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.

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Michaelmas-Dragons and Delight

Michaelmas chalk drawing-BWS 6th graders

Michaelmas is a relatively new seasonal celebration for my family.  While I’ve always grown up with an attunement to the season’s shifts from Summer’s boisterous bounty to Autumn’s slow and silent movement towards interior living, this special feast day and its long-time celebrations were not known to me. However, its themes of harvest and community, threat and injustice and, ultimately, a light that vanquishes all are ones with which I deeply resonate.

A bit of light history may be in order:

The festival of Michaelmas occurs on September 29, and is a traditional Celtic holiday associated with the autumn equinox.   As long, sun-filled days, turned to slanting shadows, the legends of St Michael–principal of angelic warriors, protector against night’s darkness, and the Archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels–were told around the bounty of harvest as a way of distilling the fear associated with the coming cold winter months.  It was believed that negative forces were stronger in darkness and so families would require stronger defences during the later months of the year.  The epic heavenly battle against Lucifer and his dominions would be retold with light-filled swords slaying ghastly dragons, similar motifs as found in the tales of St. George and the Dragon.  This story and celebration would encourage the “looking-to” for protection (the looking-to a good harvest, strong community, and faith in God), the “looking-for” collective and individual strengths and the “looking-back” with thanksgiving and praise.

While this festival has agrarian and pre-Christian roots, I greatly appreciate the challenge that it still holds for us today.  I have been reaping the benefit of bounty a plenty this summer: berries, plums, tomatoes and herbs have piled themselves on our sun-drenched kitchen counter these warm months.  But as my family and I enjoy this harvest, I am mindful of the lack that is present in the lives of so many today around the world.  We all know and feel the tension that exists between our reaping while another is weeping and herein lies the proverbial dragon that makes this story of Michael a needed one, even in our one-stop-shop lives.

Dragon chalk drawing-BWS 6th graders

Dragons do exist and they lie in wait everywhere in all forms of injustice; these are the dark nights of the soul where despair lurks and preys, making victims of those without a voice to be heard.  In our bounty, in our blessing, we are called to wield our swords of light on behalf of those who desperately need advocacy and speak for those who may not be able to even scream as the beast aims to gobble them up.  We summon courage, we look-to the source of Love and Light and demand that our sword be as bright and bold as Michael’s so that we can vanquish the dragons of this world, living forward with the possibilities of peace and justice, the possibilities of bounty, for all.

The traditions around the Michaelmas festival all come with delicious community sharing, this being the acknowledgement and celebration of the cyclical nature of the gifts of the earth, and the gifts of God.  So, while we gather to celebrate the harvest of the summer season and come together in strength of numbers to combat the darkness of the coming season, we are also already raising food and drink in praise of the battle already won, the dragon already defeated.

We celebrated Michaelmas yesterday at Bright Water School, where our children attend, which included feasting on Dragon Bread.  This was a great-tasting metaphor for this valiant legend that calls us to come together to fight the challenges of darkness and oppression that combat our earth and its communities, and collectively feast on the good things given us!

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Reflections: As you move into the darker, quieter months of Autumn and Winter, what interior light invigorates and inspires you?  Where do you draw strength for the courage to fight the dragons of your life? *** There is injustice that surrounds us in all our elements-from the earth, to the water, to our air, to all the creatures that live and breath here. For whom can you advocate in your community during these approaching seasons? *** It is important to look back on our journeys and offer thanksgiving for the battles already won!  Can you share a “dragon-vanquished” story with someone in your community?

O Michael Militant,
Thou king of the angels, Shield thy people
With the power of the thy sword,
Shield thy people
With the power of thy sword.
Spread thy wing over sea and land,
East and west,
And shield us from the foe,
East and west,
And shield us from the foe.

Brighten thy feast
From heaven above;
Be with us in the pilgrimage
And in the twistings of the fight;
Be with us in the pilgrimage
And in the twistings of the fight.

Thou chief of chiefs,
Thou chief of the needy,
Be with us in the journey
And in the gleam of the river;
Be with us in the journey
And in the gleam of the river.
Thou chief of chiefs.

Thou chief of angels
Spread thy wing
Over sea and land,
For thine is their fullness,
Thine is their fullness,
Thine own is their fullness,
Thine own is their fullness.
Amen

-Celtic Prayer