Invitation to Love

Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Continuum, 1995. 151 pages
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Chapter 10: The Night of Sense: Freedom from the False Self

The decision to follow Christ is only the first step in the Christian spiritual journey. We must also confront the unconscious values which make up the false self and tempt us back to our former way of life. In so doing we become aware of a darker side of ourselves and may become discouraged and feel alienated from God. But this is a necessary part of the journey and, indeed, a sign of progress and growth.

St. John of the Cross called this difficult period the Night of Sense. It has three signs. The first is dryness in one's spiritual and daily life. It feels like a loss of the comfort and joy we experienced before. "As sensible grace begins to fade, the lack of any feeling of benefit in spiritual exercises increases. At the same time we do not find satisfaction in worldly things," because we now know that "God alone can satisfy our boundless longing for happiness." We mourn the passing of the fantasy of emotional programs for happiness.

The second sign is the fear that God has left us because we have offended him, that our relationship with him is ended. But what has ended is our "overdependence on the senses and reasoning in order to pray." A more intimate relationship with God is now in the offing. As with the weaned child, who at first cries to return to the breast, we are being offered more substantial spiritual food.

The third sign is "the inability or disinclination to practice discursive meditation." Discursive meditation means pondering the teaching and example of Jesus. In the Night of Sense, "the will finds no benefit or pleasure in particular acts of love, praise, petition, or any other response to God's gifts. Still, we desire to be alone with God. . . ."

All three signs must be present to discern the Night of Sense. If not, the individual may be suffering some pathology such as depression.

In the Night of Sense God is teaching us that we cannot have plans and strategies for our spiritual journey. "Through the infusion of his light and the assurance of his love, he lets us in on our weaknesses and deficiencies - not to overwhelm us with discouragement, but to encourage us to entrust ourselves completely to his infinite mercy."