The Dark Night of the Senses marks a transition between the Purgative way of the spiritual life and the Illuminative way. It is not unlike the transition from childhood to adolescence in the natural realm, and like that transition, it is often very confusing and frightening to someone who has defined the spiritual life exclusively in terms of reading and meditating on the word and performing the active work of purgation.
There are three very common phenomenon which characterize the Dark Night of the Senses. The first is that your soul totally loses all interest in the things of God; it simply receives no pleasure from any of it any more. Where you once might have read the Bible or heard sermons and gotten all inspired, now it's like you are hitting a brick wall.
The second phenomenon is that the soul begins to get very agitated and concerned about the possibility that it is backsliding, because you are now unable to do all of the things which you've been taught are necessary for you to grow in Christian maturity. This is not the result of apathy. The difference between the aridity of the dark night of the senses and the apathy of a backslider is that deep down in the innermost being of a Christian who is in the dark night there is still a love and a hunger for God, it's just that for some inexplicable reason, they can no longer engage in or derive any satisfaction from traditional Christian practices.
The third phenomenon of this Dark Night is that you may become intellectually unable to read and meditate on the Bible. Now this sounds like heresy, but it's not; let me take a moment to explain why. The Bible is fundamentally a spiritual book. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit and apart from the Holy Spirit you will be absolutely unable to get anything from it at all. The Bible tells us that the natural man does not understand the things of God because they are spiritually discerned. That discernment is not something which we just automatically get because we're born again. There is a specific work of grace which the Holy Spirit works in our lives every time we read the Bible which enables us to understand what it is saying. If the Holy Spirit ceases to grant us that grace, reading the Bible will become about as pleasant and as profitable as reading the phone book. The removal of that grace is an integral part of the Dark Night of the Senses.
The key thing to keep in mind at this point is that it is OK that you are not reading the Bible. People raised in very Bible-oriented streams of Christianity tend to come under all kinds of condemnation for not reading the Bible because we're taught that reading and meditating on the scripture is the way to spiritual maturity. However, in God's economy, that is simply not true at all. Please note that this does not in any way excuse a situation where you stop reading the Bible out of laziness or because other things distract you. When God gives you a path, and a discipline to help you walk on it, it behooves you to apply yourself to that discipline with all that you have, because in doing so you are honoring Him in obedience and helping yourself to grow. However, if God takes the discipline away, it is perfectly OK - and in fact imperative - that you stop and take a look around to see what new thing God is doing in you.
Now the reason that this grace is suspended at this time is because God has started to illuminate the mind with divine light. The mystics refer to this divine light as a ray of darkness because it is not perceivable by the natural mind. It is so far above and beyond anything that the natural faculties can perceive that when you start to receive it it is as if you suddenly looked up into the sun and have been temporarily struck blind. When the divine light begins to illuminate your mind, all of your natural faculties shut down, which requires the maturation of a new way of seeing which is wholly spiritual in nature because the spirit searches the deep things of God which the natural mind cannot discern. In the Purgative Way you have been reading and thinking and exercising your natural mind, but now God wants to take you a level deeper than that, so what He does is He takes away all of the light and the grace and redirects His attention elsewhere, inviting you to follow Him into a deeper and more intimate knowledge of Himself. In order to get you to accept the invitation, He usually has to deprive you of your ability to work in the old way because human beings in general don't like change and would prefer things to go on the way they always have - especially once we have reached a certain level of proficiency at whatever the exercise is.
This confidence in our own proficiency is exactly what God has targeted for destruction in the dark night of the senses. He wants us to be continually dependent upon Him for everything, and once our natural minds have got the hang of reading and meditating and exercising our still-fallen understanding, we come to depend much more on our intellects than on His revelation. God doesn't want us to 'have a handle on things' - He wants us to be continually pursing Him, and one of the best ways for Him to do that is to disappear. This cycle is repeated a number of times in the Song of Solomon, and it is basically a season that God gives us to evaluate our motives and what we want. At the point where God vanishes, you need to make a decision of whether you will continue on without Him and make your own light, or whether you really want Him badly enough to leave everything you know to follow Him even when you don't know where He is or how to find Him. That is what it means to walk by God in faith, and Abraham is the canonical example of exactly this dynamic at work.
Now there is another interesting parallel to this in the book of Exodus where God, after leading the Israelites into the wilderness gives them manna to eat - a divine food which they had never seen or heard of. The manna is a parallel to the divine light which God beings to shed on us in the illuminative life, and is very distinct from the natural light which is a parallel to the meat and onions, etc. which the Israelites were accustomed to eating while still in bondage in Egypt. Now the manna accomplished everything that you can expect from food - it nourished their bodies and kept them strong and healthy so they could wander around in the wilderness for forty years. But - and this is the key - it didn't do much for their taste buds. You see their flesh had developed a taste for the food of Egypt and rebelled against the taste of divine food. Where this touches our experience in the dark night of the senses is that divine light reaches down into the depths of our spirits and strengthens and nourishes them in ways that the purgative disciplines can't even begin to touch. But, the part of you which was built up in the Purgative Way is still crying out to go back to it's old way of doing things because that is what it is used to. And we grumble against God just like they did in the wilderness.
What God is really doing here is trying to starve out the fleshly tendencies that are inherent in the way you approach Him - self-reliance, pride in your intellect, etc. - so that you can become accustomed to feeding on Him by faith without the intermediary of your natural mind. This is not to say that we hang our brains up on the wall from here on out, but it forces us to acknowledge that our natural minds are inherently fallen; the do not get sanctified when we get saved. As long as we rely on purely natural understanding to approach God, we are going to only know a very small fraction of who He is, because His thoughts and ways are infinitely beyond ours because they are inherently spiritual in nature and our minds are inherently carnal in nature. The mind is the organ by which we perceive the natural world, and the mechanism is our intellect and our memory. However, the organ by which we perceive and know God is the spirit, and the mechanism is naked faith.
Temptations in the Dark Night
There are three common temptations which seize us in when we enter into the dark night of the senses. The first is to continue to try to read and meditate and approach God the way you did before. This gets very frustrating very quickly because if God ordains that something will not work, it simply won't and you can beat your head against the wall until doomsday and not accomplish anything.
The second temptation is to turn to bury the silence in activity by turning to some other kind of work or discipline which is different in form but still fundamentally identical in nature. This is something which is very easy to do in the Evangelical church because we've got programs and approaches and methodologies coming out of our ears, and the moment you cease from one you can be sure that someone will toss you another or invite you to get busy doing something. This is really tragic because it means that you move in the exact opposite direction that God wants you to move in and you can actually pass your entire life and never move into what God had for you.
The third thing which you can do is simply succumb to despair; and not the kind of despair which throws up it's hands and demands an explanation from God. That kind of despair is actually healthy because it is a despairing of yourself, which is exactly what God wants to accomplish. No, this despair is the kind which the enemy uses to tell you that God has abandoned you because you are sinful and unworthy, and unfortunately the enemy has a lot of accomplices inside the church who will repeat that message to you. I've actually known people who were driven from the church because of the unrighteous judgment of the brethren around them who didn't know God or what He was up to.
Now the mystics have a wonderful metaphor for explaining this particular phenomenon of God disappearing and reappearing. They call it Ludus Amoris - the game of love, which is a whole lot more constructive a way of thinking about it than as abandonment. There is actually a work written by St. Catherine of Genoa where God describes this whole dynamic to her, and this is what He said to her:
So what is happening is that God is deliberately concealing Himself in order to give us an opportunity to penetrate the veil and receive a deeper revelation of who He is. You can see this dynamic at work over and over in the scripture - God will hide Himself away in thick darkness, or in the third compartment of the tabernacle, or at the top of a mountain so that only those who are persistent in their pursuit of Him will push through into the greater revelation of Him which is provided in that place.
One of the biggest problems which Christians face in this period isn't really themselves or the enemy; it's an erroneous attitude which has been sown in the church itself, characterized by the phrase "If you feel far away from God, somebody moved, and it wasn't God." Now I appreciate the fact that what is trying to be expressed here is the fact that sin makes a separation between you and God, and that if you deliberately are walking in sin, God's presence will be hidden from you. However, the statement as it lies is completely false, and carries with it an incredible weight of condemnation to someone who is hungering and thirsting after God, avoiding all known sin, and yet has the experience of God's presence depart from them in the night of the senses. Faced with this trite misstatement, they tend to go through the inventory of all the sins they've commitedand confessed and re-confess all of those in case they didn't confess enough the first time, then they confess all the sins that they're not sure they committed, and eventually they spiral down into wondering if they're really saved.
The idea that the only condition under which God will depart from you is when you sin causes you to start thinking that any time God leaves it means that He is disgusted with you. The truth of the matter is that when God up and leaves you in this way, it's because He loves you and wants to you pursue Him, just like the Israelites followed the pillar of cloud and fire around in the desert. Now keep in mind that sin will make a separation between you and God, and the first thing you should do if the sentiment of His presence departs from you is ask Him to reveal whether that is the reason. But you don't have to go through some agonzing easter-egg hunt to find what that sin is. If you are hungering and thirsting after God, the Holy Spirit will write your sin in big neon letters across your consciousness; you don't have to go digging up all your old garbage to figure it out.
Advancing in the Dark Night
If you find yourself in the Dark Night of the Senses, the most important thing you can do is commit yourself to the Lord and rest in Him. All of the bad reactions which have been described so far involve activity of some kind or another. The mystics make it very plain that if God takes away the ability to 'work' with your intellect, then cease from that activity and fix your will with a very peaceful and loving attentiveness towards God and trust that He is there, because He really is. The second thing you need to do is renounce all of the anxiety and concern that you may be feeling and abandon yourself to God and ask Him to do whatever He wants and trust Him to lead you. This requires a real humility and teachable spirit because you are surrendering the reins to God and letting Him tell you what to do from this point on. This is what it means to be still and just know that He is God, and it will teach you faith and patience if you let it. If you are determined to continue to try to understand and control your interactions with God you will sit in silence until either He breaks your will, or your self-nature rises up and drags you into one of the temptations I've already described.
The third thing is that you need to do everything you can to maintain that inner quiet and peace because that is the place where God speaks. There will always be thoughts or activities which try to engage you or drag you out of that place of stillness and simplicity, and there will always be people who, like Martha, demand that you come and help them because you are wasting time by remaining where you are. Don't buy into that. If God has you in a place of quiet, the worst thing you can do is let your mind and your spirit become worried and concerned about many things. God wants your attention to be completely focused on Him.
Fruit of the Dark Night
There are three main thing which God accomplishes in the dark night of the senses. The primary effect it has is exposing your own poverty of spirit. It forces you to experience in the depths of your soul the truth of Jesus' declaration that you absolutely cannot do anything without Him. You start out in the Purgative Way with a certain degree of self-ability and as you apply that ability to meditating on scripture you build yourself up to a certain point, and then in the dark night God rips the rug out from under you and you realize that any good which you derived from that phase was really because God was in you doing it; it's not really you at all. It's a tremendous blow to your self-confidence - especially if you tend to be very intellectual or analytical, and it simply causes you to cast yourself in helplessness upon God.
The second effect is that the revelation of your own spiritual poverty causes you to come to prefer your brothers and sisters to yourself. It removes from your inner being the pointing of the finger and the self-righteous judgment which is the result of the self-confidence which your old man builds up as a result of what you think is your own success at the disciplines of the Purgative Way. A lot of the self-righteous one-upmanship which we see in the church has it's root in the fact that we really believe that our success in anything depends on our own effort, and when God exposes the fact that your effort doesn't amount to anything, and that anything you have received has been a result of His grace all along, that self-righteous spirit just withers up and loses all of it's power to point the finger or hold the brethren in contempt.
The third effect - and this is not necessarily something that you sense right away - is that it kindles within your innermost being a spiritual desire for God which is completely devoid of any self-interest which may have grown up when you were in the Purgative Way. In the Purgative Way, and sometimes beyond it, we tend to seek God for our own interests; we have all kinds of ways to inject self-interest into our pursuit of God, and unfortunately a lot of those ways are acceptable or excusable in most religious circles. But God wants to burn away this contaminated love and build something pure within us so that He can communicate Himself to us without the distortions that our self-nature imposes, both so that we can better know Him and so that we can more accurately impart His love to other people.
By leading you through the Dark Night of the Senses, the Lord teachings you the beginnings of Contemplation, preparing you for the next stage of the spiritual life - The Iluminative Way.