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The Belly of the Whale

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Path of Descent

The Belly of the Whale
Tuesday, August 1, 2017

And so long as you do not know that to die is to become, you are just a wretched visitor on this dark earth. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [1]

Jesus’ primary metaphor for the mystery of transformation is the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39, 16:4; Luke 11:29). As a Jew, Jesus knew the vivid story of Jonah, the prophet who ran away from God and yet was used by God in spite of himself. Jonah was swallowed by a “big fish” and taken where he would rather not go—a metaphor for any kind of death. Then and only then will we be spit up on a new shore in spite of ourselves. Isn’t this the story of most of our lives?

Paul wrote of “reproducing the pattern” of Jesus’ death and thus understanding resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11). That teaching will never fail. The soul is always freed and formed through dying and rising. Indigenous religions speak of winter and summer; mystics speak of darkness and light; Eastern religions speak of yin and yang or the Tao. Some Christians call it the paschal mystery, and Catholics proclaim this publically at every Eucharist as “the mystery of faith.” We are all pointing to the same necessity of both descent and ascent, which is the core theme of my book Falling Upward.

“To die and thus to become” is the pattern of transformation in the entire physical and biological world. Why not the human? There seems to be no other cauldron of growth and transformation.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or the loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there on our own accord. We have to be taught the way of descent. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of “faith” or trust. Transformative power is discovered in the dark—in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers. Yet this goes against our cultural instincts. We usually try to fix or change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, “What is it all for?” It seems some form of absence always needs to precede any deepening notion of presence. Desire makes way for depth.

Gateway to Silence:
The way down is the way up.

[1] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Selige Sehnsucht,  “Blessed Yearning,” from An Anthology of German Literature of the Romantic Era and the Age of Goethe, ed. and trans. Klaus-Peter Hinze and Leonard M. Trawick (San Francisco: EmText, 1993), 51. Translators’ emphasis.

Adapted from Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 44-47.

Image credit: Jonah and the Whale (detail), Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), circa 1400.
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