First of all, we have to be careful when we throw around terms like “Dark Night of the Soul.”
Nowadays, people feel that if they are suicidal or plunged into extreme depression, that they are going through a “dark night of the soul.” But, in fact, when St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila speak of their dark nights, they speak of something deeply spiritual and supernatural, as opposed to having a mental breakdown or psychotic snap of their emotional and mental health.
God calls each person to spiritual perfection in Jesus Christ and to the state of holiness. It is a universal call. It begins with the conversion of faith and becoming Christian by sincere repentance of our sins and the desire to treat others justly and to walk humbly before God.
All attachment to sensual enjoyment, sensual friendships/relationships, entertainments, popularity, intellectual pride, and the sense of “self-sufficiency” (“I don’t need to be THAT religious”) is incompatible with the Christian vocation of holiness.
So, all of those things must be eventually purged by God.
God might permit us to undergo severe trials, loss of friends, health crises, and a feeling of apathy to things that used to excite us, in order to break us of our desire and addiction to created things. The pain and suffering that comes from becoming detached to sensual things, pride, jealousy, neediness, and entertainments is called “the dark night of the senses.”
My personal opinion is that although the call of holiness is universal, most people in the path of Christian perfection only reach the point where they are successfully purged or purified by God in the “dark night of the senses.”
In other words, they pass from the common state of the “purgative way” and finally enter into a state of enlightenment in the hard teachings of the Gospel.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is easy to understand, but very hard to fulfill, since it demands rigorous justice, charity, and simplicity in our lives. Even most priests and nuns, I believe, do not get past the state of enlightenment or illumination in Christ. Some spend their entire lives fighting God as He works towards their spiritual purification.
Why is this? For most, the practical demands of Christian perfection are just too much to handle for their personalities and characters.
There is always a part of us that usually succumbs to the capital vices, while at the same time trying to love Jesus. We either fall from lust. Or we give in to anger. Or we cannot be prudent in what we say or do. Or we go from one extreme to another and never find “balance” or temperance in our lives. And every time God tries to break us of those vices, we fight Him, complain, resent His permitting tribulation to enter our lives, and cry out that The Cross is too heavy and too demanding.
The dark night of the senses is over when God finally breaks you, and you find that after all the pain and tears, you are now detached from sensual, mental, emotional excess or indulgence and really let God humbly teach you each day.
Also, when you find that people cease to bother you, for the most part, and be seen as a pain in the butt, no matter what they do, you are at a whole new stage of Christian growth in perfection. You are able to love and to embrace people with real charity, as opposed to fake or feigned charity, and to seek justice for all, even when it puts you out of your comfort zone.
The “illuminative way” or the state of being an enlightened Christian is where we find people when we say they are “holy” or are “living saints.” If God calls such holy people beyond this state, He subjects them to the “dark night of the soul” which is essentially a spiritual breakdown where they think they have completely lost their faith and become atheists.
But in reality, in the dark night, God is very active indeed. He is actively subjecting that person’s spirit to the worse thoughts and feelings of being abandoned and feeling useless and with no meaning for their lives.
This is what makes the dark night of the soul very different from being depressed or in the state of mental breakdown.
In depression and mental breakdown, certain external factors have entered our lives, like loss of health, death of loved ones, chemical imbalance in the brain, which require medical treatment and can be manageable with intervention and help by others. God does not cause people to suffer depression and mental breakdown.
On the other hand, nothing can help you in the dark night of the soul, because this dark night is caused by God and He is actively taking you through it, in order for you to completely die to self, and live for Christ. St. Paul and the Apostles speak of their dark nights as things which God has put them through, so that it is no longer they who live, but Christ who lives in them.
There is no preparation for the dark night of the soul. If you reach the state of holiness that is a spiritual state right before the dark night, you will be sufficiently enlightened by God to know what will happen next. And when a dark night of the soul arrives, and it is a true spiritual dark night, you simply have to endure it and go with it. God decides when it begins and when it ends. God bless and take care, Fr. Angel