The dark night of the soul, photo by Marko MiloševićI have had some interesting conversations with some insightful magicians, discussing the phenomenon of the dark night of the soul, and the feelings of desolation, despair and deep depression which can occur to anyone who is following the initiatory path of magick. There seems to be consensus that all magicians at some point retire from the world (and, in a sense, renounce it) to undergo the mystical rigors of the dark night of the soul while seeking union with the One.

Strangely, I seem to be one of the few who takes issue with this. I think that it has more to do with a mystical approach to the godhead than a magical approach, and there are also the issues of chronic or situational depression, isolation and despair that have really nothing to do with spiritual ascension. In clinical depression, removing oneself from the world is a common symptom, and strong feelings are often replaced with a feeling of numbness, stasis or apathy.

The real question then, is whether or not mystics and magicians experience the iconic dark night of the soul in the same way. Some have also questioned whether there is a difference between the two paths since they seem to lead to the same ultimate place. Don’t get me wrong, since I am far more of a theurgist than a thaumaturgist, I do cultivate mystical experiences and encounters in the magical workings that I perform. However, there is a vast difference between having mystical experiences within a magical context and functioning as a mystic. They are not at all the same thing, in my opinion, and I believe that some magicians seem to confuse these two very different processes.

Magicians can and do have mystical experiences, but they are not mystics. This is because a magician’s spiritual purpose is quite different than that of a mystic. The purpose that a magician attempts to realize is not only spiritual union with the godhead, but also to act in the material world and assist in bringing its greater destiny to completion. Therefore, a magician’s path is a full circle; from seeking godhead in the depths of inner space to returning to the world transformed and then acting as an agent of that godhead in this world. Of course, not all magicians engage in this cycle, but those who follow the discipline of theurgy would undergo the classic cycle of transformational initiation, which we will discuss later.

This differentiation between mystic and magician leads me to make some theological considerations regarding the context through which the dark night of the soul occurs, both from a monotheistic and a Pagan perspective.

Origins of the dark night of the soul

The term “dark night of the soul” was a phrase invented by the Spanish poet and Christian mystic St. John of the Cross and given to the title of a series of poems he wrote (La Noche Oscura del Alma), even though the process he describes was certainly not his invention. The poems he wrote depict the archetypal process or journey that he underwent when he sought a more perfect union with God. It is called the “dark night” because it symbolizes the ordeal that the soul encounters when in that intermediate state between renouncing the world and reaching the illuminating presence of the deity. It is an experiential process that can and does happen over the course of many years, and in some documented cases, it is only intermittently resolved. According to St. John of the Cross, this process has two stages; the first is a purification of the senses, and the second and more difficult, is the purification of the soul. The purpose for both of these ordeals is to eliminate all irrelevant and worldly things from the senses, mind and soul of the seeker and thereby to become worthy of union with the absolute.

Purification of the senses is accomplished through a form of deprivation, where the mind and body are put in a situation where all sensory distractions are slowly attenuated until the life of the monk is one that is regulated by religious services, prayer, meditation, contemplation, work, and the basic needs of plain food and drink, rudimentary shelter, austere clothes, and little or no creature comforts whatsoever.

Purification of the soul is accomplished through strict forms of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and the enforcement of disciplines such as silence, isolation, self-humility, surrendering one’s self completely to God and the stripping away of all personal pride and self-definition. After a long period of rigorous discipline (and others even more inventive), the mind — and therefore the soul — will be purified of the distractions of the ego, personal vanity, and even one’s sense of identity. In the end, all that will remain is the nameless human being stripped of all extraneous things and naked and humbled before God. It is in such a state while waiting for the manifestation of God that the darkness reveals itself, filling the monk with doubt, fear, terrible and tormenting visions and nightmares, hopelessness, and the despair of failure – of being unworthy. If it were not for the brief but overpowering experience of union with God that uplifts and transforms the monk, then this process would produce nothing but self-destruction. However, it is a deliberative process and also one that is voluntary.

Abrahamic traditions

From the perspective of the Abrahamic religious traditions (and also, to an extent, within Western metaphysical philosophy), humanity is in a fallen state and requires some kind of redemption in order to be spiritually fulfilled. The first step in finding redemption is to renounce the material world, since it’s the source of all that is fallen, separate and distinct from the godhead. The physical world and all it contains is, therefore, unredeemed. Thus the seeker of spiritual redemption first realizes the fallen state of humanity and also the abject condition of the material world and thereby renounces it, but once this is done, then they will undergo and experience probably the most difficult and bitter isolation imaginable in order to begin the process of achieving redemption. Let’s keep in mind that this is the particular mystical path to redemption (union with God) and not the general path to redemption (blessings and forgiveness of sins) open to all faithful adherents.

Yet, in order to achieve redemption and salvation, mystics must transcend all that binds them to their physical lives — egocentric sentiments and their material circumstance in life — in order to truly realize the hidden presence of the godhead. Only by employing this extreme degree of self-sacrifice and world-rejection is redemption possible, for without it, the seeker can’t cross the boundary that separates humanity from God, which is the sole objective. (Of course, there are other ways that the layperson can receive a certain kind of redemption for their faith, such as being redeemed through the intercession of Jesus Christ, nevertheless, the path of the mystic is the most onerous and difficult to undertake.)

Modern Paganism

However, in my opinion, a modern Pagan has no need for any kind of redemption because they don’t subscribe to the belief that there is some kind of separation of spirit and matter, or that matter is in a fallen state along with humanity. Pagans don’t believe in original sin, so they don’t need to be redeemed. In fact, the whole Lurian Qabalistic legacy doesn’t make a lot of sense to Pagans, since the idea that spirits are trapped as “sparks” in the dross material world has the same kind of antinomian quality associated with theologies that reject the divine nature of the natural world (such as sects of Gnosticism, Fundamentalist Christianity and certain schools of Neoplatonism). Since Pagans embrace all material life and consider it to be sacred and imbued with spirit, then there is no need to somehow either elevate or reject matter.

To Pagans, spirit and matter are unified in emulation of the One, which is the nameless source of everything. Matter is imbued with consciousness and everything is therefore connected together. If Pagans wish to experience the divine, then nature is the principle place that they should focus their attention. I have found this philosophy to be an important remedy for the disease of duality that appears to plague most Western religious and philosophical systems. Also, there is no division between deity and humanity, since the individual god or goddess within is also synonymous with the cosmic deity. If there is no fall and no original sin for Pagans, nor any kind of division between the godhead and humanity, then redemption is quite irrelevant and so is the dark night of the soul. All that is required is for one to learn to see and experience the world as a holistic fusion of spirit, mind and matter, resolving itself into the One.

Mysticism, magick and transformative initiations

From the standpoint of Christian mysticism, and even other forms of religious mysticism, it would seem that this process is quite relevant and necessary to achieve spiritual maturity and the realization of spirit within and transcending all matter. However, there would also be a corresponding negation of the material world and its various trials and tribulations. Overcoming the dark night of the soul would at least confer on the mystical seeker a certain amount of freedom from the travails of the world, since such a person would be functioning temporarily at a transcendent level of being. Such exalted states of consciousness are difficult to maintain even for someone living a secluded life in a monastery, so the dark night would be something that would periodically reoccur, again and again. According to the various writings of the Christian saints, including modern ones such as Mother Teresa, the dark night of the soul is an almost perpetual companion for the mystical seeker.

However, would such a process as the dark night of the soul that I have described above be something that a magician might encounter if he or she were following an initiatory path within a Pagan-based system of ritual magick? That’s an important question, and I believe that it is definitely not part of the magician’s initiatory process — at least for a Pagan. Why do I think that way? Is there a real distinction between the magician and the mystic?1 There are other possibilities, such as a Christian magician who is following a path that alternates between the paths of being a magician and a mystic. I would find this confusing and perhaps even contradictory, but given the predilection that monotheistic religions have for antinomianism, it is possible.

A magician does have specific ordeals and issues that they must successfully resolve in order to achieve a stable level of spiritual maturity, but the dark night is not one of them.2 However, this doesn’t really answer the question as to whether or not a magician can experience or even succumb to despair and internal darkness while undergoing what I have called transformative initiation.

Transformative initiation is not to be confused with ceremonial initiations that confer certain privileges and obligations on a member of an esoteric organization. A spiritual transformation is never something that is controlled or contrived by the magician, but it is something that can be triggered by specific magical activities. A spiritual transformation follows the pattern of the Hero’s Journey as associated with the 17 stages of the cycle of transformation and the five stages of the cosmogonic cycle.3 While this is an archetypal process, it is also very specific to the development level and needs of the individual undergoing it. It is, in word, a rebirth, which is both archetypal and quite unique.

The cycle of transformative initiation consists of two halves. The first half of that cycle is the descent into the dark underworld of the deeper soul where the former egoic identity is shattered into fragments and later recombined into a completely new psychic structure. The successful completion of the supreme ordeal is where the initiate gains the vista of the cosmogonic cycle and realizes his place and role within it. These stages of shattering and reintegration are extremely difficult, painful and can produce the most extreme sensations of loss, despair, darkness and stasis for the initiate. However, these emotions are followed by joy, realization, ecstatic union and illumination.

The second half of the initiatory process is the ascent out of the underworld and reintegration into the mundane and material world. However, the vision and the revitalized self are also reintegrated into the world and so the previous life of the initiate is now dead and replaced with a whole new perspective and life directive. Of course, that is the case when a transformative initiation is successful. There are cases where an unsuccessful transformation could produce regressive effects, but this is typically indicative of unresolved psychological issues.

If there is a possibility for darkness and despair then it will be experienced when the magician initiate is deep within the underworld, having experienced a complete shattering of the self into its most rudimentary parts. However, this period doesn’t last long and it soon is replaced with the opposite feelings of joy and illumination. In this case, the underworld serves as a cocoon preparing one for transformation. It is also possible that the magician initiate could experience a kind of depression after having successfully completed a very difficult spiritual transformation as a kind of “let down” after the fact — as if there should be something more. Yet even this state shouldn’t last long. Still, if a transformative initiation should fail then what I am saying here will not be what the initiate experiences. There are many possibilities, but the real issue here is whether or not the initiate is balanced and relatively normal, or whether he or she is additionally afflicted with some kind of psychological issue.

As you can see, the entire cycle of transformative initiation and its overarching purpose is to reintegrate the initiate with a renewed self-image and sense of purpose in the mundane world. According to the creed of ritual magick, the real work is to integrate spirit and matter, first within the self, and then in the world at large. Magicians are the teachers, initiators, leaders and social transformers, using a combination of religion, science and magic to change themselves and the world as a whole; to bring to fruition the cosmogonic design as coauthored by the godhead – in other words, to fulfill their own destiny and the destiny of the whole world simultaneously. That objective can’t be fulfilled if the magician has renounced the material world. He or she must be immersed within it, but neither imprisoned nor corrupted by it.

Clinical depression

Then there is the metaphorical beast of depression itself, and this is something that lies beyond the actual process of spiritual ascension or magical transformation. Whether the state of depression is situational or chronic, it can be quite a formidable opponent. People need to understand (if they don’t already) that depression is a medical condition. Even if this is an individual and personal ordeal, it has greater social and even psychological implications. I would never recommend to anyone that they not seek out proper help when faced with an insurmountable and irresolvable problem. I cannot speak to depression as a chronic malady, although I have experienced it in a situational context from time to time.

However, there are many ways of dealing with depression, and the magician or mystic must deal with it (or any other psychological disorder) to achieve spiritual maturity. Chronic depression is a clinical disorder that can be mitigated with a combination of mood altering drugs and/or lifestyle modifications to balance and enhance brain chemistry; but situational depression sometimes requires the ability to detach oneself in order to accurately assess one’s situation and truly realize the positive attributes of one’s circumstance.

I really do believe that there is always a way or a path that can lead one to a healthier and happier mind-state, sometimes the difficulty is just finding it. There is a stigma in our society that prejudges anyone who acknowledges psychological issues, so admitting them and seeking help can be intimidating. You can find more information on chronic depression from the National Alliance on Metal Illness.

In conclusion

I have shown that there is a distinction between a magician and a mystic, and that a mystic will likely encounter some form of the dark night of the soul, but that a magician, especially a Pagan who is engaged in the classic theurgic practices won’t, by nature of the path and its focus in the material world. While both paths are similar in regards to the intensity of feelings and the degree of pain that they can cause their adherents undergoing them, they are altogether different paths with completely different objectives. Both the magician and the mystic begin their path by seeking to encounter and realize the godhead fully within their conscious beings. However, the magician never completely leaves the material world and attempts to be traveller in both the material and spiritual worlds. The mystic is only concerned with the spiritual world and therefore he or she will reject the material world with all its troubles and pleasures. The mystic is seeking redemption while the magician is seeking to become an agent of the godhead in this world. A magician can have mystical experiences and certainly can cultivate them, but a mystic doesn’t have magical experiences, since everything that occurs is a manifestation of deity that negates all human endeavour.

Still, the experience of the dark night of the soul, as well as the experience of transformative initiation, are progressive experiences that are mostly voluntary. A magician or a mystic is looking for this experience and makes it a part of the romance of their overall spiritual evolution. However, depression and psychosis are not voluntary or progressive, they are regressive and indicative of mental disease. While there might be a blurring of regressive mental diseases with some kind of mystical apotheosis, the differences are as stark and obvious as the difference between someone who can profoundly cope with his or her issues and someone who completely fails to cope with them. Also, if the pain recedes into transcendental joy, then it is not regressive or indicative of mental disease. However, if one lives in darkness seemingly all of the time, then what they are experiencing is the pain of depression. For such a one it is always the darkest night with no promise of a coming dawn.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said in The Crack-up, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” And I should add, if that dark night of the soul is the despair of depression, with no resolution or redemption.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Frater Barrabbas’s blog, Talking About Ritual Magick.

Image credit: Marko Milošević

  1. I have already dealt with this issue in a previous article, “Mysticism and Magick.” []
  2. I have written up what I consider to be the pitfalls of following the magical path in “Five Trials in the Path of the Magician.” []
  3. I have written about these stages and how they typically impact someone who is undergoing them through a powerful spiritual transformation. See, “Tarot Trumps and the 22 Stages of the Cycle of the Hero.” []