There is a story about St. Francis of Assisi and his experience in the darkness of a cave. Francis used to go to a little cave in a hill near his home. Resting there, he tried to think through his problems and find a direction for his future. He went to the cave every day until it became a kind of home for him, the only place in which he felt comfortable.
Speaking into the dark cave’s ear, Francis experienced the joy of release. The protective shield of darkness made it easier to whisper hushed secrets into the emptiness, or to scream his pain at the cold damp walls. It was in the cave that Francis met God, and met his own self for the first time. Until then his voices and dreams always seemed to come from without, from a great distance. But during the agonizing hours in the cave, he began to hear a voice inside himself, a deeper, clearer voice that was like discovering a part of himself he didn’t know was there. The more he prayed and turned to God for inspiration, the deeper he moved toward some inner force that gave him strength and peace.
At first, Francis’ inner search was a painful and terrifying look at himself, at his weakness and sinfulness; and the journey was a downward dive that made him feel like he was drowning in a vast, bottomless lake. But as he persevered, he came at last to something like a great, silent waterproof cavern in which the sound of his own voice seemed mellow and deep; and there, at that depth within, God spoke softly to him and made his heart burn with love, for himself and for others—both humans and animals.
For a whole year Francis went to the cave and plumbed his own depths trying to hold onto that inner cave-peace when he was in the world of light. In the end, he sensed that the search for the dark place would be his daily journey for the rest of his life; that if he was to be at peace, he would have to delve deeply into himself every day.
We learn much about ourselves in our darkness, in our depths. As most of you know I am a person who lives with depression. (With my new attitude and mellowness I’m deliberately avoiding the expression "suffers from depression.") I live with depression and sometimes that depression takes me into a place of darkness. Now, when I find myself in that place, I try to ask myself,
"What is this place of darkness like?"
"What can I learn or experience here?"
I am learning not to try to flee from that darkness, desperately searching for light. In those dark times I have learned more about who I am. I have learned that I am accepted for who I am, not for what I do. I have found a pace of life that works for me – a pace that is much, much slower than before. I have learned to be grateful for the little things that happen each day, and not to hunger for big, important things that might happen to me someday, if only I work hard enough.
Karl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, encourages us to learn from the dark. He was a strong advocate of paying attention to and interpreting our dreams. When do we dream? In the dark. He introduces us to the concept of the shadow:
• Our shadow side is made up of parts of ourselves that are present in our psyche;
• Parts of ourselves we either aren’t aware of or refuse to acknowledge.
• Those hidden parts of us, those characteristics or memories or personality traits, are powerful determinants of what we do and how we do it.
• Because they are hidden, even to us, we are sometimes not aware of why we do the things we do.
Jung said, "It is not by looking into the light that we become luminous, but by plunging into the darkness. However, this is often unpleasant work, and therefore is not very popular."
Jim Cotter offers a prayer which helps with this kind of soul searching.
Oh give me a candle of the Spirit
as I descend to the deep places of my being.
Show me the hidden things,
the creatures of my dreams,
the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts.
And take me down to the source of my being,
and tell me my nature and my name.
Then give me freedom to grow anew,
so that I may become that self,
that seed of which you planted in me at my making.
For out of these depths I cry to you, O Lord.
We can learn so much from being in darkness. I am thinking of the Greek myth about Demeter and Persephone. Demeter and her beloved daughter Persephone were out in the fields and woods one day, enjoying the sunshine and the breeze and the plants and flowers. Suddenly, out of the ground, came the fearful chariot of the God of the Underworld, Haides. He kidnapped Persephone and took her back to the dark place under the earth to become his wife. Demeter was consumed by grief and wandered the earth, searching for Persephone. Now Demeter was the Goddess of Grain and of all plants that were used for food by humans. Because of her inconsolable grief, all those plants died and there was nothing to eat. There was no bread for the people or for the Gods. After a few months of this, the King of the Gods, Zeus, commanded Haides to return Persephone to her mother. But before she returned, Persephone ate a seed of the pomegranate, the food of the underword. Eating that seed guaranteed her return to the underworld for part of each year.
In this story we hear about Demeter’s terrible grief and its consequences for the world. We don’t usually hear about Persephone’s experiences in the dark and what she learned there.
• It was a catalytic time for her, a time of deep internal change and maturing.
• She lived independent of her mother.
• She learned to be in relationship with another. Perhaps she met and got to know some of the souls of the dead.
• She returned a woman, rather than a girl.
And what about Demeter during that dark time in her life?
• She found a power she didn’t know she had.
• Power to keep the green from growing.
• Power to force Zeus and Haides to do something about injustice.
This winter, more than any other time in my life, I am learning about the dark.
• Learning to be aware of dark, to explore it and to trust it.
• Learning to accept myself in the dark.
• Instead of being a cold and fearful place, the dark is beginning to make me think of the feel of black velvet, of smooth red wine, and of rich double fudge cake.
• I am beginning to resonate with Joyce Rupp’s poem: Winter’s Cloak.
This year I do not want the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap of silent stillness,
its cloak of long lasting embrace.
For too much light has pulled me away
from the chamber of gestation.
And let the dawns come late,
let the sunsets arrive early,
let the evenings extend themselves
while I lean into the abyss of my being.
So let me lie in the cave of my soul,
for too much light blinds me,
steals the source of revelation.
And let me seek solace in the empty places
of winter’s passage, those vast dark nights
never fail to shelter me.
By Joyce Rupp - http://www.guelph-unitarians.com/guelph_unitarians/past_presentations/amy_cousineau.shtml