Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One Half a Friar The Story of Teresa and John That Jews and Christians, together with Muslims, can live in amity, respecting differences while honoring commonalities -- that this is no pipe dream -- is proven by the fact that, for centuries, they did just that.
-- James Carroll
Jews, Christians, and Muslims did indeed live in harmony in a time and place that "some remember as a kind of paradise." It is known as the convivencia, the "living together." The time was between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and the place was Spain. As Carroll recounts it, it was a time when Muslims opened the doors of their mosques for Christian worship services and when Jews were schoolmasters for Christian children. This rich cross-fertilization of faiths and cultures produced famous universities and renowned thinkers, including the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who chose to write not in Hebrew, but in Arabic.
Religious warfare originating outside Spain began to dismantle the convivencia in the twelfth century, but vestiges of its rich heritage lasted into the sixteenth century, the time of Teresa of Á vila and John of the Cross. In many ways, Teresa and John inherited the creative legacy of the convivencia.
John of the Cross will forever be credited for the idea of dark night of the soul, but the inspiration wasn't his alone. John acknowledged his indebtedness to a number of previous authors, including an obscure sixth-century mystic who wrote under the name of Dionysius and spoke of "a ray of darkness." Of all those who influenced John's work, however, the most important was Teresa, the woman he called his spiritual mother. Though he seldom acknowledged her as asource, nearly all of John's imagery and most of his fundamental insights can be found in Teresa's earlier writings. Thus to appreciate the meaning of the dark night, we must start with Teresa of Á vila.
In the rugged central highlands of Spain, fifty miles west of Madrid, is the ancient walled city of Á vila. It lies on the Adaja River, in a valley between two great mountain ranges: the Sierra de Gredos to the south and the Sierra de Guadarrama to the east. Teresa was born there in the cold early spring of 1515.
It was the last year of the reign of King Ferdinand; Isabella had died a decade earlier, after establishing the Spanish Inquisition, putting a formal end to the convivencia by expelling all Jews from Spain, and sending Columbus to the New World. Balboa had just claimed the entire Pacific Ocean in the name of Spain, and treasure from the Americas was making Spain the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world. Elsewhere, Leonardo da Vinci had just painted the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo had finished his sculpture of David. Copernicus was developing his claim that the planets revolve around the sun, and two years later Martin Luther would nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
Teresa was born into a wealthy family of textile merchants. Her grandfather had been a converso, a Jew forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. Her father saw to the education of his twelve children and made sure his daughters learned to read and write at home -- there was no public education for women. Teresa was bright, spirited, adventurous, and, like many children of the time, fervently religious. At the age of seven, inspired by reading thelives of the saints, she and a brother tried to run away from home and become martyrs, "to go to the land of the Moors ... and have them cut off our heads." They were apprehended at the edge of town by an uncle, who returned them to their worried mother. "Our greatest obstacle," Teresa later wrote, "was that we had parents."
When Teresa was twelve, her mother died. Soon thereafter, her father noticed that Teresa's passions had shifted from spirituality to romance novels and, of course, to boys. Concerned about her future, he sent her to a convent school when she was sixteen.
He never wanted her to become a nun and could not have foreseen that her passions would revert, as they soon did, to prayer and a growing call to religious life. Because her father was strongly set against her becoming a nun, Teresa struggled mightily with the decision. Perhaps in part because of this conflict, she fell ill. The illness, the first of many that were to plague her the rest of her life, forced her to leave the school. Her recovery took nearly two years, during which her sense of call to religious life grew even stronger. Finally at the age of twenty, she convinced her father of her determination and became a Carmelite novice.
Less than two years after her profession as a nun, she again became ill, eventually suffering a paralysis of her legs that kept her an invalid for three years. Then, at the age of twenty-seven, while praying to St. Joseph, she experienced what she felt was a miraculous recovery. In that same year, 1542, less than thirty miles away in the small village of Fontiveros, John of the Cross was born.
John's father, like Teresa's, had come from a wealthy family oftextile merchants. But the family disowned him when he married John's mother, a poor weaver far beneath his social station. Thus, unlike Teresa, John was born into poverty. Worse, his father died shortly after John was born, leaving John and his mother and two older brothers destitute. After one of his brothers died, possibly from malnutrition, his mother moved to Medina del Campo. There she was able to place John in a church orphanage school, where he could be fed and educated. He excelled academically and as a teenager worked in a hospital as an orderly.
We have no evidence that he ever considered any career other than the religious life ...
“Mays book uses the same title in an attempt to both clarify and amplify St. John of the Crosss original work, and to place it in a modern setting.... A vivid picture of a young man with a deep love for God and brilliant intellect.” Conversations Journal
May argues that the dark "shadow" side of the true spiritual life has been trivialized and neglected to our serious detriment; superficial and naively upbeat spirituality does not heal and enrich the soul. Only the honest, sometimes difficult, encounters with what Christian spirituality has described in helpful detail as "the dark night of the soul" can lead to true spiritual wholeness.
Distinguished psychiatrist, spiritual counselor, and bestselling author Gerald G. May argues that the "shadow" side of the spiritual life has been trivialized and neglected to our serious detriment. In The Dark Night of the Soul
, Dr. May shows that the dark side is a vital ingredient for deep, authentic, healthy spirituality.
Superficial and naively upbeat spirituality does not heal and enrich the soul; nor does our tendency to relegate deep spiritual growth to mystics and saints help us cope with the fullness of what we experience in life. Only honest, sometimes difficult encounters with what Christian spirituality calls "the dark night of the soul" can lead to true spiritual wholeness.
May emphasizes that the dark night is not necessarily a time of suffering and despair, but rather one of deep transition, during which our lives are clouded and full of mystery as we move through a time of trial and uncertainty to freedom and joy. The darkness of the night implies nothing sinister, but rather that our liberation takes place mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control.
May draws on the great Christian spiritual teachings and writings on the "dark night," especially by John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, on other spiritual traditions, psychiatric ideas and resources, and on poetry and literature. The Dark Night of the Soul embraces the universal spiritual experience of disorientation, doubt, fear, emptiness, "dryness," and despair, all of which are ingredients in developing a mature, authentic spiritual life.
Gerald May, MD, the esteemed younger brother of the late famed psychiatrist and writer Rollo May, MD, is one of the great spirituality teachers and writers of our time. And his merging of psychiatric analysis and counselling into deep spirituality is unique and highly esteemed.
In this book, he argues that the dark "shadow" side of the true spiritual life has been trivialized and neglected to our serious detriment. Superficial and naively upbeat spirituality does not heal and enrich the soul. Nor does the other tendency to relegate deep spiritual growth to only mystics and saints. Only the honest, sometimes difficult encounters with what Christian spirituality has called and described in helpful detail as "the dark night of the soul" can lead to true spiritual wholeness. He emphasizes that the dark night is not necessarily a time of suffering and near despair, but a time of deep transition, search for new orientation when things are clouded and full of mystery. May draws on the resources of great Christian spiritual teaching and writing on the Dark Night, especially by Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and on other spiritual traditions, psychiatric ideas and writing, and on great poetry and other literature. The Dark Night of the Soul embraces the universal spiritual experience of disorientation, doubt, fear, emptiness, "dryness," despair, and the like, all of which are ingredients in developing a mature, authentic spiritual life. The dark gives depth, dimension, fullness to the spiritual life.
About the Author
Gerald G. May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and Grace, Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, Will and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.