By Rev. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI
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."
disintegration. Isn't that an oxymoron? Isn't disintegration the
opposite of growth and happiness?
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.
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. St. 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Moore, in a recent book on "Dark Nights of the Soul,"
offers this advice to anyone undergoing this kind of crisis of
soul: "Care rather than cure. Organize your life to support
the process. You are incubating your soul, not living a heroic
adventure. Arrange your life accordingly. Tone it down. Get what
comforts you can, but don't move against the process. Concentrate,
reflect, think, and talk about your situation seriously with trusted
friends."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."
of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in
the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website