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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Pilgrim’s Path: Bringing Home the Boon

It is a strange thing to come home.
While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.
-Selma Lagerlog (1858-1940)

We’ve been home now for a little while; our Easter arrived and our journey through Lenten landscapes appeared complete.  With celebrations and feasts, we marked the homecoming of our pilgrimage– grateful both for the cross and the completion of the journey it represents.  But it soon became clear, perhaps a day or so into the return into the daily rhythms of the Eastertide calendar, that the time apart had changed us.  The intentional space created by a journey of abstinence or abundance had not only left a mark on our lives, but elbowed out new permanent places in our spirit.  So, while home once again, the hearth is not how we left it.  And it will stay in a state of  strangeness until we are able to assimilate our learnings and experiences into stories of transformation and actions of justice.

The one thing the pilgrim returns home with is wisdom and the responsibility to share the truth gleaned from the profound pilgrimage.  The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon. There is a universal code of sorts, which requires the pilgrim to “share whatever wisdom you’ve been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey.”[i] The challenge and bitter truth of coming home from a pilgrimage is that we soon learn that what is a pearl to us is mere pennies to others. How can we even begin to describe the depths to which our soul has traveled?  Ultimately, it is our changed life that must tell the story of our journey; no picture slide show or souvenir will scratch the surface of the truth found at the sacred center.

In Joseph Campbell’s popular book of essays Myths to Live By, he described something pertinent to our theme of sacred journeys: “The ultimate air of the quest if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.”  This parallels the belief of the ancient wisdom teachers that the ultimate answer to the sorrows of the world is the boon of increased self-knowledge.[ii]  Interestingly enough, this responsibility resonates with Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  It seems clear that the great value of a pilgrimage is to return with a knowledge of self that will enable one to engage the world’s needs in an authentic and passionate way.

Because of the journey to the sacred center, and the perils experienced to get there, you are transformed.  And because you have changed, so will your home. You have encountered the Holy-experienced God in a fresh new way-and as a result of your epiphany and your struggle, you will not relate to your world or those in it as you did before.[iii]  Your challenge is to now live into the new edges of your life, inhabiting the new spaces created by pushing through the trails of your inner-soul landscape.  These are the places where dynamic opportunities lay for you to share your wisdom and bring back the boon of your journey.

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Since you have been home from your Lenten journey, have you had the opportunity to share with anyone about your experiences?  Have you identified the ways in which you have changed?  What were the waymarkers that truly transformed you?  In what ways can you continue living forward out of these places of transformation? 

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Set up waymarks for yourself,
Make yourself guideposts:
Consider well the highway,
The road by which you went.
-Jeremiah 31:21


[i] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 216.

[ii] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 217.

[iii] Sarah York, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001),149.