Book Review: The Dark Night of the Soul
Author: Gerald G. May, M.D.
Publisher: HarperOne ISBN: 9780060750558
It is too bad that many folks will discount this book because it is (was) written by a psychiatrist. It is equally bad that many Protestants will avoid the book because of its Catholic heritage. I believe that even worse still, there will be those who miss the wisdom inside the pages of this book, who could benefit from the guidance and spiritual insight during their seasons of the dark night.
“At the outset I must confess that I am no longer very good at telling the difference between good things and bad things.” -The Dark Night of the Soul; Gerald May, M.D.
I rather wish the title of this book had been different. I think it gives a false impression of what the subject really explores; although, it does address the dark night of the soul. May uses the backdrop of the writings from St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross to lay his foundation for his exploration of the phenomenon of the “dark night” or spiritual darkness (which might also be known as spiritual awakening or enlightenment). I have read quite extensively from both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Their writings can be something of a bit archaic depending on the translation and they can be somewhat romanticized within the context of their poetic settings. I say this to make a point that they can sometimes be difficult to completely understand. Despite his academic and clinical background, Dr. May writes clearly and in a very personal voice that I find very easy to grasp. His writing is warm, friendly, and very down-to-earth. He takes complex ideas and difficult situations and makes easy conversation with them. Not only was I enlightened by what I read, I was also comforted by someone whom I believe shared understanding of my circumstances and experiences.
What might be the greatest contribution of this book in my opinion is the synergy that Dr. May creates between the spirit and the psyche… perhaps another way of saying this is the convergence of the soul and the spirit. While some voices would discount the science of psychology, I believe it is helpful for us to understand the workings of the mind and soul. God instructs us to love Him with all our “heart, soul, mind, and strength.” It is obvious then, we should pay attention to these various facets that make up the essence of human beings. It is my opinion that Gerald May handles this material with humility and reverence, which helps in bringing attention to the work of God in the process of the dark night. It might be for this reason that I most liked chapter five, Three Signs and Three Spirits, where May teaches at length about the psychology of the dark night… very, very good instruction here.
“As John makes clear, it is not God who disappears, but only our concepts, images, and sensations of God.” –The Dark Night of the Soul; Gerald May (p.146)
Another very helpful chapter to me was chapter six, The Dark Night Today, where May discusses the dark night in modern contexts. While there is no substitute for reading the translated original writings from John and Teresa, Dr. May’s exploration is arguably one of the best companion guides I have read to date and I have several expositions on the writings of Teresa and John in my personal library.
The book includes a very well annotated notes section and an exhaustive index at the end of the book. Personally, I think this is a book every Christian should read and I am very glad I did.