Spiritual Catharsis: Nights of the Soul

The theological concept of catharsis is in fact the same than the Greek purgation of passions in tragedy, but it runs much more profound, as Bishop Barron pointed out in this YouTube comment, where he gives an example of the traditional practice of spiritual catharsis, taken from Thomas Merton’s book Firewatch.

The purgation of passions is demanded to every Christian in the universal call to holiness. However, its turning point, usually decisive, is not often successfully passed in this life, as most of us back off when confronted to the Night of the senses, also called by St Teresa of Avila the Fourth Mansions of the Inner Castle.

This is why saints are so rare: a saint is recognizable because his will is completely given to God, and that happens after the soul has crossed the Fourth Mansions and arrives, in the Fifth Mansions, at the union of the will with God. Mercifully, if this is not done in this life, Purgatory (locus of purgation) affords us another chance, if love and charity weigh in our favour.

Grace is given in abundance along the way, though there are only few who seize it. Sometimes sensible gifts alleviate the trials, but the most important graces are not felt – only the results are. Sensible graces are given so that one should not forget that a desert also has luminous aspects, at night as well as in daylight.

The saint is tried in a still harder way in the Sixth Mansions, or the Dark Night of the spirit, of which St John of the Cross spoke so well. The luminous peak of this second Dark Night is the mystical engagement (betrothal) of the soul with Christ the Groom. The last stage is the mystical marriage and the transforming union in the blazing core of the castle, the Seventh Mansions.

“I will lead her into the wilderness, and I will speak to her heart […] I will betroth thee unto me forever.” (Hosea 2:14,19)

“Feel Good” religiosity eschew catharsis

It is of note that most believing Christians eschew the Night of the senses all they can, and usually stick or regress to the first stages of spiritual life, rather than accepting the trials and persevere in redemptive love by prayer and penance.

I make the hypothesis that the type of religiosity we call “Feel Good” Christianity is exactly about that: imagining that one can be a “good” Christian without hardship, sacrifice and virtue. This position is not tenable without denying what redemption and holiness really are. I suspect refusing the trials and catharsis could also be an important factor in much of the church-swapping and splitting in the Protestant world, as well as for many modern errors in the Catholic world, including Luther’s, and also a part of the lapsing from the faith in any confession.

Those trapped in the errors opposite to the “Feel Good” category, like Puritanism or Jansenism, do not understand spiritual life either. Divine Joy, which is found in suffering with Christ for our and others’ salvation, escapes both sides.