Your Night Journeys

In our dark times, a piece of ourselves comes to an end. We must find meaning in that darkness.

Excerpted from "Dark Nights of the Soul" with permission of Gotham Books


The classic story of the night sea journey is the Biblical tale of Jonah. God called Jonah to tell the people of the city Nineveh that their evil ways were angering him, but Jonah tried to evade the call by sailing on a ship going to the distant city of Tarshish. A storm came up and the sailors discovered that Jonah was running away from his mission. To save themselves, they threw him overboard, and a great fish swallowed him. He was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before it spewed him up on land. Then God called him once more, and this time he responded.

In your dark night you may have a sensation you could call "oceanic"--being in the sea, at sea, or immersed in the waters of the womb. The sea is the vast potential of life, but it is also your dark night, which may force you to surrender some knowledge you have achieved. It helps to regularly undo the hard-won ego development, to unravel the self and culture you have woven over the years. The night sea journey takes you back to your primordial self, not the heroic self that burns out and falls to judgment, but to your original self, yourself as a sea of possibility, your greater and deeper being.

You may be so influenced by the modern demand to make progress at all costs that you may not appreciate the value in backsliding. Yet, to regress in a certain way is to return to origins, to step back from the battle line of existence, to remember the gods and spirits and elements of nature, including your own pristine nature, the person you were at the beginning. You return to the womb of imagination so that your pregnancy can recycle. You are always being born, always dying to the day to find the restorative waters of night.

The great Indian art theorist and theologian Ananda Coomaraswamy said, "No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist." In the dark night something of your makeup comes to an end--your ego, your self, your creativeness, your meaning. You may find in that darkness a key to your source, the larger soul that makes you who you are and holds the secrets of your existence. It is not enough to rely on the brilliance of your learning and intellect. You have to give yourself receptively to the transforming natural powers that remain mysteriously dark.

A powerful example of this sea journey is the last year or so in the life of St. Thomas More of England. He was a lawyer, theologian, and highly cultured man condemned to death by King Henry VIII for not formally acknowledging the validity of the king's divorce. To do so would have been to contradict the teachings of his religion. More was held in a small, vaulted room in the Tower of London, a room unfurnished and whitewashed when I saw it, a womblike space that was a concrete metaphor for the terrible vessel in which More found himself. Standing in that room even today, you can imagine it as the inside of a great beast, and in that uterine space More polished his ideas and his conscience.

More's family, especially his dear and highly intelligent daughter Margaret, tried to convince him to agree to the king's wish. In one letter from the tower to her he uses Jonah imagery: "For myself, I most humbly beseech God to give me the grace patiently to conform my mind to his high pleasure, so that after the storm of this my tempestuous time, his great mercy may conduct me into the sure haven of the joyful bliss of heaven."

He wrote to Margaret that he couldn't sleep, thinking about the possible painful deaths he might face. He had "a heavy fearful heart." Yet, in the midst of this nightmare, he felt a deep peace because his conscience was clear. No one else might understand his position in relation to the king, but he had deep certainty based on his religious faith.

I know of no better example of an ordinary, life-loving person, in the midst of a terrible tempest, who could refrain from blaming his enemies and calmly counsel his friends and family. Thomas More was a Jonah figure who had to take time to understand what he was called to do. It went against everything he wanted and against all the affection in his heart. But he found inscrutable peace and grounding in his faith and belief. He took the time of his imprisonment to deepen his ideas and his conviction.

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Thomas Moore
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