The Spiritual Journey of Descent
I was recently talking with an Eastern spiritual teacher who felt that Western Christianity had, in Carl Jung's terms, become 'solar' orientated, losing touch with the profound dark journey of descent in the spiritual life. I understood what he meant; that we can too often see our spiritual path in terms of ascent, climbing towards the heavens and into the light. The light-dark, good-bad duality we often carry in our spirituality can make the darkness of the journey of descent seem frightening and possibly even evil in some way. And yet, for me, this journey lies at the heart of the Christian path. Not only do we find it poetically and poignantly reflected in biblical places such as Psalm 88: 'You tossed me to the bottom of the pit, into its murky darkness' and in the writings of the Christian mystics, but in the central journey of Jesus of Nazareth to the Cross. It is this journey that can open us up to mystery and a deepening in our becoming. So, I want to talk a little about what this journey may look and feel like, and reflect on its purpose in our spiritual path.
The journey of descent often begins being triggered by an event in life - an inner event or process of the outside world such as job loss, the loss of a relationship, grief or trauma; a crisis that shakes the familiar ground of our ego's reality. As this ground of our ego's sense of self and reality is shaken, we find things begin to fall apart, challenging what we thought of as our sense of reality about ourselves. The effect of this shaking is to make us go down and descend into the darkness because we need to reconstitute ourselves in some way. We likely struggle and fight this journey as we don't want to fall apart and 'break down', and yet this may be precisely what we need to do to be able to drop into another layer of our being.
This breaking-down process can be frightening and uncomfortable. We may feel we are losing our grip. As the Psalmist writes: 'Trapped here with no escape, I cannot see beyond my pain... darkness is all I have left.' We may want to try and patch-up the cracks, reaching for painkillers such as alcohol. But we can't. There is a process taking us apart that at some level we need to stop struggling with because it is taking us towards transformation and metanoia. It can be a fearful, painful experience leading us into negative feelings about ourselves, as inner demons of despair and even hopelessness assail us, tearing at our inner flesh, as we deepen into the descent. These in some ways may be the 'labour pains' (Romans 8) Paul speaks of, allowing what is deeper in us to begin to emerge. It is a place, hopefully a turning point, of encountering the bankruptcy of all our strategies in the face of our powerlessness.
If we can begin to let go and allow what is happening to happen, then we may start to find aspects of our self here that really do need to be faced, acknowledged and healed as part of our spiritual journeying towards wholeness. We start to see inner truths that have been hidden. Often these are our emotional and psychological wounds, likely gained in childhood. And it can be that very woundedness itself that is calling us down to come into relationship with it in order to heal. There can begin to be a point where we really start to see what needs to be seen, to face ourselves and not struggle so much with the process. We can let ourselves drop into it more and be willing to be with those parts of ourselves we have been unwilling to face. At this point there can be a mixture of relief, shocked self-realisation, and an opening to the ground of self-acceptance. What is so necessary and beneficial at this point in the journey is the presence of compassion, either from another or self-compassion. With the bringing in of compassion something starts to shift and we can begin to rest and let go in that place.
Here we reach a kind of stasis point. We could even call it a point of surrender or 'death-point' of kind - 'Not my will but Yours be done.' Something within us has to die. What has to die ultimately is the finite ego as our central axis as we shift towards our True Self, the Christ-consciousness of our being and reality. Free of our perception of our self as isolated and in control, we can open to a power greater than our egoic self. We can start to surrender more deeply to the power and Mystery which is greater than my self; that Mystery I am in relationship to, and who is in relationship to me, and in whom my hope lies. At this stasis point anxiety is gone. There is nothing to be anxious about anymore. In this place, we have let go and gone beyond despair and hopelessness, settling into the deeper ground of our reality where there can now be a kind of resting in the surrender.
Then something may start to move within us. We may start to discover the 'treasures of darkness' - new ways of being, different aspects of our self emerging, the very 'treasure that is hard to find' buried within this transformation. Here we learn that the broken or wounded thing about us does not have the power to ultimately define us. We have let go of our present and limited way of seeing our self, to open more to joining in knowing and seeing who God sees me to be. This is a period of digesting the journey and waiting. We don't want to rush the process of return and come out too quickly, but allow the natural process of reconstituting knowing who we are. There is something important in allowing ourselves to re-form slowly. We are still vulnerable and need to protect our new resurrection emergence until it is more solid and robust. It can be tempting to bring back old habits and ways, to fabricate something not real that denies the new shaping and forming within us. So, we need to take time to let the process happen and give ourselves space to readjust and find how we are now going to be with our new life; our new way of seeing and being arising out of our shifted relationship to what is deepest within us in our True Self as found in God.
In all the process of this inner journey, we can see and feel the echoes of Christ's journey to the Cross, beginning with the experience of the pain of betrayal and the darkness of rejection and torture, the stasis point of death, letting go into 'Not my will but Yours be done', and then the process of resurrection in a new changed form. This is in no way to deny the theological ontological reality of Christ's cruciform journey, but to recognise beneath that an extraordinary on-going archetypal journey of every human soul in our process of transformation and metanoia.