Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24, NASB)
I recently completed training that more fully prepares me to direct a ministry to the bereaved in my church and community. The training provided a welcome refresher course on bereavement from the perspective of a person offering support and help to another.
In their guide to helping the bereaved adjust to their losses, Greeson, Hollingsworth, and Washburn offered their idea of how people grieve. Below is my diagram of their theory.
The Hero’s Journey
The descent a person experiences after a loss reminded me of another diagram, that of the Hero’s Journey, or monomyth.
The Hero starts out in the ordinary world, but something happens—a “Call to Adventure.” One might suppose that this is exciting—a call, an adventure!—it sounds positive, right? All too many times, though, the call comes in the middle of the night, or it’s a knock at the door by the uniformed officer standing there. The news is disastrous; your world is shattered. You begin the descent into the special world of those unwillingly called to experience and suffer an ordeal like none you’ve ever imagined.
I want to pay particular attention to the ordeal of isolation at the bottom-most place on both curves in these diagrams. This is where I left off when writing about alchemy last year—the place the alchemists called the nigredo stage of the work. It is a place of darkness and suffering so deep that a person is lost to himself and may even believe he is lost to God. He is led into this state by spiritual and psychological compulsion, for bewilderment is a necessary antecedent to individuation.
Devastating losses in the temporal world have led to corresponding psychological losses, so that a person experiences a state of nearly complete loss of ego identity and identification with the material world. This stage in the purification process has parallels in several religious traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Kabbalism, and Hinduism. The consistency of the fundamentals of these phases attests to their universality. In Christianity, Saint John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul.”
The Dark Night of the Soul
A contemporary of Theresa of Avila who served as her spiritual mentor among the Carmelites, John of the Cross fell prey to a group of opposing friars who kidnapped and imprisoned him. Though starved and harshly beaten over many months, John wrote much of his most inspired poetry during this time. After nine months, he escaped under cover of darkness, which escape provided the central image of his poem, “Dark Night of the Soul.” Thus, the inspiration for the poem occurred only after John’s suffering convinced him of God’s abandonment. He taught that every Christian pilgrim would suffer similarly.
For John, the God-seeker is initiated through the loss of material and psychological possessions, a direct challenge to a person’s fundamental sense of safety and security. The ego is attached to power, control, reputation, and material things. During the dark night of the soul, we are compelled to open our hands and let go of all that the ego values. The soul then tumbles into a state of “unknowing” so profound that he is propelled into isolation, for the journey requires solitude.
In his introduction to Ascent of Mount Carmel, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. wrote that many people misunderstand the phrase “dark night of the soul,” taking it to refer to a particularly bad time in a person’s life leading to depression and despair. John’s dark night of the soul, though, was “not simply a time of unrelieved suffering but one of the aspects of God’s love” (p. xiv). John realized only after union with God that “God was in his dark night all along and had been guiding him to direct his will toward union with God” (ibid.).
According to John, this most painful part of the journey is designed by God. “God will lead the soul by a most lofty path of dark contemplation and dryness of soul, and the soul will seem to be lost,” he wrote (p. 8). “By itself,” John continues, “the soul could not have managed this, for no one can succeed in emptying himself of all desires in order to come to God” (p. 12). Furthermore, the soul (or ego) could not have imagined the path by which it would go, for the path is obscured by darkness. John of the Cross makes clear that “in order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way that you do not know” (p. 39).
This circumstantial wandering and blindness has the inner effect of causing the pilgrim to lose all sense of unity with himself and God. “In order to pass from the all to the All, you have to deny yourself wholly in all” (p. 39). Without a doubt, a person on this inner journey must suffer the loss of all things in order to progress to a final stage of emptying and loss of ego.
Only after this does one discover the true self. After this, one arrives.
John of the Cross, Poem: The Ascent of the Mount.
John of the Cross, Poem: The Dark Night of the Soul.
Third Eve on Alchemy:
Tending the Flame, Alchemy Part 1
The Affliction of the Soul, Alchemy Part 2
From the Darkness, Alchemy Part 3
Doing the Work, Alchemy Part 4
John of the Cross. (2002). Ascent of Mount Carmel. (H. L. Carrigan Jr., Ed.). Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.
Jung, C. G. (1990). Concerning Rebirth. In H. Read, M. Fordham, & G. Adler (Eds.). (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.), The archetypes and the collective unconscious. (Vol. 9i, pp. 137-142). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.