Greetings readers! We’re now less than 2 weeks away from our concerts with composer Ola Gjeilo, and we couldn’t be more excited to bring one of the most popular composers today to Portland and share his beautiful music with all of you! One of those pieces is called “Dark Night of the Soul”, and although the music is new, the text is centuries old! Here to give you some background on this text by St. John of the Cross is one of our longtime members, and author of our program notes and other informative blog posts, Susan Wladaver-Morgan!
“Dark Night of the Soul.” The phrase sounds so forbidding. It can conjure up images of being abandoned in a hostile universe or trapped inside your mind, alone with your own private demons. For many, the dark night appears as a crisis of faith, sometimes triggered by loss or illness, when everything you had trusted in suddenly collapses into doubt and God feels very far away. And no one seems to be immune from such crises—even people like Mother Theresa experienced her own dark time of doubt and alienation.
But amazingly, the original poem “Dark Night of the Soul,” by 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, overflows with anticipation and ends with joy as the soul escapes its mortal body to join with God. Here the soul ventures out of its “house” into the dark night, secretly, feeling no fear and guided in its journey by the blazing light of love. Yes, the night is dark and full of hardships, but faith leads the soul safely through all of them to a union with God. The two pieces by Ola Gjeilo that we will perform reflect the two parts of the original poem: “Dark Night” represents the soul’s journey, while “Luminous Night” reveals the soul’s fulfillment.
St. John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz) was a major figure in the Counter-Reformation (the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation) in Spain. Born around 1542, he joined the Carmelite Order as a friar in 1563 and continued his religious studies at Salamanca, where one of his teachers, Fray Luis de León, translated the Song of Songs into Spanish at a time when the Church forbade rendering the Bible in vernacular languages; John would later compose his sacred poetry in Spanish as well. He was ordained a priest in 1567 and intended to join a contemplative order.
However, that same year he met a Carmelite nun, Teresa de Jesus, who was on her way to found a new convent for women. They spoke about her plans for reforming the Carmelite Order, returning it to the “Primitive Rule” under which it had been founded in 1209. This Rule was extremely strict, involving long periods of silence, fasting, and other deprivations, including going barefoot (which led to her followers being called Discalced, or shoeless, Carmelites). She believed such reforms were necessary to reverse what she saw as corruption in the existing church, and she persuaded John to follow her lead. In 1568 he founded a monastery for friars based on Teresa’s principles and changed his name to John of the Cross. By the early 1570s, he was serving as spiritual director for both this monastery and for Teresa’s convent.
Sometime in the mid-1570s, he had a mystical vision of Christ crucified, seen from above, which he rendered in a drawing (this in turn inspired Salvador Dali’s famous painting. The same period saw growing tensions in the Carmelite Order over the new reforms. These culminated in 1576 when the governing body of the Order in Rome agreed on the total suppression of the Discalced Order, although the edict was not thoroughly enforced in Spain. Nevertheless, in 1577, a group of anti-reform Carmelites broke into John’s home, arrested and tortured him, and imprisoned him in a tiny cell. These were the circumstance in which he composed “Dark Night of the Soul” and his Spiritual Canticle, the paper smuggled to him by the friar who guarded his cell. He escaped in August 1578 and went on to found several more Discalced monasteries, which he could do safely once the papacy ruled that both Carmelite Orders could exist under their own rules. He died in 1591 and was canonized in 1726.
St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila were known in their lifetimes as dedicated (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) reformers of the Carmelite Order—indeed, what we would now call activists. But history treasures them for their mysticism and their glowing visions of the soul going far beyond this world toward union with God.
*Visit our website to purchase tickets to our upcoming concerts on Oct. 18 and 19! Adults and seniors, you can save up to 15% on our at-the-door prices by purchasing ticket in advance. All students with ID will be admitted for just $5!