Newsletter #9
August, 1997

Dark Nights, Depressions and the loss of the affective ego
Prayer Questionnaire Response
New Faith Community Begins to Form
SILENCE AND STILLNESS IN PRAYER: The Message of Dom John Main by Paul Harris


The Forum is a network of people seriously interested in the life of prayer and contemplation who share their insights and experiences in order to help each other and to build up the foundations for today's renewal of Christian spirituality.

The Forum is for and by practitioners who want to reflect on the important questions that emerge out of their own practice.

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Dark Nights, Depressions and the loss of the affective ego

John of the Cross' "dark night" has entered into our common vocabulary. People will talk of suffering a dark night when going through some interior crisis. But what did these words mean for St. John himself, and how do they relate to depression and what could be called the loss of the affective ego?

John recognized a link between his dark night and depression, which he called melancholy. In a rather subtle analysis in his book The Dark Night, he tells us that melancholy can accompany the dark night and increase its intensity. But this implies a distinction between depression and the dark night. Depression is a loss of energy that leaves us feeling unable to get on with our lives, and which can stem from both external and internal causes. We may, for example, be depressed over the loss of someone dear to us, or from some biochemical imbalance, and while St. John recognizes that depression can play a role in the dark night, he makes it clear that the dark night is not depression.

St. John also realized that the dark night had various aspects, or phases; there is his well-known distinction between the dark night of sense, and the dark night of spirit. But he makes another implicit distinction that is not often focused upon. There is a dark night that we can call the dark night in the wide sense of the term, which stands in contrast to the dark night in the strict sense. He tells us that many people who devote themselves to the life of prayer are seen to enter the dark night, and often fairly quickly. By this he means that they discover that they can no longer pray like they did before. The sense of consolation and progress that accompanied their serious conversion to the life of prayer has disappeared. This may happen either gradually or suddenly and can be very disorienting. These people can even worry that God has abandoned them. But this dark night is not identical with the dark night that St. John wishes to discuss. How do we know this? It is because it is only after John describes this general situation that he goes on to give his famous three signs for the passage from ordinary prayer to infused contemplation. If every inability to pray like we did before was the dark night, then there would be no need for the signs. The signs are meant to differentiate between this general situation and the dark night that leads to contemplation. It is this dark night that St. John concentrates upon.

The first sign - following the order given in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel - is this very inability to pray. But since it might arise from reasons other than contemplation, St. John gives us a second sign. Our inability to pray should not be accompanied by a particular interest in the things of the world. This sign is to rule out lukewarmness or some moral fault as the cause of our disability.

But even this sign is not enough. We may, St. John tells us, have no inclination for anything because we are suffering from some kind of melancholy or depression. Therefore he gives us the third and most important sign. This is the beginning of infused contemplation, itself. We are drawn to that mysterious experience of loving union even though we are disconcerted by the fact that it is not coming to us through the normal working of the natural faculties, i.e., the senses, imagination, intellect, memory, and will, but is welling up from the depths of the soul. Without some inkling of the beginning of contemplation, St. John tells us we cannot leave the ordinary practice of prayer.

Thus, the dark night that John wants to talk to us about is the dark night directly connected to infused contemplation. In fact, it is brought about by contemplation. Contemplation causes this dark night because it is communicated to the spirit, not by the ordinary channels of the faculties, but in the depths of the soul, and this causes a withdrawal of energy from the faculties, and thus the experience of the dark night. There are, therefore, distinctions to be made between depression, the dark night in the wide sense of the term, and the dark night leading to contemplation.

It is equally important to distinguish between this dark night brought about by contemplation, and what we could call the loss of the affective ego. This is an issue that is rarely talked about and difficult to express. Yet there seems to be a family of experiences that center on the loss of self. We may, for example, look at the no-self experiences described by Bernadette Roberts, whose work was touched upon in our last issue. Philip St. Romain's book on kundalini and Christian spirituality, which has also been discussed in these pages, contains a striking passage in which he realized that the old Philip St. Romain was dead. And while his memories remained, they had lost the affective character that is so much a part of normal memories. David Spillane has called my attention to similar no-self experiences recounted by Ann Faraday, an English psychologist, who woke up one morning to discover that her self had disappeared, and Michael Washburn, in his Ego and the Dynamic Ground, reports on the work of a psychiatrist who described psychic black holes. It would be a valuable project to analyze these kinds of accounts, and try to come to a better understanding of what they mean in terms of the loss of self. I would appreciate hearing from Forum members about their own experiences, or ones they have come across, for I believe that this is an important issue.

But what do these experiences mean? I don't think that it is a question of what could be called a metaphysical loss of self. There is someone who reflects, makes decisions, and acts, even after this kind of loss of the ego. But what runs through these various accounts is a sense that the interior landscape of these people has been vastly altered. Their ego is, indeed, lost in some very real way. They don't possess the same sense of self as they did before, and I would like to venture a preliminary sketch of what might be happening. Our egos, or sense of self - taken in a concrete or empirical way and not in a metaphysical sense - are glued together by the acts we make with our natural faculties, and these faculties, in turn, are driven by our desires and the gratification we receive by fulfilling these desires. In other words, what holds the empirical ego together could be called affective energy. It is this affective energy that motivates us to act, and is a vital part of our sense of identity which is intimately connected with our memories. Our memories contain affective energy, and that is what binds them to us and allows us to recognize them as our own.

But in the various experiences of no-self it appears as if this affective energy drains out of consciousness. Then, in a very real way, the ego disappears, and this is what is reported. But, as I said, I think it is better to qualify this as the loss of the affective ego, and not give it a metaphysical meaning, as if there is no ego in the sense of no human soul, or spirit.

Clearly, descriptions of the loss of the affective ego have a certain affinity with the way that John of the Cross describes the onset of the dark night that leads to contemplation. The inability to pray in the way we prayed before is an affective disability. We no longer, St. John tells us, experience the satisfaction we did before. In some fashion the energy that animated our desires for the things of God is quenched. Indeed, the second sign says that this energy is quenched not only in regard to the things of God, but the things of the world, as well. John is not saying that we suffer a complete inability to use the natural faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory and will. If we did, we would be nonfunctional, or comatose, or even catatonic. Instead, we no longer have the affective energy that bound us to our former spiritual practices.

This loss of affective energy could therefore be seen as a dimension of the dark night that leads to infused contemplation or brought about by the beginning of contemplation. As contemplation begins in the depths of the soul we can imagine it drawing into those depths the psyche's affective energy. This means that as the affective energy leaves the ego it gives rise to St. John's first two signs. The third sign, the active presence of contemplation, is the critical one because other factors, like depression, could cause this loss of energy.

Jung described the psyche as a closed system of energy. Therefore, if affective energy drains out of consciousness, we would expect it to appear somewhere in the unconscious. And St. John does, in fact, describe in graphic detail certain temptations that manifest themselves on the road to contemplation. These temptations, i.e., of blasphemy, scrupulosity and sexual excess, can all be understood from a psychological point of view, as manifestations of psychic or affective energy in the unconscious. In a similar way, the disorientation of the ego, or its fear that God is displeased with it, can come about from a loss of the ego's affective energy. Further, since it is this affective energy, itself, which gives the ego its sense of identity, its loss can lead to a feeling of ego disintegration, or death.

Despite the fact that there appears to be a dimension of the loss of the affective ego, in St. John's descriptions of the beginning of infused contemplation, it would be a mistake, I think, to identify the two states. There is no particular reason for believing that every loss of the affective ego is brought about by the beginning of contemplation. We are thus left with four closely allied but distinctive states: depression, the dark night in the wide sense, the dark night due to the beginning of contemplation, and the loss of the affective ego.

Summary: Let me summarize these four states, and some of the practical consequences of this kind of analysis.
     1. Depression.
          A. Organically based depression, which can, and should, be treated physically.
          B. Depression due to external circumstances, which can be treated psychologically and spiritually.

2. The dark night in the wide sense of the term. This inability to pray can stem from depression, or our own faults, or our need to pray in another fashion, or from the beginning of infused contemplation. If it stems from a need to pray in another fashion, this may be a call to psychological work in which we integrate various aspects of our personality which, in turn, provide the foundations for a new way of praying.

3. The loss of the affective ego. Clearly there is some sort of loss of affective ego in depression and other psychological disorders, but I would like to use this phrase to describe a loss of ego that is not necessarily connected to any psychological illness or to any impairment of the natural faculties, themselves. It may accompany the beginning of contemplation, or some state of enlightenment, or arise from unknown causes. What is critical is to see it for what it is, and not let it trigger depression by construing it as something that is negative in itself.

4. The dark night intimately connected with infused contemplation. This dark night demands the taking up a new attitude of loving receptivity in which we do not insist on maintaining our old ways of praying, which are based on the working of the natural f faculties.

In actual situations I imagine we will find various combinations of these four states, but I think it is important to attempt to distinguish them if we are going to respond appropriately.

Prayer Questionnaire Response

What is your manner of prayer/ meditation?

I have many different ways to pray and/or meditate. Mainly, I try to keep God in mind constantly throughout the day. I talk to God, ask questions, maintain a casual friendliness - both to remind myself that God is always with me and also to show my sincerity, my openness in wanting to be closer to my Creator and his will for me. At times, I sit on our back porch and appreciate all that is growing in the yard, all that is alive, and try to feel my connection to it. I notice the sky, the clouds, the breeze and remember that God was in the silence, not in the blowing wind. Often I read books to expand my knowledge of theology, contemplation and mysticism - really many subjects I consider spiritual. I have learned a great deal from Zen, particularly Tibetan, and am grateful to Thomas Merton for leading me in that direction.

What consequences do you experience if you miss prayer/meditation?

I find that I am tenser, angrier, have drifted back into the "ways of the world" that are, for me, so negative.

Have you experienced what you would consider extraordinary graces in prayer/meditation?

I consider the calming of my agitated heart a grace that I have experienced. Also, I have received insights that I also consider extraordinary (for me, at least). I have felt emotional healing. I have heard music. Not seen, but felt a compassionate presence. Once, I felt a stroking of my hair. It was in the Intensive Care Unit where my father was, very ill. It happened three times, although I stood up and looked around between each event to see what could be causing it.

Have you experienced communications with God or spiritual beings through visions or locutions?

I have experienced one vision - a gift, I believe, from God and my grandmother. She had always said she would come back to visit me (and I asked her not to) after she had died. She had always prayed a great deal for the poor souls and encouraged me to also. About three years after she died I awoke in the middle of the night (I don't know what woke me) and, lying on my side facing the open closet, I saw a glow in the back of the closet. This jarred me completely awake because at first I thought it -was a fire. Propped up on my elbow, I stared at the nearly human sized, oval-shaped glow. It was bright, gold and silvery rays. It didn't move toward me, but as I continued to stare, dumbfounded, I had a mental flash that this was Grandma. Another mental message told me not to be afraid and I wasn't. I'm not certain how long the radiant spectacle lasted, a minute, two minutes, but for the rest of the time the only message, and it was strong, definite, was love. Everything was all right, had always been so and would always be so. When the vision finally faded, I cried myself to sleep, but the tears were of joy. Whenever I feel doubt, feel alone, I remember that glowing visit. I cling to it as the proof I had hoped for and was blessed to receive.

Are you part of a particular religious tradition?

I was born and raised Roman Catholic in an old-fashioned traditional and somewhat strict household. My surrogate grandfather (actually my great-uncle) was a very devout diocesan priest. Two of my first cousins entered the convent and a third cousin became a priest. Other relatives were in a contemplative order. Religion was always important to my family. But it was also pre-Vatican II. The emphasis was on sin and penance, our unworthiness and guilt (especially as a female). My Catholic heritage actually hinders me in some respects, while of enormous help in others. The Church does not seem to want any of its members to personally experience God, although it acknowledges that saints of the misty past did so. The Church treats all its members as small children, but women as very treacherous small children. With Merton's permission to read about Buddhism and become more ecumenical in attitude, I discovered possibilities unknown to me. He gave me permission to explore and I have. I will remain a Catholic, although not a by-the-book one. I trust my inner voice more now than ever in my life. Heck, I used to ignore it or think it was the devil!

I do not like rote prayers or the rosary, but the Mass is almost always a moving experience. The parishes I have been a member of over the years did little or nothing to inform my faith or provide opportunities for growth. It was nearly impossible to acquire information on meditation, mysticism, Merton, or anything. I've had to hunt it out on my own, and often without the approval of our parish religious. (Do they doubt my ability to comprehend it?)

Do you have a spiritual director or teacher with whom you share your experiences in prayer/ meditation?

Yes, I have a spiritual director whom I am very fond of. He is a Jesuit, very learned and gentle, with great patience to put up with me. But, he is a mixture of very traditional (he is in his 70s) and up-to-date. He does not like me reading Merton or (especially) Zen, so I no longer tell him about it. He encourages me in some ways, but discourages in others (you're not ready for John of the Cross" - or even the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius). Yet, he likes some of my insights and tells me he uses them in sermons.

New Faith Community Begins to Form

In January of this year, Nancy and Don Pfaff began to realize that their home was becoming a healing community for people whose ministry was in Christian mission. A vision for a new Christian, ecumenical, faith community began to arise. Since people given to prayer seldom have an environment that supports their journey and their ministry, could a faith community of comtemplative people be formed that would do this? Could this community take into itself a few who are broken, who desire to give their lives to God for mission and who are needing transformation? Through spiritual direction, counseling, mentoring, inner healing, modeling and prayer, could the community extend love and healing leading to transformation to those who come?

Formation of those in community would be based on a model developed by Don Bisson, a Marist brother and Formation Director. In order to support the community, each person would contribute financially. Membership in the community is open to all Christian persons, married or single, given to prayer, and willing to live the simple gospel life through a transforming journey nurturing those in mission in love and truth. A period of discernment and process of psychological testing precedes admission. For more information, write Nancy Pfaff, 935 Bell St., Apt. 2, Reno, NV 89503. Tel. (775) 329-0659, E-Mail:

SILENCE AND STILLNESS IN PRAYER: The Message of Dom John Main by Paul Harris

Since his death on Dec. 30, 1982, Dom John Main's teaching on Christian meditation has spread from the Benedictine monastery he founded in Montreal to embrace a worldwide fellowship of meditators. People of all faiths and occupations, from executives to housewives, from professionals to taxi drivers, have felt the call to follow the path of silence, stillness, simplicity, and the use of a mantra in prayer. 125 Christian Meditation groups are now flourishing in the U.S. and 1,000 groups around the world.

As a lay person Main joined the British Colonial Service in 1954 and was assigned to Malaya. One day in Kuala Lumpur he was sent on an apparently routine assignment to deliver a good will message and a photograph to a Hindu monk, Swami Satyananda, director of an ashram and orphanage/school. John Main thought he would quickly dispatch the assignment and be free for the rest of the day.

In fact, this visit was to dramatically change his life. His good will mission accomplished, John Main sat down for a cup of tea and asked the Swami to discuss the spiritual base of the many good works carried out at the orphanage and school.

Within a few moments John Main knew he was in the presence of a holy man, a teacher, a man of the Spirit, whose faith was alive in love and service to others. As John Main wrote many years later, "...I was deeply impressed by his peacefulness and calm wisdom. He asked me if I meditated. I told him I tried to and, at his bidding, described what we have come to know as a discursive method of meditation... using thoughts and images. He was silent for a short time and then gently remarked that his own tradition of meditation was quite different. For the Swami, the aim of meditation was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the Universe who dwells in our hearts... in silence."

John Main was so awed by his intensity and devotion that he asked the Swami to teach him to meditate his way. The Swami agreed and invited him to come to a meditation centre once a week. On his first visit the Swami spoke about how to meditate:

"To meditate you must become silent. You must be still and you must concentrate. In our tradition we know only one way in which you can arrive at that stillness, that concentration. We use a word called a mantra. To begin you must relax and then repeat it, faithfully, lovingly, and continually. That is all there is to meditation. I really have nothing else to tell you. And now we will meditate."

But first the Swami pointed out that since the young western visitor was a Christian, he must meditate as a Christian and he gave him a Christian mantra. He also insisted it was necessary to meditate twice a day, morning and evening. For 18 months John Main meditated with the Swami and it was this encounter that led John to the pilgrimage of meditation. In fact, it led to Main eventually becoming a Benedictine monk.

Years later while a member of the Benedictine community in Washington, DC, Main made an incredible discovery. One day in reading the writings of a fourth century desert father, John Cassian, Main discovered Cassian in his tenth conference on prayer clearly outlining the use of a short verse or mantra in prayer.

Cassian also pointed out this form of prayer was in widespread use by the early Christian desert fathers. Main was thrilled to find the use of a mantra in prayer was an ancient Christian tradition. He was also overjoyed by the fact that John Cassian was the spiritual teacher of St. Benedict, founder of Main's own monastic tradition. Now the circle was complete. Main had discovered that use of a mantra in prayer was not only an ancient Hindu tradition but was also an early Christian one.

A crucial turning point in John Main's life took place during a few days at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, in 1976. In effect his public teaching on meditation began in the three now famous conferences given to the monks and published as Christian Meditation: The Gethsemani Talks. But it was the time of silence spent in Thomas Merton's hermitage (Merton died in 1968) that the Spirit moved deeply in his heart and called him to the work of teaching meditation.

He told the monks at Gethsemani, " I understand it, all Christian prayer is a growing awareness of God in Jesus and for that growing awareness we need to come to a state of undistraction, to a state of attention and concentration - that is, to a state of awareness. And as far as I have been able to determine in the limitations of my own life, the only way that I have been able to come to that quest, to that undistractedness, to that concentration, is the way of the mantra."

On leaving Gethsemani Dom John told the monks, "I shall always remember with great affection these days among you." John Main had learned that his teaching on the way of prayer must be pursued more urgently than ever. He had also learned, beyond any doubt, that this was the work for the kingdom to which he was called to give the rest of his life, no matter how long or short it might be.

How close were Thomas Merton and John Main in their spiritual pilgrimage? It would seem very close. These are the words of Merton in Calcutta a few days before his death: talking about prayer Merton said, it ... the deepest level of communication is not talking, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words and it is beyond concept."

It is the genius of John Main that he synthesized the prayer teaching of John Cassian and the desert fathers (fourth century), the spiritual classic, the Cloud of Unknowing (fourteenth century), and the spiritual teachings of the East. Unlike Merton, John Main left us a formal teaching about how to pray.

Today Main's teaching, passed down from John Cassian, has spread around the world and continues with each passing month to lead more and more people to "the spirit in their own heart."

The teaching Christian meditation has taken the form of "small" meditation groups that meet weekly to enter into the meditation experience itself and provide a means for newcomers to learn this type of prayer.

Taking a cue from the growth of Christianity in the early days of the church, John Main envisioned small groups spreading the teaching of meditation in an organic way, meeting in various locations once a week and offering motivational support and encouragement to those on the meditative pilgrimage. He did not live to see today's worldwide growth of groups of meditators in cities, villages and towns in 50 countries of the world.

Fr. John Main died on the morning of Dec. 30, 1982, radiating a sense of presence and peace.

In summing up John Main's life and teaching, Francois Gerard, a Minister of the United Church of Canada, wrote in the publication Monastic Studies that "if one were to characterize the spiritual pilgrimage and teaching of John Main in one sentence or phrase, one could suggest that he had rediscovered and lived the simplicity of the Gospel."

Paul Harris lives in Ottawa, Canada and is author of the recently published book Christian Meditation: Contemplative Prayer for a New Generation (Novalis). For further information on Christian Meditation in the United States contact Sr. Marian McCarthy, 1080 West Irving Park Rd., Roselle, IL 60172, phone (708) 35.1-2613.