top of page

'The Treasures of Darkness'*: Working with the Shadow in Spiritual Direction

Here is a copy of the recent article I authored for a special Spiritual Direction themed edition of the Franciscan magazine published by the Society of St Francis, UK, January 2022. It is part of a series of articles I have now written on the Shadow and the spiritual life.

Over many years of working as a spiritual director, I have found people come to me, some in Christian leadership, in times of crisis in their lives - relationship issues, anger, hidden addictions, extramarital affairs, sexual desires, where they are at some level perplexed and shocked at their own behaviour. In the words of St Paul: ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do… but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing.’ (Romans 7:15-19). Perhaps they are drawn to me in the hope that my psychology background may provide some understanding to help them on their spiritual path, and indeed it can in Jung’s understanding of the Shadow.

‘Shadow’ is the term Carl Jung, the 19th century Swiss psychologist, used to describe where we hide all the bits of ourselves we think are shameful or primitive and don’t want others to see. It is that aspect of our nature that is cast into the unconscious and held there in the dark to protect our conscious life from what we feel may be unacceptable, either to ourselves or to others. As we grow up, we receive both subtle and overt messages from our family, caregivers, peer group, school, religious community, that certain behaviours, attitudes, personal qualities are acceptable or not. So, we learn to hide aspects of our self that don’t fit these to be loved and appreciated. The 'good girl' and 'good boy' ego-ideal demand in early childhood means we learn to control and repress things, particularly in relation to our feelings, aggression, sexual drives, power, sometimes even our creativity. So, the Shadow is everything about myself with which I am uncomfortable and want to forget. The Shadow is not intrinsically bad or sinful, simply disconnected from myself, and over time becomes buried in the dark of the unconscious.

If you spend a moment thinking back to your own childhood and significant authority figures around you: What did you learn to do to please them or get their attention? What was it to ‘be good’ in your world? What was not acceptable in behaviour and attitude?

And in your adult life and the circles you now move in, particularly spiritual circles: What is acceptable or not? All this will start to help you gain some insight into your personal Shadow.

So, why do we need to engage with our Shadow as part of the spiritual journey?

We can perhaps start to see from our reflections to the questions above that there can be a Shadow to following any spiritual path of goodness. But why not just leave these parts of ourselves alone in the dark of the unconscious?

Well, there are difficulties with suppressing parts of ourselves as they go on influencing us in hidden ways. Becoming stronger in the dark, feeding on our denial and fear, they erupt in our reactivity. For example, in outbursts of anger, jealousy or self-sabotage as our Shadow flares up out of the unconscious affecting others (and ourselves) in noticeably charged ways when we least expect or want.

Suppression can also mean we unhelpfully ‘split’ ourselves. We see this in the scandals of religious leaders such as Jean Vanier, John Smyth and Peter Ball. Splitting is a means of avoiding the Shadow by having a hidden part of our life where we act it out, either completely blind to the justifications we cover it over with or suffering much inner pain living in our contradictions.

We also project on to others that which we find unacceptable in ourselves. We see this when we react to others in judgmental, critical ways that are out of proportion, seeing them in terms of our own despised Shadow. This projection blocks the humanity of the other; I only see them through the lens of my Shadow. As Rabbi Nachmani said: ‘We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.’ To truly love others, as we are called to in the Christian tradition, we need to know ourselves to avoid our negative projections.

We can also bury our woundedness and brokenness in our Shadow, covering it over with a veneer of spiritual correctness in what the Psychologist John Welwood termed ‘spiritual by-passing.’

Most importantly, there are also many positive aspects contained within our Shadow - 'hidden treasure' that preferably needs to be brought into a healthy relationship within ourselves. Jung described the Shadow as ninety percent pure gold. Buried in our suppressed anger may be our capacity to be assertive; in our sexuality, the creative vitality eros-energy can bring; and our crippling sense of lack of effectiveness in life may indicate we have buried our power in the Shadow.

How do we live with the Shadow, transform and integrate it?

So, is there another way of relating to these parts of ourselves rather than suppressing them? Yes, but it takes us down the narrow path of truth. If I want to maintain and project an ideal image of myself, then I can only do so at the cost of truth. ‘We can patiently accept not being good,’ said St Francis of Assisi, ‘What we cannot bear is not being considered good, not appearing good.’ Perhaps true humility and compassion for others come from living authentically in the fallibility of all parts of ourselves.

There is no easy solution to the dilemma of valuing goodness yet dealing with the Shadow. But repression of what is raw, primitive and instinctual in our nature does not heal or transform it, neither does the covering up of our emotional wounds. The challenge we face is to gradually bring the Shadow into the light of awareness and reclaim these lost parts of ourselves, integrating them in a healthy way into our lives and spiritual path.

The spiritual direction relationship can be that ‘free and secure’ place offering this opportunity, held in the crucial atmosphere of compassionate self-acceptance. What I, sadly, too often witness in my room is chronic self-judgment, which underpins the Shadow, and a lack of any robust theological framework in which to understand our brokenness and wholeness in God.

Some years ago, a Jewish scholar explained to me that in the Old Testament the common root for the word shalom (peace) and sheleimut (wholeness) is shin-lamed-mem, where ‘shin’ signifies fire and destruction, and ‘mem’ water and creation, suggesting the dynamic holding of opposites in our wholeness. Intriguingly, Jacob is the only character in the Bible described as having become shaleim (whole) after his Shadow wrestling through the Jabbok night, in something of the Jungian dark night of the soul.

Those that come to the spiritual direction space need to sense that the spiritual director has done some of their own inner Shadow wrestling and are not caught up in their need to be seen as holy, but open to all parts of our human nature. Directees will then gradually feel able to share their reactivity and projections, no longer needing to hide aspects of their nature, but rather begin to discover the hidden treasure they so unwittingly buried.

* ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places…’ Isaiah 45:3


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags

Subscribe for Occasional Newsletter

Thank you! You’re subscribed - I look forward to staying in touch

    bottom of page