As part of The Seattle School’s 19th Commencement ceremony, a student from each degree program was nominated by their peers to share reflections on their time at the school and the transition into the next season of life. Here, Mary DeJong, who received her MA in Theology and Culture, speaks of her own journey through dark woods and gaining wisdom through “trials and trails that wound.” She encourages her classmates to remember their journeys and their scars.
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.