Chapter 1: Where We Find Ourselves

Chapter 1: Where We Find Ourselves
In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.

—Dante Alighieri

 We can relate: difficult, heart-wrenching experiences … a rug pulled out from under us… loss of hope… .  What is really happening there in the darkest moments of our lives?   In Gifts of the Dark Wood, author Eric Elnes asks us to stop and consider the deeper implications of dark times.

Often, the times of greatest desperation are those when we draw closer to God: a core power, a deep understanding.    Elnes writes, “(m)any 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.”  The first chapter unfolds engagingly, peeling back layers, interweaving Biblical text with ideas of scholars and mystics.  Here are some points of interest together with links for additional reading & information:

  • Matthew 14:22-34: Elnes recalls the story of Simon Peter walking on water for a few steps, losing confidence & then sinking, only to be drawn to safety by Jesus.  This passage is linked to Jesus calling Simon, Peter (the “Rock”). Matthew 16: 13-19  Peter is the “rock” upon which the church will be built – the “sinking stone” Peter, the one whose faith was shaky enough to need rescue after only a couple of steps.  Is the idea the Christian church is built on the firmest of foundations wrong?  Is this restrictive concept counter to Jesus’ express wishes?  Elnes asks, “(c)ould it be that right failure is more important to Jesus than right belief?”
    What do you think about this Biblical interpretation?
  • Elnes describes the role of the “dark wood” as a theme in early Christian mysticism: “”While the Dark Wood was called by various names by the mystics— Saint John of the Cross called it the dark night of the soul, Saint Teresa of Avila called it the fifth mansion, Dionysus 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.”What authors, ancient or modern, can you think of who explored the conversation to which God invites us in the dark wood?  What artists have explored these depths?  How has their work impacted you?
  • Sweet Spots:  Elnes likens the natural buoyancy of the human spirit to a rubber ball that will not be held under water, and shoots to the surface as soon as it is given an inch of release: “At no time are you more aware of your native buoyancy than when something deep within you feels like it is being prevented from coming up for air. In the context of your experiences of challenge and struggle within the Dark Wood of life, sweet-spot moments act like homing signals indicating your internal true north.”
  • Mythological Imagination: a tool for the journey in the dark wood – Elnes reminds us that our modern understanding of the world can be overly literal, and can lack the poetic and spiritual depths explored by our forerunners.  Be mindful of the mindset you are bringing to the dark wood – are you overly restrictive in your thinking, or are there areas you can expand?
  • Unexpected Love:  Another partner on the journey in the dark wood is the Holy Spirit – the flowing force connecting all things – breath.  Because the Holy Spirit is ever present, like our breath, we may fail to be aware of it.  Conversely, the Spirit It is always there, and takes us by surprise.  Elnes writes, “No matter how many times the Spirit has knocked at my door, when I open that door I’m startled all over again”   When have you been taken surprise in this way?
  • For reflection:

    Part of what it means to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in life’s Dark Wood is to learn how to rearrange the seating arrangement at your inner dinner table on a daily basis in order to hear the Spirit’s quiet, unassuming whispers. Then, like Peter, you are invited to get up and step out on the stormy sea in response to the Spirit’s call. I do not watch for apparitions of Jesus, or the clouds to part or a shaft of light to suddenly stream from the heavens when the Spirit calls, nor do I expect a booming voice to sound from on high. In my experience the Spirit’s voice is more likely to be carried along by inner hunches, sweet-spot moments, and subtle intuitions that gently click something into place that had been out of alignment. Like Peter, too, I have learned that sometimes failure can be a friend. Failure can indicate that something is going right, not wrong.     (Elnes, Eric, Gifts of the Dark Wood.)

What did this chapter get you thinking about?  What would you like to discuss?  Please leave your comments below.

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Posted on

February 12, 2016

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