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Winter Solstice

I discovered this wonderful reflection by Ron Rolheiser at Antony’s blog: Coming to the Quiet.

During my last years of seminary training, I attended a series of lectures given by a prominent Polish psychologist, Casmir Dabrowski, teaching at the time at the University of Alberta. He had written a number of books around a concept he called “positive disintegration.”

Positive disintegration. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Isn’t disintegration the opposite of growth and happiness? It would seem not. A canon of wisdom drawn from the scriptures of all the major world religions, mystical literature, philosophy, psychology, and human experience tells us that the journey to maturity and compassion is extremely paradoxical and that mostly we grow by falling apart.  Ancient myths talk about the need sometimes to “descend into the underworld”, to live in darkness for a while, to sit in ashes so as to move to a deeper place inside of life; the mystics talk about “dark nights of the soul” as being necessary to bring about maturity; Ignatius of Loyola teaches that there is a place for both “consolation” and “desolation” in our lives; the philosopher, Karl Jaspers, suggests that the journey to full maturity demands that we sometimes journey in “the norm of night” and not just in “the norm of day”; the Jewish scriptures assure us that certain deep things can only happen to the soul when it is helpless and exposed in “the desert” or “the wilderness” and that sometimes, like Jonah, we need to be carried to some place where we’d rather not go “in the dark belly of the whale”; and, perhaps most challenging of all, we see that Jesus was only brought to full compassion through sweating blood in Gethsemane” and then dying a humiliating death on the cross.

All of these images point to the same deep truth, sometimes in order to grow we must first fall apart, go into the dark, lose our grip on what’s normal, enter into a frightening chaos, lose our everyday securities, and be carried in pain to a place where, for all kinds of reasons, we weren’t ready to go to on our own. Why? Isn’t there a more pleasant route to maturity?

James Hillman answers this with this image: The best wines have to be aged in cracked, old barrels. And so too the human soul, it mellows, takes on character, and comes to compassion only when there are real cracks, painful ones, in the body and life of the one who carries it. Our successes, he says, bring us glory, while our pain brings us character and compassion. Pain, and sometimes only pain, serves to mellow the soul.

But almost every instinct inside of us resists this wisdom. We don’t like living in tension, try at all costs to avoid pain, fear chaos, are ashamed of our humiliations, and panic when our old securities fall away and we are left in the dark, unsure of things. So our natural instinct is to get out of the darkness and tension as quickly as possible, before the pain has had its chance to mellow our souls, purify our hearts, bring us to a deeper level of maturity and compassion, and do its full purifying work within us.

And, sometimes, we are helped in this escape by well-meaning therapists and spiritual directors who don’t want to see us in pain and therefore try to cure the situation rather than properly care for the soul inside the situation. They want to restore us to normality and good functioning because, as Thomas Moore puts it, they can’t envision us fulfilling our fate and discovering the deeper meaning of our lives.

And so what we need when we are in a “dark night” isn’t the well-intentioned sympathy of a friend who wants to rescue us from the pain, but the wisdom of the mystics who tell us: When you lose your securities, when you find yourself in an emotional and spiritual free-fall, when you are in the belly of the whale, let go, detach yourself, let the pain carry you to where it needs to take you, don’t resist, rather weep, wail, cry, and put your mouth to the dust, and wait. Just wait. You are like a baby being weaned from its mother’s breast and forced to learn a new way of nourishing yourself. Anything you do to stop what’s happening will only delay the inevitable, the pain that must be gone through in order come to a new maturity. . .

. . .Or, as Rainer Marie Rilke would advise: “Don’t be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”

Ron Rolheiser  (click on the link to read his whole reflection)

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.  We have been moving toward this point since the Summer Solstice.  It is the day of our greatest darkness just before the earth shifts and the days subtly grow longer again.  The sun hovers over the Tropic of Capricorn and then makes its way back over the next six months to the Tropic of Cancer.  There have been festivals to mark this turning for thousands of years.  Ancient peoples who lived without electricity were deeply aware of the earth’s rhythms and cycles.  When Christianity developed, there was great wisdom in placing the feast of Christmas in the days soon following this sacred day of honoring the boundaries of darkness and the return of Light to the world.  It seems especially appropriate that the New Moon was last night and so the sky was also as dark as can be.

I love Rolheiser’s reflection above.  As I have written here before, I love the darkness and the way it invites contemplation and rest, stillness and listening, awareness of the seeds planted deep within.  I have been through the painful dark times as well, the times when the possibility of faith seemed far away, faith in myself, faith in God, faith in humanity.  I have grieved deeply many times and dwelled in the ocean of sorrow, the night underworld.  I know both the life-giving darkness and the painful darkness intimately.  And yet, each time I have released to the place of disintegration and been faithful to the journey, I have emerged with an even more profound and more mysterious understanding of God.  Grief and sorrow are fundamental parts of our lives and have much to teach us about our own potential for compassion and kindness, enter us into solidarity with those who struggle with depression or a sense of meaninglessness in life. 

On this day of Great Darkness I invite you into a posture of welcoming.  With preparations for Christmas we may be surrounded by thousands of twinkling lights.  Perhaps turn them off for a bit and sit in the stillness, in the whale’s belly, and listen for the call of darkness in your life.  Here in Seattle many were without power for days because of our big wind storm last Thursday night.  Our priest in his homily last Sunday called the storm the great simplifier, as many sat in darkness and cold they were reminded of what is most essential in life and the goodness of people who reached out to help.   

What old habits, beliefs, and understandings are coming undone for you?  Can you release into this undoing and holy darkness?

-Christine Valters Paintner

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3 Responses

  1. Hi Kayce, thank you for the blessings. We have arrived in Tofino and it is such a wonderful and wild place.

    Thank you too Cathleen, for your kind words and Solstice wishes.

    Blessings! Christine

  2. Christine, this post is stunning in its truth. Thank you once again for your thymely thoughts. Winter Solstice solace to you, Cathleen