Entering the Dark Wood

Hope in the Darkness

Entering the Dark Wood
Monday, September 4, 2017

The mystics of all the great religions, along with classic literature like Homer’s Odyssey, intuited that life was a journey involving completion of a first half and transition to a second half, sometimes called “a further journey.” Yet most of us were given the impression that life was a matter of learning and obeying the rules; and those who obeyed them won. Many of our pastoral problems and the foundational alienation from religion in Europe and North America stem from the lack of initiation and depth. Mainline Christianity does not seem to be giving people access to God, to the soul, or to the joy and freedom promised in the Scriptures. Christianity is not doing its primary job well—moving people from the first to the second half of life.

At some point along the journey, if you’re honest and open, you will realize there’s more to life. This experience is hardly inviting or encouraging, and so many of us turn back. Dante describes the human experience: “In the middle of life, I found myself in a dark wood.” [1] If you’re letting life happen to you, you will be led to the dark wood where you have to ask: “What does it all mean? Why am I doing this? Why don’t I feel fully alive or that my life has meaning? What am I doing wrong?” Most of us have bouts of immense self-doubt and even sometimes self-hatred at this point.

This is why Jesus says, “By faith you will be saved” (Luke 7:50, 18:42). It is only by a foundational trust in the midst of suffering, some ability to bear darkness and uncertainty, and learning to be comfortable with paradox and mystery, that you move from the first half of life to the second half.

Novelist Robertson Davies wrote, “One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.” [2] The word innocent comes from the Latin for unwounded or not harmed. The innocent one hasn’t yet learned from his or her wounds, and therefore doesn’t know his or her full reality yet. Human life only develops in the shadowlands, never inside of pure light or total darkness.

When you’ve stumbled—and the guilt, loneliness, and fear come to assault you—if you don’t have at least one good friend, or if you have not developed a prayer life where you know how to find yourself in God instead of in your own feelings, you will simply retrench and reassert your correctness. You’ll learn nothing and remain in the first half of life, maintaining your container and supposed identity. This explains why most people are stuck in the first half of life. This is especially true for people who are highly successful or have been able to avoid all suffering. If you only move from success to success, or you never live in solidarity with the suffering of others, you normally know very little about your own soul.

Gateway to Silence:
The night shines like the day.

References:
[1] Dante, “The Inferno: Canto 1,” The Divine Comedy.
[2] Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (Penguin Classics: 2001), 245.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, discs 1 and 3 (Franciscan Media: 2004), CD.

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