Sunday, October 11, 2015

Entering the Dark Wood (10/11/15)

Entering the Dark Wood
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2015

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.    
 -- Dante Alighieri

Psalm 139:7-12   
Where can I go from your spirit?
            Or where can I flee from your presence? 
     If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
            if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
     If I take the wings of the morning
            and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
     even there your hand shall lead me,
            and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
     If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
            and the light around me become night’, 
     even the darkness is not dark to you;
            the night is as bright as the day,
            for darkness is as light to you.

Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening -- Robert Frost 
     Whose woods these are I think I know.   
     His house is in the village though;   
     He will not see me stopping here   
     To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

     My little horse must think it queer   
     To stop without a farmhouse near   
     Between the woods and frozen lake   
     The darkest evening of the year.   

     He gives his harness bells a shake   
     To ask if there is some mistake.   
     The only other sound’s the sweep   
     Of easy wind and downy flake.   

     The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
     But I have promises to keep,   
     And miles to go before I sleep,   
     And miles to go before I sleep.      

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

I do love the Pacific Northwest.  
I love that we have two Springs.   
Earlier this year around March, the grass begins to grow. 
Then it goes back to sleep for the summer.
Then with the Fall rains it greens and grows again.
Two Springs even as the leaves color and fall.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” writes Robert Frost. 

I don’t pay attention to the lovely woods all the time, but when I do, when my eyes catch my mind wandering aimlessly and bring it back to the redness now dotting my yard, when my skin feels the damp chill and my nose smells that distinct decay that tells me it is the Autumn of the year, when that happens, I am again present to the Dark Wood, the place where the magic happens.

Fall is the season associated with the spiritual path of letting go and letting be.   The Latin is the via negativa, literally the way of negation.   As the cycle of the seasons requires the trees to let go their leaves and begin to prepare for Winter rest, so, too the spiritual season of the via negativa is a time to let go of the images, sounds, and certainties that fill our senses and our thoughts.  

It is a path of noticing that we need a fallow time.   

Emptiness, silence, darkness, are the companions of the Dark Wood, the via negativa.   

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

Dark Wood is a metaphor that has caught my attention thanks to Eric Elnes.  Eric is a minister in the United Church of Christ at Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska.  He attended Princeton Seminary when I was there.  He was a year ahead of me.  I didn’t know him at the time, although I think I delivered the Trenton Times to him in one of my many odd jobs during my seminary years.  

I interviewed Eric a couple of weeks ago at KBOO.  That interview will be on near the end of the month.   We talked about his new book, Gifts of the Dark Wood:  Seven Blessings For Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers).   Eric also hosts an interactive weekly webcast called Darkwood Brew.   

What is the Dark Wood?

Dante speaks of it in The Divine Comedy

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.

Dante describes the Dark Wood as “savage, dense, and harsh.”   The Dark Wood is disorienting, confusing, frightening.  We are lost.   We have lost our bearings.  We have lost our vision.  We have lost our way.  Dante wakes up in the middle of his life in the Dark Wood.   The path he was on is no longer clear.    

When we awake in the Dark Wood, the first reaction is panic.  We don’t like it.  We don’t want to be here.  We want to find a way out and fast.   We have a plan for our life and this Dark Wood is not it.    The Dark Wood was not on the map.  

Robert Frost is wrong.  The Dark Wood is not lovely.  It is dreary.   The Dark Wood is the bad news of hurt, the awareness of mortality, the loss of faith, the loss of confidence.   You name it.  You know it.   If you live very long, you will awaken in the Dark Wood at some point.    

But…if we can suspend our panic and sit with what is, we may ask, “Now what?”  In the asking we can open ourselves to what the Dark Wood teaches.   Not everyone goes there.  Not everyone can or will learn from the Dark Wood.  For some it is only dark, only frightening, only despairing.    

But that isn’t you.  It doesn’t have to be.   The wise ones who have been in the Dark Wood before us invite us to ask what the Dark Wood might show us.    Can we trust that the Dark Wood is not the end of the path?   Can we trust that whatever we call the Divine, the Depth of Being, God, has not abandoned us in the wood but is present?

The psalmist, writing from the experience of darkness expresses this trust:
     If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
            and the light around me become night’, 
     even the darkness is not dark to you;
            the night is as bright as the day,
            for darkness is as light to you.

The psalmist is not saying that the darkness is not so bad, just get over it.  No it is bad.  It is dark.  It is real.  It is painful, and no amount of sugarcoating or denial will change that.  The psalmist admits to herself, however, that even as she might not see, the darkness is not absolute.  It is a trust despite experience.    

Sometimes we just have to sit with it.  Sometimes as the psalmist also says, we have to make our bed in Sheol for a little while. 

One day a king was traveling with his retinue.   They stopped along a pond for a rest.   The king went over to the pond and looked down at his reflection.   To his surprise and dismay, a jewel that had been embedded in his crown, loosened and fell into the pond.   He started to panic.  He began flailing in the pond in desperation for it but he couldn’t find it.  He called for his servants and they searched at first trying to reach down then they went in the pond itself to feel around for it.   They splashed around and made a big muddy mess.

About that time a guru stopped by.  He asked the king what was wrong and the king told his tale.  The guru told the king that he could help find the jewel.  “Tell the servants to get out of the pond,”  The king  did so and looked to the guru anxious for help.   The guru closed his eyes and sat under the shade of a tree.   The king fretted and wandered back and forth, “Aren’t you going to find it!”   The guru sat silently.  

The king wandered back and forth muttering under his breath walking between the pond and the guru.  The guru sat motionless and silent.  Finally after hours, the guru opened his eyes.   He went over to the pond and called the king, who had finally sat down, exhausted.  The king went over to the pond, which in time had finally cleared, and there in the bottom almost completely covered by silt was the jewel.    The king carefully reached down and gathered it. 

The parable is about meditation.   We have a problem so we panic.  Our emotions overwhelm us.  We think we can solve the problem by sending thoughts after it and they do nothing but muddy the waters.  Finally, we sit perhaps out of sheer exhaustion or perhaps out of intention and we allow the mind to clear.  Then we find our jewel.

When in the Dark Wood, if we can avoid the impulse to panic and avoid trying to think our way out and instead sit with what is, we may at least come to a place of clarity.  

“The darkness is as light to you,” says the psalmist to the Holy One.

Wendell Berry speaks, I think, of the Dark Wood in his poem, “The Real Work:”

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Berry doesn’t solve the problem.   He invites a sense of trust that while the Dark Wood may be as Dante says, “savage, dense, and harsh” it is also the place where the “real journey” begins.   

For the season of Fall, we are going to explore this metaphor of the Dark Wood.   I am going to follow the outline of Eric’s book, and talk about the gifts of the Dark Wood and the seven blessings we can find there.  

being thunderstruck, 
getting lost, 
disappearing, and 

I will use his seven gifts as a starting point then spin off on my own.   

The Dark Wood, the via negativa, the dark night of the soul, the labyrinth, are all places of learning and growth.  Eric calls the Dark Wood a place for “awareness and discovery.” 

It is where we find depth. 

The Dark Wood is the invitation to discover your depth.  Whatever that may be.  No one can define it for you.  It is your journey, your discovery.    What others can do is to share the road.   

We all awaken at one time or another in the Dark Wood.  As Dante says:

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost…

But Robert Frost says something too:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.

Dark and deep.   The Dark Wood can be lovely, too?  I leave it as a question.

Some have said that the last creative systematic theologian was Paul Tillich.   We all have our favorites, I suppose.  Tillich was good with depth and in offering us a way to relate it to the concept of God.    

This is from his collection of sermons called, The Shaking of the Foundations.   This passage is from his sermon, “The Depth of Existence”:

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about [God]. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not.  [The person] who knows about depth knows about God.

The Dark Wood is a place of depth.   It is a place, an experience, a life passage, where are foundations are shaken, where we “forget everything traditional that [we] have learned”, where certainties are stripped away, where trying to be perfect is not all its cracked up to be, and where we are made open, vulnerable to Divine Light.   

Again, the psalmist speaking to Depth:

The darkness is as light to you.

I will close with a stanza from Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem: 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in


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