Updated: Mar 2, 2021
It came knocking at my door like a silent stranger, cloaked in the bright light of a sudden thought, taking hold of my mind and plunging me into an upside down world which I was invited, over a long period of time, to befriend and make my home.
A few months after turning 14, I went from being happy and fun loving (at least that what I think I was) to being a girl whose inner world erupted and exploded like a dormant volcano suddenly awakening. A single thought wooing me, like in a spell, into a world of make-believe. The images of a Miss Universe beauty pageant, the promise of admiration and validation if only I could change my body. A mirror to a deep seated self-effacement I was oblivious to and the door into a promise of acceptance and self-worth: I instantly fell down a rabbit hole and who I was, simply disappeared.
According to what I know now of the dark night process, this episode would hardly qualify as me having entered the dark night. Like Persephone I was 'abducted' by some strange force, and dragged into an underworld I was neither equipped nor awake enough to navigate on my own.
According to the Greek myth, Persephone was the daughter of Zeus, the chief god, and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, king of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and asked Zeus to help him abduct her, as her mother Demeter would never allow her to marry him.
In the story of Persephone, her sudden abduction brought her into a dark, cold foreign world that initially frightened her. She had no friends and no desire to be in the presence of someone who called himself ‘her husband’. She also had no guides nor teachers who could instruct her how to survive being in her new ‘home’. She had to become initiated, and grow into an adult woman, by accepting her fate and learning to see in the dark to navigate the uncertainty of her new situation.
An old drawing I did with my eyes closed and using my non-dominant hand:I wanted to give space and form to something I couldn't name. What appeared had me gasping.
Within six months from having been 'taken captive' by one thought, my world changed. The carefree child in me disappeared and an emotional tsunami burst free. I became obsessed with my body weight, with my shape, and it wasn’t long before ‘the demon of self-punishment through self-control’ took over the ruling of my inner world. I instinctively knew that underneath the intense emotional inner waves, lied a truth I was desperate to see but couldn’t. I had no one to turn to. I had no language to start expressing what was happening to me. There was nowhere safe I could look for solace or guidance. The more I strived to get away from the inner chaos, the same as Persephone was longing to go back to the world she knew, the deeper I was pulled by the waves. Through layers upon layers of resistance, fear, anxiety and unprocessed emotions, I was taken into the land of the unknown . It could all have been the intense but understandable hormonal storm of a developing teenager. But beneath my interior turbulence I was hungry. I was burning. I was thirsty. I longed for freedom. I ached for meaning. A primal, vital knowing in my core asked to be heard. An inner compass kept pointing its needle towards a place and a space I could neither name nor see, yet I knew I had known such place and space before. When? How?
Something in me was looking for heaven.
Surely I was going crazy?
I read. I prayed. At the end of high school I left home and spent time in another country. I came back. I questioned myself, my identity. The outside world started to feel like some space padded in cotton wool and I was in a dream unable to reach through that thick white layer of separation. I had my first experience of therapy and the the seeker in me woke up . The questioning took on the waves with gusto but the waves never stopped. They regularly pulled me beneath my ordinary outer normality, turning my cognitive faculties inside out. Countless times, when feeling like hungry wolves were fighting over my soul, I cried out to Him - the God I had been taught to believe in. I kept praying but my prayers became shorter, quieter, simpler. I somehow never asked for happiness, although I was desperate for some breathing space. A little peace. No, happiness wasn't as important to the seeker in me as understanding was. And an all-consuming fire kept asking to be fed with the debris of the 'me' deposited by the waves on the silent, desolate shores of my 'giving-in's and giving-up's'. I was in the throes of a vast unconscious force. All I could do was to keep swimming. And pray. And surrender in the midst of feeling that I was going mad while simultaneously knowing I wasn't. Calling for mercy, in case I was being punished for some horrible sins; falling in a void held by grace.
I married. I left my country.I had kids. I showed up for them. Because the mother they deserved was a mother who could separate her own story from the life they were growing into. I attended personal growth workshops. I dived into biblical studies and spiritual explorations. More therapy. And alternative healing modalities. Head and heart seemed to be simply lost to each other as I kept to a path which was simultaneously breaking and feeding me. The part of me who was slowly but steadily being chipped away by the constant inner emotional fluctuations was also clawing to the sheer cliff of its own survival. My logical brain hated my inner world which was so unruly, so potent, so demanding, which absorbed all the attention and focus I had, leaving me with no space nor time, other than raising my children, to pursue a career of my own.
The Quality of the Dark Night.
What I have learned throughout the years about the quality of the Dark Night, is that a crisis or a loss don’t necessarily mean that a person has been visited by a dark night experience. A psychological breakdown may be at the onset of a dark night visitation or it may simply be what it is, a psychological night. The vast amount of personal work I have done through the years has been emotional work, cognitive work and shadow work. But I have also come to see and deeply appreciate the difference between emotional work done through therapeutic channels and the ‘therapy work’ activated and performed by the Dark Night. Such difference lies in the texture, depth and quality of the inner transformation resulting from both. Emotional and shadow work through therapeutic modalities creates healing in the understanding and the experience of one's past and releases more energies to invest in building the life you may want. Emotional and shadow work initiated, guided and fueled by a dark-night-of-the-soul process heals in two, seemingly opposite ways: by stripping your humanity to the bone, bringing you face to face with your smallness when life is lived separated from your divine essence - and by revealing to you the sacred beauty and nuclear power you hold and which is released when life is lived in communion with your soul and spirit.
Many events punctuated my life with trauma and loss, episodes of sexual molestation and rape, the death of my father in my early twenties, a difficult health diagnosis in my late thirties to mention a few, but these, per se, I wouldn’t call my Dark Night. I would simply call them ‘life happening’. What turned them into ushers of the dark night experience was the fact that they all woke me up to who I was, and who I would remain, if I clung to me controlling my life; if I insisted to pursue my life disregarding the voice of my soul; if I kept resisting Life from flowing up and through me; if I kept reading my life through the lenses of the world and not through the gaze of heaven.
Time and books, more than flesh-and-blood mentors or teachers, initiated me into the Dark Night of the Soul. They guided me when I was absolutely desperate for just even a drop of clarity and they deeply held me on course, together with an undeniable grace, when I was so intensely tempted to give up. Give up on the hidden knowing that what I was going through had meaning, had purpose and had a wisdom I could only intuit but not clearly see. It would have been much easier to let despair and grief win over the control of my psyche, and in part at times they did. They obscured my inner senses and my more conscious inner sense of direction and steadiness.
The waves, together with the potent, creative soul Africa awakened in me, led me to take up painting when I thought I did not have a creative bone in my body. I kept journaling (I had done so since my teenage years.)
Another drawing, eyes closed. Letting my inner world speak for itself, keeping inner critic, judge, jailer and jeering crowd at bay.
What time, books and this painstakingly slow-emerging knowing showed me, was that beneath my turmoil, anguish, restlessness and often feeling lost, alone, disconnected and unable to comprehend and effectively communicate my experience to anyone, a vast sense of mystery beckoned. It apparently knew what It was doing. Despite my inability to trust, something in me trusted. It trusted this thing called Mystery. It trusted Its ways. It trusted Its wisdom. It even trusted the fire which kept inviting me to surrender. Even when it didn’t make sense, like when I had heard a voice above my head telling me not to lose this one guy I had just met or I would lose my destiny. He became my husband and from Italy I subsequently moved to South Africa. If I have questioned the sanity of following such voice once, I have questioned it a million times in the thirty-four years of my married life. Being invited, or sometimes thrown, by Life into a dark night process means being called to deeply transform and become whole and my married life was, from its inception, the arena where my spirit, my soul and my ego all laid claim to my heart. It has been, together with mothering two children, the backdrop to a profound and sometimes ferocious yet immensely hidden process of dismantling, refining; a stripping of layer after layer after layer of My will, My ways, My desires, My understanding, My decision, My control, My timing, My ideas of how My life should be or could be; learning and accepting to surrender to what I didn’t want in my human heart while aware that something else or perhaps someone else in me ached for the very thing I was resisting. And why? Why accept all of this? Why go to such lengths to follow what was obviously also causing my internal sense of self to crumble and dissolve? And here, in all humility, and despite my sense of restraint, levelheadedness and skepticism, I have to admit it was all and it is all BECAUSE OF LOVE.
A Question of Love
What is love? And what does it feel like to love and to be loved?
These questions welcomed my young mind and body into womanhood. I never put these questions outside of me. I didn't know how. I couldn't ask.
With time I realized that my human agenda had its own ideas on how to find the answers. I also came to see that my life, like everyone else’s life, is not just a human life, it is also a soul life. The Dark Night of the Soul is an appointment with our soul. My appointment, my first encounter with my soul and with soul work, took place at 14. I was deeply asleep and a thought switched me on. My soul had a very different idea of what the answers to the above questions were and where, when and how I would find them. But to get to the answers my soul had for me I had to acquaint myself with my shadow. And the messages it held about love. Messages I didn't even know had been deposited in my shadow by both my parents' unfinished business around love, by my ancestry and by my culture. My humanity wanted to walk away from a married life that just didn’t seem to conform to my stubborn clinging to My fantasy of love. I wanted a love that would take away all the pain of the abandonment and abuse. A life that would envelop me in its safe arms and give me what I had never experienced while growing up. I wanted my human experience to be redeemed by my marriage. Make it all better. In the many moments where I wanted to leave, I found myself falling to my knees like Much Afraid, the main character in Hinds feet on high places, an allegorical novel on the journey of the soul to God. Like her, I would find myself putting my will and my desires for what I wanted for my marriage,( and for my relationships in general and for my professional life, and, and, and..,) on an interior altar and allow it all it to be crushed by the acceptance of my reality. The truth that slowly appeared behind my surrender was that my soul asked to be in charge and it wanted me to learn about a love that burns to the ground what is not true, what is not selfless and what is not pure. What didn’t serve the life of my soul had to go. As simple as that. I slowly came face to face with what I really believed about love, a message which had unconsciously set up a pattern in all my relationships: if I loved someone I was expected to carry their shadow and I would enter into a silent agreement that such shadow will not be mentioned,talked about, let alone be revealed or confronted.
I have often sat in humbling realization of how much my shadow ruled me, and through all this, thanks also to the autoimmune disease that has accompanied me for the last 20 years, I slowly started yielding to a more profound change. Inch by inch I let go. Step by step I became conscious. Choice by choice I allowed myself to be taken deeper into the experience of surrender. Drop by drop Life found more openings to trickle through. Today the inner places so deeply excavated and examined, surrendered and deeply cleansed, have become vast welcoming spaces of stillness and silence, compassion, acceptance. I am touching on a sense of power and homecoming which are like fresh waters in a desert land. What is growing in this landscape is meant to be there; it looks like it is supposed to look, with both fruits and scars. Words are distilled from knowledge and experience into droplets of concentrated nectar. Inner rest is like precious gold. Any moment of authentic connection is revered like an unexpected gift. I am now like a laden table to which life's pilgrims are invited to sit: the brokenhearted, the forgotten, the unseen, the confused, the traumatized, the seeking, the angry, the hungry, the empty, the lost and the questioning .... they are all welcome to share with me in the human and woman I have become.