence of God in their lives, circumstances mean very little. We imagine him going about his duties in his normal fashion when one day two very unusual persons arrive in the prison (Gen. 40). Things were about to change for Joseph; things would never be quite the same again for him, both in the immediate future and long term. These new prisoners happen to be officials of the highest rank holding the titles of Chief Cup-bearer and Chief Baker of the King. Of course we know that these men were not common house servants who poured wine and baked bread for royalty, but held positions given to men who administered and controlled vast sectors of Egypt’s economy in Pharaoh’s service. For some reason they fell into disfavor, and the king was waiting to decide their fate. Handling such men was a sensitive task demanding tact. The Warden placed these powerful officials in the care of Joseph, knowing that he had experience serving Potiphar, a man who held similar rank in the kingdom as these men.

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