That’s more than a clever sound-byte. It’s a deep truth that’s often lost in a world within which success, achievement, and good appearance define meaning and value.
What can that phrase teach us? That sometimes it’s good to be without success, without health, without achievements to bolster us, without good appearance, and even without meaning. Being down-and- out, alone, lost, struggling for meaning, and looking bad, is also a valid place to be.
One of the greatest spiritual writers of all time, John of the Cross, would agree with that. If he was your spiritual director and you explained to him that you were going through a dark, painful patch in life and asked him: “What’s wrong with me?” He would likely answer:
“There’s nothing wrong with you; indeed, there’s a lot right with you. You’re where you should be right now: in the desert, letting the merciless sun do its work; in a dark night, undergoing an alchemy of soul; in exile, lamenting on a foreign shore so that you can better understand your homeland; in the garden, sweating the blood that needs to be sweated to live out your commitments; being pruned, undergoing spiritual chemotherapy, to shrink the tumours of emotional and spiritual dead-wood that have built up from wrong-turns taken; in the upper room, unsure of yourself, waiting for pentecost before you can set out again with any confidence; undergoing positive disintegration, having your life ripped apart so that you can rearrange it in a more life-giving way; sitting in the ashes, like Cinderella, because only a certain kind of humiliation will ready your soul for celebration; and undergoing purgatory, right here on earth, so your heart, soul, and body can, through this painful purging, learn to embrace what you love without unhealthily wanting it for yourself.”
He’d also tell you that this can be a good place to be, a biblical and mystical place. That doesn’t make it less painful or humiliating, it just gives you the consolation of knowing that you’re in a valid place, a necessary one, and that everyone before you, Jesus included, spent some time there and everyone, including all those people who seem to be forever on top of the world, will spend some time there too. The desertspares nobody. Dark nights eventually find us all.
Knowing this, of course, doesn’t make it easier to accept feeling lost and on the outside, especially in a world in which being successful is everything. That’s why it’s hard to ever admit, even to our closest friends, that we’re struggling, tasting more ashes than glory. Small wonder that our Christmas letters to our friends each year invariably are a list of all that’s gone well in our lives and never an admittance of struggle or humiliation.
The need to name being lost as a valid place is important for us, both communally and personally.
In many ways, at least in the Western world, that’s exactly where the church is today, namely, in the desert, in a dark night, lost, being pruned, undergoing a purifying alchemy. We’re experiencing public humiliation in the sexual abuse scandal, in our greying and emptying churches, and in the strong anti-clericalism inside our culture. We’re aging, unsure of ourselves, lacking in vocations, and becoming ever more marginalized.
But that’s a place too, a good place to be. From the edges, humbled and insecure, we can again become church.
The same holds true in our personal lives. We have our good seasons, but we have seasons too where we lose relationships, lose health, lose friends, lose spouses, lose children, lose jobs, lose prestige, lose our grip, lose our dreams, lose our meaning, and end up humbled, alone, and lonely on a Friday night. But that’s a place too, a valid and an important one. Inside that place, our souls are being shaped in ways we cannot understand but in ways that will stretch and widen them for a deeper love and happiness in the future.
Good wines are aged in cracked old barrels. That’s what makes them rich and mellow. They can, of course, go sour during the process. That’s the risk. The soul works in the same way and, thus, we might ask whether failure and loneliness, as they shape our souls, need to be re-imagined aesthetically: Are maturity and transformation, growth in beauty, not about more than success, health, having it all, and looking like a million dollars?
Beauty is ultimately more about the size of our hearts, about how much they can empathize, and how about widely and unselfishly they can embrace. To that end, the desert-heat of loneliness is helpful in softening the heart, enough at least to let it be painfully stretched. That happens more easily when we’re lost, feeling like unanimity-minus-one, unsure of ourselves, empty of consolation, aching in frustration, and running a psychic temperature. Not pleasant, but that’s a place too.