[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1426794134″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/61eDfbCZPL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]Entering the Night
A Review of
Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and other wanderers)
Paperback: Abingdon, 2015
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Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert.
Not long after I completed my education and training in spiritual direction, I found myself inexplicably launched on an uninvited foray into what St. John of the Cross called, “The Dark Night of the Soul” experience. After more than three years of intense exploration, immersion and formation in response to a convincing sense of call to the vocation of spiritual direction, I suddenly found myself mired in doubt, anxiety and a sense of utter bewilderment surrounding the idea—now seeming like utter folly–that I had anything to offer a spiritual pilgrim seeking guidance. Mind, not only did I receive a top notch education in the discipline but ongoing discernment of “call” was central to the process and I was under the direction of experienced Jesuit Priests and educated and experienced lay leaders—in short, I had been thoroughly vetted and was graduated from my program with the assumption of a clear charism in spiritual direction. Yet, only months later, in Dante’s familiar words: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.” And it was a very dark wood indeed. While sparing the gory details, suffice it to say that I entered an immersion experience of darkness and doubt that nearly destroyed me spiritually and emotionally. I was well and truly lost, and it took an exceptionally long and torturous time to locate and live into the light and blessings this challenge presented to me–the “Gifts of the Dark Wood” that I now understand to have been an absolutely necessary “Vision Quest” without which I couldn’t possibly have done the work that had been given me to do.
Many people come to spiritual direction adrift, discouraged and in pain upon finding, often at mid-life, that none of the old ideas or practices “work” anymore. Upon reflection, the life planned for with such hope and hard work seems not to have worked out as anticipated and the failures, reversals and problems that seem to crop up all at once in the middle years weigh heavily. The spiritual or religious life in place for decades can start to feel like a set of rituals rapidly drained of inspiration and comfort as prayer and other disciplines become dry to nonexistent. Doubts and darkness become a persistent presence and in the extreme, a sense of utter meaninglessness envelopes the soul—belief often vanishes completely leaving a sense of emptiness with accompanying guilt and dismay—how does one simply lose a lifetime of faith and spiritual purpose? How can it all just fall away? What have I done wrong? Why is God so distant? When I was going through this wilderness journey of darkness and doubt, I leaned with a will into reading the ancient mystics and a few more modern writers, such as Thomas Merton, in search of a remedy but one of the hallmark signs of the experience is apathy, what the third century monk Evagrius called, “Acedia” or the “Noonday Demon”. In its grip, it becomes a challenge to care or to muster the will and concentration to read, and in that unfortunate state, I would have welcomed a guidebook written with the beautiful simplicity and solid structure of Eric Elnes’s book Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and other wanderers) and I am now pleased to be able to offer this book to my directees who present with their own “Dark Night” experiences, and to recommend it to readers who are interested in how what we may think of as negative experiences—our own difficulties and soul sickness—often herald our deepest spiritual growth and are, in fact, a necessary passages and signposts of that awakening.
From the opening paragraph in which the author reassures the reader that “you have a place in this world” he segues just a few paragraphs later into the soul and purpose of the book.:
“Ultimately, this book is about seeing life through new eyes, recognizing that experiences of failure, emptiness, and uncertainty are as critical for finding our way through life as they are unavoidable. These experiences frequently offer clues, in fact, to what the ancients named “our calling” or “path in life.” A number of these clues come from experiences of spiritual awakening that present themselves not in the absence of struggle, but deep in the heart of it.”
Elnes does an admirable job of making complex spiritual realities understandable to the lay reader—not an easy task—and his command of the literature and history of spiritual ennui and darkness is transformed into the context of post-modern spirituality and of a diverse readership that while resolutely situated in the Christian spiritual tradition, offers an interpretation and guidance that will be valid and useful for seekers from across the spiritual and religious spectrum—he has, in fact, deftly avoided the usual pitfalls that writing from a particular wordview can present to a reader from outside that perspective. This is a book of resounding hospitality; all are truly welcome.
The structure of the book is straightforward, chapters devoted to topics ranging from the starting point of “Where We Find Ourselves” and moving right along into an outline of seven “gifts that so often come disguised as spiritual challenges: uncertainty, emptiness, being thunderstruck, getting lost, temptation, disappearing and, my personal favorite, “The Gift of Misfits” and then coming full circle with the concluding chapter, “Where Do We Go From Here?” Each chapter unfolds seamlessly from one to the other—each topic is both discreet and connected–the flow of the book is remarkably reader-friendly. Eric Elnes is generous in sharing his own personal experiences—one is not left with a sense of being spoken down to by a flawless, carefree personality—he shares with disarming but not self-indulgent honesty that he has lived these experiences; that he has travelled his own “Dark Night”and the “seven blessings” are those he has personally received, learned from, and come to cherish as moments of genuine transformation. Those who are seeking strong spiritual counsel, especially in crisis, will find it in this worthwhile book, wrapped in accessible, pastoral and empathetic language within a workable structure that provides a stolid container. Those who are reading for personal enrichment will likewise find an eminently readable treatise on the post-modern spiritual experience grounded in solid, but flexible and liberal theology, written in straightforward and conversational prose while providing truly helpful guidance for the challenges of our own “dark nights”.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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