by Eric Elnes
Welcome to the Dark Wood. The purpose of our new “Gifts of the Dark Wood” series is to explore the proposition that our best help on life’s journey often comes from 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 understood in the West as a place to be feared and avoided for the better part of the last millennium. 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, the ancient Christian mystical tradition knows the Dark Wood differently. While the Dark Wood has been 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, Dionysus the Areopagite called it the Cloud of Unknowing – all of them attest that the Dark Wood is a place where one receives strange and wondrous gifts whose value vastly exceeds whatever hardships are encountered there.
In the Dark Wood, you discover who you are and what your life is about. 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 you are yearning to have with life. In other words, you step into the Dark Wood to find and live into your sweet spot.
This series will trace six unusual gifts to be found in the Dark Wood, gifts which have been recognized throughout the ages but which have been largely lost on modern society in its fear of heading precisely into the territory we will be exploring:
- Getting Lost
- Being Thunderstruck
- Disappearing (and Reappearing)
- A Community of Misfits
These gifts may appear more like curses than blessings. Certainly they did to Dante. Yet before you jettison them like Dante, consider the following questions: Have you failed at anything recently? Do you feel lost, or like the road ahead is unclear? Are you ever tempted? Do you find any part of your life exhausting? Do you feel out of place among your peers, or society at large?
If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, then if the mystics and their predecessors are right, you are in the best possible position to experience profound awakening and insight. You may find it strange that one’s calling or “sweet spot” in life may be found within failure, lostness, temptation, and so on, but it is part of life’s generosity. How nice to know that you don’t have to be a saint to live in your sweet spot! You don’t even have to be “above average.” All you really need to be is struggling, and open to The Unexpected, which meets us regularly in the Dark Wood.
I hope you’ll join us throughout this exciting series.