Trials and Trails that Wound: How We Learn from the Dragon

TrialsThatWoundDragonWaymarkers

We are coming into the season of Michaelmas, the ancient festival time of St. Michael who is connected to myths and lore around harvest abundance and more prominently, dragons. St. Michael is an archetypal representation of our inner light and courage that is called forth when scarcity is nigh. This scarcity and its corresponding fear is our dragon, one that we all must meet.

Since the birth of my fourth child, Cannon, and the years in his wake I have found I’m asking how I befriend the dragon–the one that lives in the dark woods of our innermost journey, the one that can claw and snatch. It feels that within the realm of the feminine, there is an invitation that goes beyond conquering to that of kinship. I spoke about this idea at my graduation ceremony, very much having this archetypal myth in mind.

Yes, dragons and the dark woods within which they live, can scar us. But instead of killing the beast in return, can we learn to ride the dragon, and see our scars as sacred?


Learning from the Dragon’s Fiery Fury

We each accepted the call to come here, and with this acceptance in many ways we disappeared from the world, descending into the mysterious, archetypal dark wood. This is the stage of the journey where the epic work of self-reflection takes place with the purpose of renewal and discovery.

This is the time of tests and trials, which serve as fortifiers as we learn to rely upon companions as well as our own developing abilities to move to and through suffering. This requisite stage brings one into the darkest chamber of the heart, a place filled with trauma and treasure, a place through which one must trod to manifest the deeply held desire for transformation.

This is the stumbling along the hard, dark path-time. The descent is disorienting, destabilizing, and in a word: deconstructing. This isn’t just the stuff of legends. This is life well-lived, and it is a quest of meaning-making and discovery. And like any good transformative adventure, there are dragons.

Joseph Campbell would say that this is the part of the journey when dragons emerge from the shadowy wood and must be slain…but this isn’t the way at The Seattle School. Here we have gained knowledge and tools to encounter the dragon. How will we engage its various forms, listen to its terrifying tales, and learn from its fiery fury? For only when we begin to reconstruct together new ways of being through the recovery and discovery of lost pieces of ourselves will we find that the dragon actually becomes a vehicle towards our well-being: here we learn how to train, and ride, dragons.

But first we must find the unknown path, an endeavor that requires much.   This is the way of walking through the woods—an arduous journey winding through unfamiliar territory, trying to find the way through, all of which requires endurance, stamina…and inevitably, brokenness. Our brokenness becomes the path back into being.

Here in the dark woods, we trip and fall—scraping, breaking, bruising our way through the requisite phase of finding.

This is the sacred Holy Saturday time where the woods keep silence and watch.

I thought that I met my dragon when I began the work of confronting my story four years ago in the first year foundational course Faith, Hope and Love…the thing that I would primarily fight and wrest…and while that did indeed occur, it proved itself to be more of an entrance to an even darker wood, a longer labyrinth, and one that demanded that I find out who I truly am when the demands of the journey turn treacherous. This is what I now know: the forest forms you.

In the dark of my winter term of my first year at The Seattle School, I became pregnant with our fourth child. This pregnancy proved near fatal for both me and my then-baby who, born too early, was dangerously close to death. As I lay in my own liminal life-shadow, he needed resuscitation, and was placed in NICU for weeks.

We lose much of ourselves during our passage through the dark—in many ways this must occur for the gifts of the transformation to have space to become. 80% of my blood was lost during the emergency birth and replaced with other people’s blood during my reconstructive surgery, creating a much longer and more wearisome journey back to health.

Shortly after I was learning to live with my new wounds, my husband got mono and could barely get out of bed for a month. Then he lost his job and the security of our family’s primary income. By now I remember wondering when this wandering would end—every hard and painful path seemed to be dropping out from underneath us to reveal yet another rocky road.

One dark summer night, with only the street lamp assisting with light, I was harvesting my lavender, hustling it to help put food on the table. While wielding a brand new scythe—and not fully present to its power—I cut a significant portion of my finger off and ended up back in the ER only to begin another long, slow and painful journey to healing. This pain, this part of the dark woods, taught me deep truths about regenerativity—especially as I witnessed my finger literally grow back. Hope indeed is forged in the forest.

I have had to ask the question and face the answer of who would I become after facing such fierce dragons who seemed to cut and jeer in the face of my becoming. How could I befriend the foe and their fire?

It has been said that the wise one limps. You will know wisdom not by one who walks upright, whole, and strong, but one who walks humped and slumped, scarred by the trials and trails that wound.

We gather today, robed with honor, distinction, and wisdom. These robes would say to the world that we are now wisdom-bearers. Ones who have risked much for priceless gain. These robes become your story to steward, not to hoard. May these hoods continue to call forth courage, for this dress required a fight with dragons that will forever remind us of what we have been through, the deep woods through which we have come.

Keep alive the memory of the woods for they have proven to be the greatest of teachers. For deep roots are reached through the forest. And don’t forget the dragon’s fire, fashioned now into foresight. Don’t let it slip from your heart, for that which wounded us has also healed us.

Lest this become a tale forgotten, finger your scars as a reminder of your journey in the case the limp you now bear does not.

May you learn to love your limp and see your scars as sacred as you leave this place, wise from your time in the woods.


Watch the video of Mary DeJong delivering this script at the 2017 Seattle School of Theology & Psychology Commencement ceremony here.

Advertisements

Living in Fear

We all live in fear to some extent or another.  There is a spectrum of this emotional response and absolutely, there are situations and contexts that warrant this self-preserving stance.  If we were to do a broad-stroke generalization though, what is the typical object of this fear?  I daresay that the average common characteristic of these fiends is difference.  Think about it: when someone or something is different than you, something inside bristles a bit and puts you on defense.  And perhaps there is a good evolutionary reason for this.  Because, very likely, a million years ago difference would have denoted danger and you could’ve tried to eat my kids or kill my clan!

Please understand, I am not making light of very real, very tragic events and circumstances that absolutely generate fear.  My heart cries with what I read about in the news and cringes when I hear gunshots and wailing sirens in my neighborhood.  These situations should spur us to live with vigilance and a keen eye for safety. To a very real degree, our lives and the lives of our children, depend on it.  But what I am interested in exploring is the kind of fear that causes us to dig our chin deep into our chest when passing a stranger on the sidewalk, that compels us to close our curtains to the chaos of our community and has us not knowing the very name of our next door neighbor.  I think it has everything to do with difference and those unknown, misunderstood behaviors of Other that cause consternation instead of a courageous, compassionate response.

One day, not so long ago, I was playing in front of our house with our children.  While they think nothing of this (to them the front of the house is appealing because we live on a hill and they love to take anything with wheels down our front sidewalk), this has always been an act of resistance for me.  For good reason, there were times when I hid behind our curtains, double bolted every lock and wished that everyone on our block was like ME.  But I’ve found over the years that this kind of hiding response doesn’t necessarily increase safety; it feeds the fear and kills the community.  And so we play out front of the house.  I’ve intentionally planted curb-side gardens so that I have to be outside, out front, present to my neighbors and praying for opportunities to engage those who are unknown and different than me.

And then she walked up the hill.  Lunging is likely a more accurate description-all the same, coming towards us was a stranger, someone unfamiliar and not at all like me.  I shielded a shy smile with my shoulder.  My boys, called out to her in a vigorous greeting and asked her for her name.  She slowed her pace to a stop. There was a very strong something in me that immediately wanted to hush them, to swoop them under my wings and whisk them away from this now pending encounter with this foreigner…because…I was afraid.  I inhaled.  I exhaled. And I reminded myself of something I firmly believe: The Spirit resides in (I would say even thrives in) that grace-filled gap between being afraid and being known.  That is a space that only the Holy can handle, hold and heal.  It is a place that, while scary as hell, I want to be; I’m challenged here to see, to hear and to know Other.

Her name is Manichanh and she is an immigrant from Laos*.  I’ve never seen her before because she rarely leaves her home, which is just five down from my own.  She occasionally does exercises on our dead-end street when most people are at work and the roads are quieter.  She lives with her six year old grandson, Alexander, who also doesn’t play outside; indoors, TV and video games offer safety once he returns home from school.  I ask her if she ever goes walking in our neighborhood woods, “There are trails in there now, you know,” I gently offer.  Manichanh emphatically shakes her head no, points to the woods and firmly states, “Bad. Scary.”  I take a deep breath knowing that I’m about to step into the gap: “Want to take a walk with me in the forest?” I ask.

Two strangers stare at one another.  We have nothing to rationalize an excursion such as this other than the fact that, plain and simple, we are neighbors and I’m struck with the value that that still holds even in our isolated, urban existences.   And I believe that our woods are healing and are active participants in a great agenda for God’s common good.  So, this seems as good a place as any to engage my new neighbor.  For a reason greater than us, she agreed.

We-Manichanh, myself and the children-approached our woodland trailhead.  She grasped my arm.  I laid my hand over hers.  This time I didn’t hide my smile, and as we entered the woods together, these woods that once truly were a place of which to be legitimately afraid, she exhaled.  We walked for a time in silence largely due to our language barrier, the children ran ahead and about, bird song lilted in the leaves of the waving trees.  We clasped hands and completed our walk, a walk that took us so much farther than simply through the woods, it took us through the gap and to the beautiful place of being known.

When we made to depart from one another, Manichanh brought her palms together at her chest and bowed deeply, while murmuring a phrase repeatedly.  I asked her what she was saying and she said it was like a ‘thank you’ but her native words carried a depth of gratitude that our mere thanks simply cannot touch.  I knew she wasn’t just thanking me.  With her words and gestures, she was responding to me and the woods and The One who upholds us all, with a deep seat of gratitude.  Both of our fears were relieved and in its place stood relationship.

The next morning I discovered home-made Lao cuisine on my porch.  Manichanh’s grandson, Alexander came over later for a play-date and a romp through the woods with my boys.  These are the kinds of blessings that arise from living in fear, living close enough to the edge of what is known that reliance on the Spirit is critical to get through to the other side.  And the other side is where the goodness resides, folks–therein lies the beloved community, where all are known, all are welcomed, and all are gloriously different.

The Spirit is calling: “Come!  Step into the gap with Me!”  Will you go?

*Mentioning Manichanh’s ethnicity is important to describe the dynamic of this story.  In this context she represents Other to me and I, and the forest, are Other to her.