Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide Sea!
And Christ would take no pity on
My soul in agony.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, In Seven Parts” (1798), Part IV, lines 224-227
In my last post, I wrote about the beauty and the power of prayer and how it forms the core of my contemporary Polytheist devotional practice. But I certainly have had my challenges over the years in sustaining my practice, like any other religious person committed to devotional piety. Whether the span lasted for weeks or even months on end, the spiritual crisis known as the “dark nights of the soul,” a term first coined by the sixteenth-century Spanish Counter-Reformation mystic known as St. John of the Cross, was a dreadful phenomenon I’ve endured many times.
During those harrowing, spiritually fallow periods, connecting to my Gods and Goddesses felt impossible. The “phone line” in our two-way communications went dead. I couldn’t even muster the energy to stand before any of my 11 active shrines in my house and burn incense, let alone pray. I sensed that I was adrift in an existential sea not unlike the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ill-fated character of the “Ancyent Marinere,” who, during his hellish sea voyage thrown way off course into Antarctic waters, discovered that he could no longer pray:
I look’d to Heaven, and try’d to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came and made
My heart as dry as dust. (Part IV, lines 236-239)
I have experienced that alarming, dust-dry state of soul on many occasions. What precipitates it? Life crises that shatter our preconceived notions of Selfhood, especially our notions of identity and destiny. American Jungian psychologist and therapist (and former Catholic monk) Thomas Moore wrote the definitive guide to traversing this dark psychological terrain in his book, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals (Penguin Group, 2004). This is how he defines a dark night of the soul:
A true dark night of the soul is not a surface challenge but a development that takes you away from the joy of your ordinary life. An external event or internal mood strikes you at the core of your existence. This is not a feeling but a rupture in your very being, and it may take a long while to get through to the other end of it. … The dark night is more than a learning experience; it’s a profound initiation into a realm that nothing in the culture, so preoccupied with external concerns and material successes, prepares you for. … The dark night calls for a spiritual response, not only a therapeutic one. It pushes you to the edge of what is familiar and reliable, stretching your imagination about how life works and who or what controls it all. The dark night serves the spirit by forcing you to rely on something beyond human capacity. It can open you up to new and mysterious possibilities. (pp.xiv, xvi, xviii-xvix)
He goes on to clarify that it is not clinical depression—”Depression is a strong emotion but a dark night is a slow transformation fueled by the deep issues at work defining the very meaning of your life” (p.xvix)—and he actually astonishingly recommends, for someone who isn’t Pagan, that people experiencing these liminal crises appeal to the Goddess Hekate to help them through their trials (p. 80)!
“‘God’ never sends you more pain than you’re capable of handling.”
I can’t tell you how many times that statement has been directed towards my parents and me in the aftermath of my brother Mark’s death, which happened 28 years ago this past August. Whether that statement was offered smugly/condescendingly from someone with ill intentions or from a person who meant it sincerely and spoke from a heart-centric place with the intent to comfort us—while somehow presuming to be able to speak on behalf of her or his “God,” which I found outrageous—I hated hearing that remark.
Sixteen-year-old me wanted to stomp on the foot of whomever said it and hiss in response: “Oh, really? Are you sure about that? What about when a person’s pain becomes so great that it drives her to utter despair and she kills herself? Why did your God make her ‘incapable’ of ‘handling’ such pain, then?” And then conclude with: “SOD OFF—you and your God both!”
But instead I’d say nothing and glower from beneath my lace mourning veil at the person telling my parents and me that we’re somehow supposed to be cosmically okay with Mark’s unexpected, violent death at the age of 20. That the profound suffering of my mother and father over losing their first-born child and only son (additionally, there is no one to carry on my father’s family name, his nephew having committed suicide at the age of 28 in 1998) somehow fulfills the mysterious “plan” of a remote, disconnected God and that we, with our limited human perspectives, would have no way of knowing that plan to begin with.
It was then that I stopped picking up the Bible and I discovered the E.A. Wallis Budge translation of The Book of the Dead and any other translations of funerary literature from ancient Egypt that I could get my hands on. (This was 1990 so we’re talking visiting actual libraries and using card catalogs—remember those?—to hunt down actual precious, mostly hardcover books.) I strongly felt the presence of the Neteru around me as I read, dutifully hand-copied long passages of prayers and spells in hieroglyphs, their transliterated script, and their English translations in the ring binder I’ve used ever since as my primary assembly of texts for my Kemetic devotional practices. I composed hymns and I had convinced myself, understanding the principles of heka as delineated by the ancient Egyptians, that I was pronouncing the Words of Power with 100% accuracy. I just knew that I was. And I felt that the Powers surrounding me responded.
Solitary adventures in hermeneutics aside, in the first year after Mark’s death I was also inclined to frequently visit the Field Museum of Natural History here in Chicago, either alone or with my brother’s ex-girlfriend Kate (her companionship was invaluable to me), and spend hours in the Inside Ancient Egypt permanent exhibit, marveling at the papyri scrolls depicting the soul’s Judgment/Weighing of the Heart and accompanying spells to ensure the deceased’s favorable hearing before the dread throne of Osiris.
My heart was warmed by the sight of Anubis, lovingly leading the deceased by the hand into the Hall of the Double Ma’at. Did Anubis take Mark by the hand as his blood poured onto the asphalt of Alameda Road in San Diego, where he died? Did Mark go accompanied by a loved and trusted guide? Did a holy psychopompos show him the way through the darkness and the confusion as his mortal life ebbed—as his heartbeat, the levels of oxygen in his brain, ceased to be?
I like to think so. And in a moment of synchronicity in that hard first winter after Mark’s death, during a visit to a favorite childhood haunt of both of ours—a rock and mineral store in Long Grove, Illinois—what did mine eyes behold but a sterling silver Anubis pendant! The store’s proprietor, a kind elderly gentleman always dressed in denim coveralls, said that the pendant was a first as far as his inventory went; it arrived a week before with a shipment of some faience scarab beads he ordered. There He was, Anubis shown in profile, standing with His was scepter of dominion. I pointed it out to my mother; to her credit and my lifelong gratitude, she needed no wheedling from me whatsoever. She bought me the pendant and I’ve long since beaded it into a devotional necklace I wear regularly and religiously, specifically in prayers to my brother and in devotionals to Anubis, of course.
So those were the seeds planted back then that have totally blossomed, a quarter of a century later, into my full and active Priestesshood within the Fellowship of Isis, and with Nephthys, Mother of Anubis, as my Patron Goddess. She, too, knows the pain of losing a brother. In The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys from the Berlin Papyrus, we read how this Great Goddess goes forth into the marshes of Lower Egypt to grieve Osiris’ death. She changes shape to that of a kite raptor bird and continues Her keening in the skies. One of Her epithets, in fact, is Djeryt, “The Kite of Mourning.”
Knowing that the chief Goddess you serve can understand the depths of your emotional pain as a human being is a tremendous comfort when it comes to navigating the dark, perilous currents—whether borne of grief, depression, or the anxiety and confusion over having to end an outmoded way of life or belief but not yet knowing what is coming to replace it—we collectively refer to as the dark nights of the soul. Voyaging through these dark nights is what it means to be human; there’s no escaping the journey. And doing so leaves an indelible imprint upon our souls. We become transformed; coming out on the other end of a Dark Night of the Soul often leaves us like Coleridge’s Marinere: “A sadder but a wiser man” (line 657).
The challenge is to undo the cultural conditioning we’ve all received as postmodern Westerners, irrespective of our personal religious beliefs or lack of them, that equates “fallowness” or “darkness” with “evil.” As astrologer and feminist theologian Demetra George states:
In the West we associate dark with void and empty, but in Buddhist philosophy ‘empty’ does not mean ‘nothing.’ Rather it is the pure energy state of the fundamental potentiality of all forms. The dark gap encompasses this formless realm, which exists between the manifested reality of our life structures and concepts. The dark is the ground and source of all becoming, where healing and renewal occur (Mysteries of the Dark Moon, p.292).
It is my hope that contemporary Polytheists and people who engage in devotional practices in the Pagan community will bring this topic of dark nights of the soul into broader discussion. As ordained Pagan clergy, this is one of the major reasons that people come to me for pastoral counseling. I want to shine the proverbial spotlight on this experience and encourage devotees not to suffer in silence.
Can you identify periods in your life that served as journeys into the dark nights of the soul? How did those periods impact your spiritual beliefs and practices? What did you learn on the other side of Darkness?
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere.” 1798. In: The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
George, Demetra. Mysteries of the Dark Moon: The Healing Power of the Dark Goddess. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Moore, Thomas. Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. New York: Penguin Group/Gotham Books, 2004.