by Mary Murray Sheldon
Jeremy P. Tarcher, 272 pages
"Guidance from the Darkness" is a self-help book based upon the author's 12 years providing pastoral care as a minister in the United Church of Religious Science. Its not particularly original thesis is that difficult times, like divorce, death, illness, or loss of a job, can open us to personal transformation. She urges readers to rely, in times of trouble, on "the Divine Feminine"--which Sheldon defines as a power that works within us in "nonlinear, nurturing, intuitive, healing, and life-giving" ways to guide us toward growth.
Sheldon's advice is, for the most part, wise and reasonable. But there is little here that would not already be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of humanistic psychology, popular Buddhism, and New Age philosophy.
Sheldon tells us that "change is a process, not an event." She urges us not to focus on what we have lost, but on the process of transformation that is opened up by a shattering of previous security. Fear is a friend who can increase courage, awareness, and possibility. Anger can have a constructive purpose, leading to compassion and forgiveness. Brokenness can open us to new possibilities for life. These insights are summarized in the metaphor of "surrender" to the "darkness." Our culture teaches us that we must always be in control. In contrast, Sheldon directs us toward the unformed, the unknown, the untried, which can only be found if we give ourselves to the Divine Feminine within us.
Sheldon's eight steps to personal transformation (Awareness, Intention, Choice, Practice, Surrender, Intuition, Gratitude, and Trust) boil down to a focus on the present; let go of control; appreciate the blessings we have been given; and accept the journey, however painful it may be, from death to rebirth. Those who learn these lessons will never again approach life with a desire to control or to be in control. Rather, they will know that life is about "harmonious unfoldment," not what we have or have achieved, but about how we go about living.
If Sheldon's points are somewhat prosaic, her prose is equally uninspired. Her didactic style is reminiscent of sermons; her examples from the Bible neatly fit her conclusions. The story of Moses and the burning bush, for example, is an "archetypal example of one's change process being expressed through the unfoldments of grief, awareness, willingness, and action." Personal anecdotes lack the vividness and agony of lived struggle, because they have been shaped to illustrate the author's ideas. We are told of a man who lost everything and "had to wash his dishes in the bathtub." We never learn how or why this happened. In his struggle to rebuild his life, "there were numerous, difficult setbacks" (we don't find out what they were) but he "chose to look for information that would turn his failures into successes."
The most disturbing part of the book is Sheldon's stereotypical assumptions about what constitutes the feminine. A number of recent books by Jungian and other authors have defined the feminine aspect of the divine as "darkness." It should be noted that some of these works equate the allegedly feminine "darkness" with "qualities of being" Sheldon does not endorse, including unrestrained anger and destructiveness. Sheldon alludes to but never critically accesses this work. She seems to accept the stereotypical equation of "the feminine" with the nonrational or the intuitive. While Sheldon is surely correct that our culture is overly concerned with rational control, it does a disservice both to women and the "Divine Feminine" to exclude rationality from a definition of feminine wisdom. A vision more compelling than Sheldon's would affirm women's minds and bodies, rationality and intuition, ability to choose and conceptualize as well as to surrender and trust.