Night of Sense


John of the Cross teaches that contemplation begins with what he calls the night of the sense. This is a no-man's land between one's own activity and the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit in which it becomes almost impossible to think thoughts that stir up sensible devotion. This is a common experience among those who have practiced discursive meditation over an extended period of time. One reaches the point where there is nothing new to be thought, said, or felt. If one has no subsequent direction in the life of prayer, one will not know what to do except perhaps to get up and walk our. The night of sense is a spiritual growing-up process similar to the transition from childhood to adolescence in chronological life. The emotionalism and sentimentality of childhood are beginning to be laid aside in favor of a more mature relationship with God. In the meantime, because God no longer gives help to the sense or to the reason, these faculties seem to be useless. One is more and more convinced that one can no longer pray at all.

John of the cross says that all one has to do in this state is to remain at peace, not try to think, and to abide before God with faith in His presence, continually turning to Him as if opening one’s eyes to look upon a loved one.

In a remarkable passage in The Living Flame of Love in which John of the Cross describes in detail the transition from sensible devotion to spiritual intimacy with God, he says that when one cannot reason discursively or make acts of the will with any satisfaction during prayer, one should give the situation a quiet welcome. One will then begin to feel peace, tranquility, and strength because God is now feeding the soul directly, giving His grace to the will alone and attracting it mysteriously to Himself. People in this state have great anxiety about whether they are going backward. They think that all the good things they experienced in the first years of their conversion are coming to and end, and if they are asked how their prayer life is, they will throw up their hands in despair. Actually, if questioned, further, they reveal that they have a great desire to find some way to pray and they like to be alone with God even though they can't enjoy Him. Thus, it is evident that there is a secret attraction present at a deep level of their psyche. This is the infused element of contemplative prayer. Divine love is the infused element. If it is given a quiet rest, it will grow from a spark into a living flame of love.


Thomas Keating - Open Mind, Open Heart