Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering. ― Charles Dickens
Elnes leaves the inquiry of the path in the Dark Wood with a look at challenges faced by Peter in the Book of Acts. Peter is not only asked to eat unclean (non-kosher) food, but he is asked to associate with Gentiles as well. These requests cannot possibly be coming from God, can they? There must be some kind of a mistake.
Like Bruce Almighty, like so many of us, we need to be reminded (very obviously) over and over again in order for us to understand the call. And then after we are aware of it, we must delve ever deeper into our own ability to discern the will of God as we start to tread into that new and challenging territory.
One of the signs that we are hearing the Spirit’s call is that it doesn’t come just once, but keeps reverberating within us like echoing thunder. It’s like a voice deep inside keeps crying, “Home!” whenever we entertain a certain thought or direction. We yearn to follow in the direction of this voice just as a rubber ball held underwater strains to be set free to rise to the surface. Yet when we are being called to take a significant risk, we are also called to apply a higher degree of skepticism and discernment.
Elnes brings us full circle to the initial understanding that the Kingdom of God is built not on a fantastical vision of glory, but on a literally sinking Rock, the frustration of purpose – the inability of Simon Peter to walk on water.
It is a Rock that cannot stand alone upon the water, but can only be held up by a power much greater than itself; a Rock upon which all failure no matter how bitter may ultimately be redeemed and all fear is swallowed by the sea. A church built upon this Rock is not the church of the perfect, but the church of the misfits. Its saints find their place in this world in the heart of their struggles, not merely in their absence. This is a church born in the Dark Wood. It is a community that continues to thrive there, continuing to learn what it means to welcome and embrace those who have been excluded.
How has this journey into the Dark Wood helped you? What aspects of Elnes’ description of the Dark Wood resonated the most with you?
Our Pastor Marisa Brown-Ludwig gave a powerful sermon testifying to her own journey in the Dark Wood as she stood in the face of a significant health crisis. The sermon is a powerful example of the Dark Wood church in action, and an appropriate way to complete this lenten exploration. As Pastor Marisa says, on the edge of the wilderness there is “…the energy of new light after darkness, new hope after darkness, and the sun coming out after the rain is over and gone.”
Let us emerge from the wilderness together, and cherish every moment we have spent in the Dark Wood.
“Change your whole way of thinking! Heaven is already here!” (Matthew 4: 17, Eric Elnes’ translation).
The road through the Dark Wood has been challenging, and treacherous. We have learned lessons on the way, and been brought closer to our truest selves, but it has not been easy. Just as walking in an actual Dark Wood, it is not advisable to engage on this journey alone. We must bring companions on this journey, understand the wisdom other people have to impart, as we walk forward.
In this chapter, Elnes asks us to consider how processes of life can work to erode our sense of self, interaction with processes (rather than people). A process pins labels on people. Elnes uses the example of a process that makes a new kind of macaroni & cheese. In evaluating the product, the tasters are divided into groups such as cheese-lovers, pasta-lovers etc. So when the results of the study are evaluated, the individuality of the tasters is diluted. The person-ness goes away and they are reduced to the label assigned to them by the process. Elnes writes, “If you live an unreflective life, allowing these forces to shape you unawares, they will take away your name and give you a number.”
We can strive to be more mindful of the ways our society categorizes people, and assigns labels. What labels do you assign to others? What labels are assigned to you?
How do labels divide & distance people from one another? How do labels cultivate mediocrity & prevent people from realizing their true potential?
When we are more mindful of the effect processes & labeling have on the relationships we enjoy, then our companionship with others on the path in the Dark Wood will be less encumbered. On your journey, Elnes advises, it is best to have the companionship of a few key characters who, like you, have their eyes and ears open to a reflective and spiritually engaged existence.
First, Elnes suggests we travel with a mentor, a wise person who you can consult with along the way, whether or not they are actually with you all of the time. Second, a small group of close friends who you meet with on a fairly regular basis. A group with which you can confide & compare notes. Third, a small group of folks with serious faith, not necessarily from the same faith tradition as you. The group will be organized around the principal of “the three great loves: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.”
Have you travelled the Dark Wood alone? How was that more or less difficult than traveling with others?
Can you identify people in your life who you travel with today? Do you feel you need more or less assistance from people than you receive? Are you in need of some support in one or more of the three areas outlined by Elnes?
This Chapter will be the subject of the March 16 meeting in the Buxton Room – 7-8pm.
Turn sideways into the light as they say the old ones did and disappear into the originality of it all. Be impatient with explanations and discipline the mind not to begin questions it cannot answer. – David Whyte, Tobar Phaedric
The Gift of Disappearing is tied to our humility. Elnes writes that pride falsely inflates our sense of self, while shame “artificially deflates” it. In the middle, anchoring us to our true natures is humility. In cultivating our humility, through allowing our false sense of selves evaporate, we “disappear” until only the most authentic of our natures remains.
Elnes considers in depth the poem Tobar Phaedric by David Whyte. The poem arises from St. Patrick’s holy well in Conmel Ireland. The concept is – do not approach life with an agenda putting yourself and your immediate needs first – overly proud. Conversely, don’t sell yourself short – crippling shame. Rather than standing squarely in front of opportunities and choices, turn to the side & with palms turned outward honoring the blessing of this life. Do not allow the events of life, or individuals in your path shrink the size of your true potential & what God has intended for you.
While Whyte’s poem envisions standing in a place of fierce beauty and ancient holiness to evoke a revelation of our identity, such revelations can come to us in places that appear quite ordinary. The key is to refuse to let any situation or circumstance mark you in a way that does not reflect your highest identity. You must disappear. Instead, stand “as a child” (reappear) with your palms turned out to accept an identity only in situations or circumstances that call forth the very best within you.
How have you failed to “stand as a child”? How have you succeeded? How close can you come to really disappearing in this way?
Living into the mission that God intends does not mean the sailing is going to be smooth. Being as close as possible to our authentic selves, neither prideful or carrying shame, will keep us on the mission’s path. “[M]istakes made while trying to be ourselves, not someone else, bring us closer to our place in this world, not farther from it”, writes Elnes.
When you make a misstep, are you overly harsh with yourself? Do you prevent yourself from acting on the next guidepost God provides because you are too busy beating yourself up?
In a very real sense, you do not find your path. Your path finds you. More precisely, the path that fits you best is revealed to you. – Eric Elnes
With regard to Temptation, Elnes is clear from the outset that he is not referring to the typical temptation to do bad things (drugs, alcohol etc.), but rather he is talking about the temptation to do good. The temptation here is the option to do the good work that is not yours to do, that is meant for someone else.
For instance, if a person is devoting all of his time and energy to a charity that is doing extremely important work then that would appear to be good. However, this is a problem because the “good” work is not the right choice. He does not feel filled by the work, and it is detracting from his true calling in some other profession.
But how are you supposed to know you are doing the wrong good? Elnes says of this problem, “[m]ore often than not, your intuition— your deep listening to the voice of the Spirit— is a better judge than your logic, reason, or strategic ability. Thus, the gift of temptation also refines your listening ability like no other— often through suffering the consequences of acting against your intuition.”
The Second Temptation by William Blake is as an illustration of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan River. Here the devil does not look particularly threatening, if a bit grey, and he and Jesus are pointing in the same direction. What vehicles were used to tempt Jesus? For the most part, Jesus was not tempted by obviously bad things. He was tempted to feed the hungry, to perform extravagant miracles.
Crucially, these temptations were not the good Jesus was intended to perform. The extreme nature of these overly good examples would have left Jesus’ humility & humbleness before God compromised or even shattered. As Elnes points out, Jesus would have been even less tempted than us to do evil. So the test Jesus must overcome is, can he give up the temptation to do good works that are not meant for him. He must lay down the temptation to help everyone, in order to fulfill his life’s purpose.
Have you fallen into the trap of doing “good” work that was not the correct path for you? How did you come to realize this? How did you address the situation? What did you learn? Was leaving the “good work” behind a more difficult decision than taking it on in the first instance?
Is this a more difficult temptation than the temptation to do wrong? How and how not? Here Elnes engages in an interesting story about how he envisions the devil, or “the Adversary”. On the same kind of reasoning, Elnes sees the treacherousness of the Adversary’s invitation to be more nuanced than a simple invitation to do bad things. He imagines the Adversary as trying to protect humans from learning the hard lessons of the Dark Wood.
According to Elnes, the Adversary might placate people with a cheap tonic of beer or provide covering from harsh weather. This is a problem because we are supposed to feel the harsh emotions the cheap beer prevents us from feeling. Likewise, we are supposed to experience the harsh weather, dark woods conditions, so that we can deepen our understanding of God’s intended path for us. God’s ultimate objective is to bring us to our core self, not to leave us wandering in the dark wood forever. Elnes writes, “[t]he Adversary’s highways and byways might lead them to the next tavern, but the Dark Wood’s paths would lead them home.”
Are you tempted by the hazards of taking a route that is easier than the one intended for you? How might your discernment be assisted in these difficult, nuanced waters?