In almost every archetype of the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist becomes lost or disoriented at some point. Most Disney movies include this archetype: The Lion King, Moana, Aladdin. Many of these stories also feature the Dark Wood. In Beauty & the Beast, the castle is buried deep in a Dark Wood. In Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy tales, we learn that the Dark Woods are something to be avoided, to be feared. Hansel & Gretel lose their way in a dark wood, and end up on the dinner menu. In the Wizard of Oz: Dorothy has to make her way through dark woods. Harry Potter features what J.K. Rowling calls “The Forbidden Forest”- a dark, dangerous place where fearsome beasts like volatile centaurs and giant spiders call home. Trees & Forests play multiple roles in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth fantasy books. In The Hobbit, Mirkwood is the dark forbidding forest. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s the Forest of Fangorn that brings menace & danger at every turn. Written in 1320, Dante’s Inferno – the understanding of the Dark Wood is place of confusion and stumbling.
“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood
where the true way was wholly lost.”
Stephen Sondheim composed a musical Into the Woods about formidable events in the dark woods: where recognizable fairy tale characters – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack & the beanstalk meet within the deep, dark woods as they try to avoid the pitfalls of their own stories. To go into the woods is a metaphor for a dangerous, challenging quest where one has no idea of the outcome — or if you will even survive the journey. … Each character learns that they must go into the woods to achieve their heart’s desire, but they will face many personal trials along the way.
Into the woods, it’s time to go I hate to leave, I have to, though
Into the woods, it’s time, and so I must begin my journey
Into the woods, and through the trees, down the dell, I know it well
Into the woods and who can tell What’s waiting on the journey?
On this journey of Lent we, too, go into the woods, even though we’ve been told that the dark wood is scary, uncertain, dangerous. But what if that advice is wrong? What if the deep, dark woods of we encounter are actually our places of deepest, most profound growth & learning? What if those deep, dark woods are where the leadings of the Holy Spirit are most clearly revealed to us?
Eric Elnes writes in the Gifts of the Dark Wood: People who find and live into their calling rarely do so without getting lost first. I recognize that some of my greatest accomplishments follow some failure, loss, or disappointment. What I experienced as loss proved to be the loss of an old way of life that was in the process of giving way to something new. Since there are no clear paths in the dark wood of life, we do not cease to get lost after once being found. Rather, those who embrace being lost in the Dark Wood learn that the regular experience of getting lost is one of the most important gifts we can receive. Our journey through life is never a straight line. The path zigzags. We might be OK with a few twists and turns, if someone gave us an itinerary. But God seems to have forgotten about issuing an itinerary. Instead, at each point where the journey needs to make a turn we start feeling increasingly lost.
Today we are talking about the gift of getting lost in the dark wood. Except when you’re in midst of feeling lost or disoriented, it doesn’t feel like much of a gift at the time. There are many ways to be lost. We can be geographically lost – whether driving or hiking, unable to find our destination. We can be emotionally lost, struggling with inner turmoil, a difficult choice to make or relationship to heal, the death of someone one we love; memories that haunt us. We can be vocationally or professionally lost – lost among our own ambitions and desires. We can be pandemically lost, not fully knowing or trusting how to live our lives to keep ourselves our loved ones or our community safe.
Canadian author Louise Penny offered this reflection: One year ago this week the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, and our lives changed. We rushed to stores to get canned goods, hand sanitizers, TP. Schools and church buildings were closed. Employees were sent home, others were told they had to stay on the job, to protect the rest of us. Happiness, contentment, safety disappeared and in their place was fear. Of the virus. Of each other. A cough, a touch, making music could suddenly kill.Most tried not to give in to panic.To act reasonably, sensibly. But the problem we faced was suddenly not knowing what was reasonable.What is sensible, when faced with a worldwide pandemic? Today, a year later, we are lining up, in masks, socially distanced, to get a life-preserving vaccine. This day, when we lose an hour of sleep, we can reflect on how much has really been lost. The lives and livelihoods.
We can also be spiritually lost, unable to discern the voice of God in our lives. Being lost makes us feel helpless, anxious, vulnerable, unsettled. Metaphorically or literally unsure which way to turn.
This is where we find the prophet Elijah looking for God. Actually, he’s mostly running away from his problems and a death threat from Queen Jezebel. “Elijah was terrified.” He doesn’t know what to do. He is feeling lost. He runs into the wilderness to escape. Overcome with depression, he prays to God to end his life. He is suicidal. Panic, fear, desolation, disorientation, lost! When his resourcefulness runs out, angels from God step in.
Psalm 107 partners well with this story: Some of you were lost in the scorching desert wastelands. You were hungry and thirsty and about to give up. You were in serious trouble, but you prayed to the Lord, and God delivered you from your distress. As Elijah dozed, an angel came to him and said, “Wake up, Eat something; drink.” And there was bread & water for him.
Sometimes the most spiritual thing someone needs when they are lost and disoriented is a nap and a snack. Enough rest & replenishment.
Elijah then looks for God in the dramatic – the places where he thinks God will likely be: in the powerful wind, in the earthquake, in the consuming fire. But he doesn’t find God in any of those places. Rather, God finds him and Elijah experiences God in a “Whisper. Thin. Silence.”
When Elijah heard it, he pulled his mantle over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
In uncharted regions without a compass, unable to see the movement of guiding stars overhead, where our footsteps are unsure, we stand before divine Mystery. Gifts await, if we open ourselves. Even if we don’t know it, even if we can’t feel it, God is with us in the midst of our lostness.
Eric Elnes: The mystics taught that in the Dark Wood you discover who you are and what your life is about, flaws and all. … In the Dark Wood you bring all your shortcomings with you, not in order to purge them or be judged by them, but to embrace them in such a way that your struggles contribute meaningfully to the central conversation God is inviting you to have with your life. Recognizing & embracing those struggling places – those “dark woods” – for what they are: places where we are desperate for God to show up, not in the ways that we expect or in the ways that we want but in the way that we need God. Our heroes in life and mentors of the faith could produce a lengthy list of accomplishments. Yet their list of failures and “dark nights of the soul” would be every bit as long. Their stories remind us that we are not alone in our struggles or feeling lost. Living a life of vitality is not about moving from temporary failure to lasting success, but allowing your next struggle to become your next source of revelation and opportunity. It’s often in those moment that we find our greatest gifts, and our deepest reassurances.
Ch15 in Luke is all about lostness = the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin, lost/prodigal son. Throughout this chapter and these parables, Jesus reminds us that Common Wisdom says that anyone would track down the lost sheep, the lost coin – that you don’t leave precious things lost. Jesus is trying to say that neither does God. When we can acknowledge being lost, like the Prodigal Son, when we pray – “God, help me! God, be with me! I’m lost, God, please guide me!” Our awareness gives God opportunity to find us, and remind us that we are treasured, missed, worth seeking. And through the Holy Spirit, God can direct us once again – set our feet back on the path, redirect our gaze, reorient us and show us our path. It is trusting that God desires to be present with us, especially in those “dark woods” places when we feel most lost, most empty, most vulnerable, most in need.
“When the Good Shepherd finds the lost lamb, he throws it over his shoulders and dances home smiling the whole way. Arriving home, he calls together his friends, “Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep. There will be more joy in heaven over the one who changes heart.”
At some point in our lives, we need to have the humility of recognizing that we are lost & are willing to be found. God found Elijah in the wilderness; the lost sheep & coin & prodigal son were found and returned. And so, too, God searches for us, until we are found.
When we’re in those “dark woods” moments, what we want is for the Spirit to lead us out as quickly and painlessly as possible. “Remove these obstacles so I can go the way I’m going.” What we don’t expect is for the Spirit to lead us deeper into the dark woods. Sometimes that’s the way we need to go in order to find our most authentic self that God intended us to be. We are all on a journey toward our most authentic self. Sometimes we need to take a moment, even when, especially when we are lost, to thank God that we made it to this moment of being exactly where we are. The road is not always easy but we are pressing forward. And our best way forward is to keep asking, listening, trusting that through the Holy Spirit, Unexpected Love will let us know we have been found. At the end of the road, at least in the Gospel of Luke, there is always a dinner party, a celebration around the table.
In the words of Psalm 107: To everyone who is thirsty, God gives something to drink; to everyone who is hungry, God gives good things to eat.
Eric Elnes asks: I wonder how many miss the Spirit calling us into wonderful work or offering powerful help in a time of crisis because we expect clear signs from God. Most of the time God is more subtle. The Holy Spirit nudges and whispers. This feeling of being lost prompts us to pay more attention to the signals that the Holy Spirit sends, even while trusting that sometimes the right direction is indicated in ways that defy reason and logic. When I am lost, I pray and meditate. I seek the council of friends and mentors. At some point the lightning starts flashing and the thunder starts crashing, revealing a particular way forward and confirming that I can trust the direction. I don’t always get it right. Sometimes I have to reassess or backtrack and do the process over again. There is an uncomfortable necessity of getting lost. It is both Gift and blessing as we begin to trust that Unexpected Love is always seeking to let us know that we are already found.
David Wagoner’s poem “Lost”: the gift that may come our way when we feel lost:
Stand still. The trees ahead And bushes beside you Are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again. Saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you.
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows Where you are.
You must let it find you.
Others before you have found a way in the wilderness, where there are as many angels as wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people, too. So go get lost! Get lost in the deep wood and Embrace Divine mystery all around you.