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.
As with other examples in this book, More was an extraordinary man finding himself in extraordinary circumstances, and physically he didn't survive. You, too, may find yourself in a life-shaping drama of smaller proportions. There, in the midst of a tempest of your own, you may discover how to keep your vision clear and allow your own night journey to define your life.
Think of a dark night as part of organic living. To avoid it would be like choosing only artificial food that never spoils. As a natural person, you are going to feel a wide range of emotions and go through many different kinds of experiences. Over the course of your lifetime, parts of you will grow and blossom, some will rot. To be sad, grieving, struggling, lost, or hopeless is part of natural human life. By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.
For a feeling of well-being, you have to shine, but your sparkle need not be superficial. It can rise up out of a deep place in you that is dark but has its own kind of light. Thomas Aquinas said that a central element in beauty is its splendor, but other writers-Beaudelaire, de Sade, Beckett, Sexton-include a dark luminosity, what the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls, following an ancient tradition, the Black Sun. Imagine a black sun at your core, a dark luminosity that is less innocent and more interesting than naive sunshine. That is one of the gifts a dark right has to offer you.
Humphrey Bogart was one of many actors to have this dark luminosity that shone through in his characters. In childhood his parents were alcoholic and addicted to morphine and spent a great deal of time away from him, when he was beaten by his caretakers. Later, as a hard-working contract actor, he played the part of many tough detectives and murderers, transforming his sadness and edginess into a form that worked perfectly for him. His insightful biographer Eric Lax says his effectiveness was due to his ability to "project a sense of something going on beneath the surface." He made his characters Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe "desirable and remote, both too cynical and too honorable to be true. "I am not presenting Bogart as the ideal solution to a dark night, but as an example of how a person can at least make something positive out of dark experiences. Bogart once played the lead in a film called "The King of the Underworld," the perfect image for his fate. He played the social underworld well in his films because he knew the emotional underworld from his childhood.
Both in his childhood and in his servitude to the studio system, Bogart went through strenuous dark nights. Paradoxically, it was the darkness of character created by those torments that made him successful, indeed, made him a figure of myth who endures today. He offers a good example of a person not actually overcoming his captors but outshining them.
Being shaped by your darkness, like the captive Jonah, you become the sun rising out of the night water. You are always being reborn, always slipping back into the sea. Your dark night may feel stagnant and unrhythmical, but it has its subtle movements. T.S. Eliot describes the movements of life and death, light and darkness, as a Chinese jar moving perpetually in its stillness. The movement in your darkness may be difficult to sense, but it may be present nonetheless. You may not be advancing, but you are in quiet motion. There you are, suffering your fate, stuck in some container that keeps your precious life at bay, and there you have a special beauty, a pulse that can be felt only in the dark.