Exploring the Dark Wood

Editor’s Note: This piece contains an excerpt from the literary work titled Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes (© 2015 Eric Elnes, Publisher: Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee. All Rights Reserved. To be published in September 2015.) We are privileged to share this preview and thank Abingdon Press for granting permission to publish. 

Years ago, I made a list of my proudest achievements in life. Looking over the list, I was struck by the realization that nearly everything on my list was directly or indirectly the result of some failure, loss, or disappointment that forced me to look at my situation differently and produced a creative result. What I experienced as “loss” in hindsight proved to be the loss of an old way of life that was in the process of giving way to something new. Many times when my expectations had been disappointed and I felt like God was furthest from me, God had actually drawn closest but had approached from a direction I wasn’t expecting. What I experienced as “emptiness” often was an emptying of old patterns of behavior or thought that prepared me to see that the direction I was heading was no longer working. A new direction was revealed that would yield more promising results. My frequent experiences of uncertainty were what developed a deeper sense of trust that emboldened me to follow a call into uncharted territory.

In light of these realizations, I began to view not only my life story, but the lives of my great childhood heroes differently—many of them from were from the Bible. Others included heroes like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. To be sure, these heroes could produce a lengthy list of accomplishments. Yet their list of failures and “dark nights of the soul” was every bit as long. Their stories reminded me that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. They showed that living a vital, even heroic life is not about moving from temporary failure to lasting success, but allowing your next struggle to become your next source of revelation, thereby your next opportunity.

In light of these realizations, the Jewish and Christian scriptures took on an added dimension in which their stories of faith and doubt gained surprising new relevancy for my life. For instance, one of my other great childhood heroes was the apostle Peter. There is curious story concerning Peter in the gospels where Jesus’ disciples spot Jesus late one night walking upon the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm. Terrified, they think he’s a ghost. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus assures them, “It’s really me.” Then one of them named Simon (later renamed Peter) calls out, “Lord, if it’s you, then command me to come out on the water.” Jesus does so and Simon boldly steps out of the boat. Much to everyone’s surprise, Simon actually walks on top of the water, at least for a few steps according to the story. When it dawns on him exactly where he is and what he is doing, Simon sinks like a rock, reaching desperately for Jesus crying, “Save me!” Jesus grasps Simon’s hand and draws him back to the boat.

Shortly thereafter, surrounded by the disciples, Jesus announces that he has a new name for Simon. He changes Simon’s name to Peter, which means Rock. I can imagine the cackling of the disciples: “Ha! Peter you sank like a rock! The name fits you perfectly. When people think they can become powerful and self-righteous by following Jesus, we’ll just tell them to go talk to ‘The Rock.’ You’ll disabuse them of their fantasies!”

In the midst of their gaiety and laughter, however, Jesus gets serious. He says, “Upon this Rock I will build my church.” What kind of church is Jesus hoping to build on the sinking Rock of Peter?

I thought to myself, “Could it be that right failure is more important to Jesus than right belief?” If so, there would be vast implications not only for the community that bears his name but for any of us who seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

Many times when my expectations had been disappointed and I felt like God was furthest from me, God had actually drawn closest but had approached from a direction I wasn’t expecting.

So often Christians seem to feel it is their responsibility to build the church on a firm and unshakable foundation. They erect towers and build dogmas and theologies that are meant to stand for all time, for all people, in all places. They expect their followers to grant their unwavering assent to unchanging creeds and infallible scriptures. They demand that their adherents sacrifice their intelligence and dignity upon the altar of unquestioning certitude. As a reward for their sacrifice, adherents are promised lives that are as firm and unshakable as their churches supposedly are. Their marriages will last forever and their children will never get into trouble. Their fortunes will be made—and kept—and neither their jobs nor their 401k savings will ever be lost. When you read the fine print on this agreement, however, you discover that an even more troubling assumption is being made: that failure and misfortune are considered signs of God’s displeasure and punishment for unfaithfulness. Really?

Jesus seems to want to build his church on a sinking rock. When you are upwardly mobile and life has not hit you hard lately, it is easy to assume that you have arrived right where life wants you to be and that all good things will last. We all fall into this trap now and again no matter how many times reality has caught up and shown us otherwise. Sometimes it takes a journey into darkness, even deep darkness, to finally awaken to the smallness of our success-based world. Sometimes you need to lose your way in order to discover the grandeur, mystery and freedom of the world that awaits you. Sometimes, even, you need to step away from the security of your boat onto the stormy sea of your own awakening to discover that a sinking stone is a far firmer foundation than you have imagined.

The Dark Wood

20150109_EE_Dore_Dante_in_the_Dark_Wood_for_webAt the BTS Center’s upcoming Convocation, we will explore one of the surest contexts for such awakening and discovery—one found in the most unlikely and misunderstood of places: a place known most famously (or infamously) as the Dark Wood. Thanks to the Italian poet and moral philosopher Dante Alighieri, the Dark Wood has been misunderstood in the West for the better part of the last millennium as a place to be feared and avoided. In his most famous work, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), Dante wrote allegorically of a Dark Wood he entered at the midpoint of his life where “the true way was wholly lost.” In Dante’s understanding the Dark Wood is a place of confusion, emptiness, and stumbling that is entered because of our sin and is inhabited by strange and terrifying denizens. You don’t step into the Dark Wood if you don’t have to. According to Dante, it marks the entrance to the Inferno and everlasting torment.

Yet, Dante represented a side of the Christian tradition that understood Peter to be the firm, unshakable foundation of the Church, not a sinking stone. His conclusions about the Dark Wood were influenced by his underlying assumptions. Another side of the tradition, represented especially by the ancient Christian mystics, understood struggle not as punishment for sin, but as the central context in which revelation takes place. Consequently they remembered and experienced the Dark Wood differently. While the Dark Wood was called by various names by the mystics—St. John of the Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul, St. Theresa of Avila called it the Fifth Mansion, Dionysius the Areopagite called it the Cloud of Unknowing—all of them insisted that the Dark Wood is a place where one receives strange and wondrous gifts whose value vastly exceeds whatever hardships are encountered there. The Dark Wood is where you meet God.

[L]iving a vital, even heroic life is not about moving from temporary failure to lasting success, but allowing your next struggle to become your next source of revelation, thereby your next opportunity.

The mystics taught that in the Dark Wood you discover who you are and what your life is about, flaws and all. Just as I found that my “fat little belly” allowed me the buoyancy I needed to float effortlessly on the surface of Easedale Tarn, so in the Dark Wood you bring all your shortcomings with you, not in order to purge them or be judged by them, but to embrace them in such a way that your struggles contribute meaningfully to the central conversation God is inviting you to have with life.

During our time together we will explore several of the seven “Dark Wood Gifts” that I also explore in my forthcoming book, Gifts of the Dark Wood. These gifts have been recognized throughout the ages but have been largely lost on modern society in its fear of heading precisely into the territory we will be exploring:

  • Emptiness
  • Uncertainty
  • Getting Lost
  • Being Thunderstruck
  • Temptation
  • Disappearing
  • A Community of Misfits

These gifts may appear more like curses than blessings. Certainly they did to Dante. Yet before you dismiss them out of hand, ask yourself, “Do I ever experience any of these?” Some people find themselves in the Dark Wood when they wake up one day and realize that the career that has provided a healthy paycheck for years has also been sucking the life out of them. Others find themselves there when tragedy strikes, or a marriage fails, or a serious health threat arises, shaking their confidence in God’s goodness or God’s very existence. Some enter the Dark Wood when their beliefs—or doubts—set them at odds with their friends or faith community. They can no longer bring themselves to pray the prayers or recite the creeds because their internal dissonance meter has gone off the charts. For these or other reasons they grow weary of juggling all the masks they wear to project a certain image to the world that has little to do with who they really are. For still others, sheer exhaustion places them in the Dark Wood. They wake up one day facing too many commitments made to too many people, feeling trapped in a tightly woven web of obligation and guilt. If any of these experiences describe you, then if the mystics are right, you are in the best possible position to experience profound awakening and insight about who you are and what you are doing here.

You may find it strange that Dark Wood experiences could bear gifts or blessings that enable you to find your path, but it is part of life’s generosity. How nice to know that you don’t have to be a saint to find your place in this world! You don’t even have to be “above average.” All you really need to be is struggling.

Together with Marcia McFee—one of my very favorite worship designers—I look forward to seeing many of you in a couple of weeks!

Eric Elnes

Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes is the Senior Minister of Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha, NE, and a biblical scholar with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Igniting Worship: The Seven Deadly Sins (2004), Asphalt Jesus: Finding a New Christian Faith along the Highways of America (2007), and The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christian Faith (2006). This latter book is the first published commentary on the Phoenix Affirmations, an ecumenically developed set of 12 principles that, according to Phyllis Tickle, have become the theological backbone of the post-liberal progressive Christian movement. Elnes is the host of Darkwood Brew, a weekly, interactive Internet television program that explores the emerging and converging edges of Christian faith and features scholars, theologians, ministers and other Christian leaders from around the world. Elnes’s upcoming book, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Paths Beyond Religious Certainty That Point the Way Home, will be published by Abingdon Press in September, 2015.

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