Dark Nights of the Soul: Spiritual Transformation or Clinical Depression? Part 1 By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

Dark Nights of the Soul: Spiritual Transformation or Clinical Depression? Part 1
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.


Just as a 30-foot tall tsunami forever alters a coastal environment, a dark night of the soul leaves your inner landscape forever rearranged.

The phrase “dark night of the soul” comes from the 16th century Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross. A member of the Christian religious order of Carmelites, he was imprisoned by his order for eight months for trying to reform the order. During his imprisonment he wrote poems, and after his release he wrote commentary on these poems, one of them entitled Dark Night of the Soul.

“What is my ‘soul’ anyway?”

“The church says ‘save your soul!’ but it never says what a soul IS,” I continued in frustration to my partner at a non-sectarian retreat center in Hua Hin, Thailand, almost 25 years ago. The church I was attending at the time didn’t encourage questions—especially from women. I was pushing against the patriarchal boundaries of entitlement, command, and control: the male leaders determined not only the acceptable questions, but also the answers.

Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés believes otherwise, as she expounds on the classic Bluebeard fairy tale in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, preferring the old French and Slavic versions (1).

Bluebeard is a gruesome brute who has married seven women, telling each they have the full run of the castle, but warning them not to look behind a specified locked door. The current wife asks herself, what is he hiding? She’s been given the keys to all the doors, and goaded by her visiting sisters, opens the forbidden door. To her horror, inside the room lie the bloody corpses of his previous wives. She realizes she’s next and knows she must escape.

Spoiler alert: in this version, she does.

Traditional patriarchal interpretations say the moral of this story—particularly aimed at women—is that a young maiden’s curiosity often leads to deep remorse. Huh? What’s up with that? We wise women ask.

Pinkola Estés, on the other hand, says that asking the right question opens the door to consciousness, that questions are the keys that cause the secret doors of the psyche to swing open. Curiosity leads us to ask, “What stands behind?”

My question: “What IS my soul anyway?” began the slow creaking open of the door to my psyche.

Linking soul with genuineness and one’s true nature

While Jung defines psyche as the totality of all psychological processes, both conscious and unconscious, soul is a nuanced word, a symbol from which meaning grows. Most of us have an intuitive feeling for what our soul is; the words that follow are written by Jungian analysts. Pay attention to what pings in your innermost being.

• Pinkola Estés says that “In fairy tales [and] in ancient hermeneutics, the spirit is being born of the soul. The spirit inherits or incarnates into matter in order to gather news of the ways of the world and carries these back to the soul. When not interfered with, the relationship between soul and spirit is one of perfect symmetry; each enriches the other in turn” (1).

• James Hillman writes extensively about the soul, concluding that “The soul is a deliberately ambiguous concept, resisting all definition, in the same manner as do all ultimate symbols which provide the root metaphors for the systems of human thought” (2).

• Psychotherapist and former monk Thomas Moore says, “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway: the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy” (3). While a definition may be impossible for Moore, he does link soul with genuineness and one’s true nature.

• And one more by Evangelos Christou: “[T]he soul is not as transcendental, nor as biological, as either metaphysics or science would have us believe. On the one hand it is about life, about how people think, feel, behave, their problems and their ways, not about the organs and functions with which they do this. On the other hand, it is also about spirit and the meaning of life to people and the meanings are not exhausted by a history of ideas” (4).

Moore says “A true dark night of the soul is not a surface challenge but a development that takes you away from the joy of your ordinary life. An external event or an internal mood strikes you at the core of your existence. It’s not just a feeling, but a rupture at the core of your very being, and it may take a long while to get to the other end of it” (5).

In other words, it’s not coming home at the end of the day and telling your partner, “I had a dark night of the soul today. Someone took my parking place, I dropped my phone in the loo, and my hair looks awful.” These are surface challenges.

Dark nights of the soul are the pressures building up in the ocean floor of our psyches, shifting those tectonic plates of our worldview we believed were solid. The duct tape holding them together is about to become unglued—the tsunami waits in the shadows.

In my next blog I’ll look closer at a dark night’s comparison to a clinical depression, some of the whys of a dark night, and what can emerge from it. Meanwhile, listen to and feel your soul!


Notes & Sources:

1.Pinkola Estés, Clarissa. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stores of the Wild Woman Archetype, Ballentine Books. 1992.

2.Hillman, James. Suicide and the Soul. Spring Publications. 1994, 1998.

3.Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul. 1992.

4.Christou, Evangelos. The Logos of the Soul. Spring Publications, 2007.

5.The best resource I have found on determining if it’s a dark night of the soul or a clinical depression requiring the attention of a mental health professional is Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul, A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. Penguin Random House. 2004.


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth