Word Magazine January 2001 Page 4
DIRECTION FOR DARK TIMES
By Very Rev. Joseph Allen
When depression falls upon us, disintegration and fragmentation disrupt our lives. We enter the “dark times.” Perhaps the cause is that we or our loved ones experience illness or broken relationships. Perhaps failure. Perhaps even death. And our first inclination is to flee the situation. It is precisely at this point that we need a spiritual director to help us endure, to work diligently with us in seeking to bring about a transformation. Indeed, Vilma Sedans claims that at such times God Himself speaks:
Fragmentation, the crises of identity and meaning, touches the lives of each of us. Yet the potential for growth and transformation inherent in life’s struggles and breakdowns evades most of us. We fail to realize that dark times condition us for God — that they invite us to a transformed identity through a deeper faith, hope and love.
But can we discover this truth by ourselves? It will be most difficult. However, a “soul friend,” the spiritual director, can remind us to endure in an active way, that is, to realize that we cannot “dig out” unless we first “dig in.” The best metaphor, paradoxically, is the image of the compost heap, one which is a gathering of all organic materials like weeds and leaves, vegetable and fruit peelings. These are heaped up with layers of soil. Gradually, the contents begin to break down. However, with diligent work, digging, probing, the rich dark earth is the eventual result. Indeed, the compost heap has risen to new life. In dying to its own life, the banana peels and all the stuff of the compost heap can now enrich new life. In short there is beneath our fragmentation the potential for the dark rich earth, but one must first dig into it, turn it over. The truth is, however, that something must first die in order for new life to emerge. Our old protective forms, for example, which hold on to our depression, must give way for the dark, rich earth to emerge. The director can help us reach such transformation. His model is the truth that the Cross must precede the Resurrection.
Here is where theology enters psychology. Theology teaches us that inner spiritual transformation is brought about when one’s heart remains open to God’s grace, which ever seeks to enter it (Romans 5:5). Indeed, theological examples abound in the director’s training. The ancient patriarch Job, who prefigures Christ himself, is a wonderful and most human one. No matter how badly we may have been broken, we can identify with him. This “righteous servant of God,” the one who was abandoned, dejected, isolated and accused, eventually did behold God’s glory because he refused to close his heart during the dark times. And this, despite the advice of his friends and his wife: “Curse God and die!” With resignation he could say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” but then in triumph: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”
For the Christian, of course, the ultimate image of facing up to the dark times is found in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Here the director must teach that our individual crosses can no more be by-passed or denied than could our Lord’s. As He faced his Cross squarely, so we too must “take up” our life crises if we hope again to be returned to a life of equilibrium. We must pass through our crises rather than flee them. The great desert father, St. Anthony of Egypt, knowing that healing and transformation occur only in this way, stated that, “He who knows himself knows everything.” And St. Gregory of Nazianzos counseled an enthusiastic, untiring search within oneself: “Now is the time, O my soul, to know yourself and our destiny … Look to yourself, O my soul. Yield not to fatigue.”
But such penetration of one’s inner depths needs the counsel of a spiritual director. He is the one who can help us discover the healing and growth which lie beneath the “dark times.”
V. Rev. Joseph Allen is pastor of St. Anthony Church, Bergenfield, NJ.