Dark Nights of the Soul: Role Models, Part 5 ll By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

Dark Nights of the Soul: Role Models, Part 5
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

“My desire to live is as intense as ever, and though my heart is broken, hearts are made to be broken: that is why God sends sorrow in the world. . . . To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy. . . . any materialism in life coarsens the soul.” Thus wrote Victorian writer Oscar Wilde to a friend, upon being released from prison after being jailed for his homosexuality.

I ended my last blog with promised examples of those who lived their dark night. Most of these are taken from Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul, including Wilde’s opening quote (1, page xx).

In Blog 3 of my Dark Night series, I wrote of signposts and some reasons why you’ve been given a dark night. Perhaps these exemplars will encourage you, that you will read their stories and find ways to carry on the work of digging into your psyche, to see what transformation your soul seeks (for definitions of soul talk, see Part 1 , and Part 2 of this series).

Mediocrity: The failure to let the inner brilliance shine

And while some would appear to have died “before their time” through sickness or depression as a result of their sufferings and the life they chose, Moore claims the alternative would have been for them to live a life of mediocrity, which they rose above. And what is mediocrity? He says, “It is the failure to let the inner brilliance shine. Medieval theologians described this personal brilliance in the Latin word scintilla, the spark that lies at the heart of a person” (1, page 313).  In this category he includes contemporary and extraordinary French mystic, philosopher, and political activist Simone Weil, who died young of tuberculosis. In order to relate to those in poverty around her, she took on their sufferings, including their poor diet.

While serving as envoy to the Church of England, Terry Waite traveled to Lebanon to negotiate the release of four hostages. While there, he himself was kidnapped in 1987 and held captive for almost five years. Among other deprivations, he suffered beatings and isolation. The books he had read while free sustained him during those years of captivity. At one point a congenial guard gave him a book about slavery in America. It became a work of contemplation for him, as he thought about slaves spending their entire lives in slavery, yet without losing their spirit or humanity. The notion of others rising above circumstances worse than his inspired and sustained him (1, page xxi). Since his release, he has devoted himself to humanitarian causes and charity work. 

Creatively wrestling with life

And it isn’t a masochistic suffering, but one that creatively wrestles with life. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo had polio as a child, and then as a blossoming teen was in a serious bus accident where a long steel shaft pierced her body, ending her dreams of becoming a doctor. Confined to her bed for months, she painted her pain and continued to do so throughout her life. 

John of the Cross wrote exquisitely of his spiritual pain. Here he was—dedicated to serving God, and what happens? He’s thrown in jail, where he was subjected to public lashings, isolated in a tiny, dark cell, and fed a diet of water, bread, and scraps of salt fish. But the friar guarding him passed scraps of paper to him, where John wrote his most famous poem, Spiritual Canticles.

In his Hall of Fame living through and/or with dark nights of the soul, Moore includes Emily Dickinson, Glenn Gould, Virginia Woolf, Jonah and his whale, Erica Jong, Jesus, D.H. Lawrence, the poet Anne Sexton, Frankenstein creator Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, W.B. Yeats, and again, Oscar Wilde and many others. If this is your immediate path, you’re in good company!

The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are. Carl Jung

In 1912, after his break with an authoritative Freud over fundamental differences in the nature of the unconscious, Carl Jung was isolated—shunned?—by the majority of his colleagues. In 1913, at the age of 38, Jung experienced a severe mental disturbance. He recorded everything—the visions he saw, the voices he heard. He got through it, and went on to develop and publish his theories, changing our understanding of the unconscious. He penned his last published book in 1961, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, at the age of 86.

Under the category of “books I wish I’d written,” Moore’s is one of them. Of the dark night he writes eloquently:

“…the end result is not a final victory or an end to suffering. It is a moral development. . . . You are more fully who you are. . . . A dark night can heal, where healing means being more alive and more present to the world around you. . . . It opens the doorways between you and the world that heretofore have been closed. It reinstates the flow of life through you, for human beings at their best, remember are porous—like an artist open to inspiration, a mystic open to mystery, a physician open to the healing power within her. . . . It is never easy to accept more life, never easy to become more of who you are” (page 303).

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love
For love would be love for the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all
in the waiting. (2)

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Notes & Sources: 

1.The best resource I have found on determining if it’s a dark night of the soul or a clinical depression requiring the attention of a mental health professional is Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul, A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. Penguin Random House. 2004

 2.T.S. Eliot, East Coker, from his Four Quartets. Faber and Faber. 1940.

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About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth