For The Someday Book

Book Review: Gifts of the Dark Wood

Posted on: October 13, 2015

Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) by Eric Elnes, Abingdon Press, 2015, 189 pp.

Dark WoodThis book reached out and called to me. I just knew that there was something here I needed to read–a companion on my journey through a wilderness time in my own spirituality, relationship with God and sense of call. I went from ordering it to completing it in less than two weeks. I did not expect to find answers to my questions about “Where is God and what does all of this mean?” What I sought was reassurance that taking the path through the “Dark Wood,” as Elnes calls it, will eventually set me closer to God, not farther away. I hoped for guidance and companionship on that journey, a shared sense that being lost and in the dark is a gift rather than a liability. The title implied I would find all of those things, and I did. This book was a great sense of encouragement to trust the journey as it unfolds, even though the light is not clear.

Elnes begins with the reassurance that each one of us has a place and a purpose in this world, and Gifts of the Dark Wood is

about finding your place in this world at the very point where you feel furthest from it. It’s about recognizing the fierce beauty and astonishing blessing that exists within experiences that most of us fear but none of us can avoid. Ultimately this book is about seeing life through new eyes, recognizing that experiences of failure, emptiness and uncertainty are as critical for finding our way through life as they are unavoidable. (2)

The book lifts up the power of the Dark Wood as the place where God can find us and claim us.

How nice to know that you don’t have to be a saint to find your place in this world! You don’t even have to be “above average.” All you really need to be is struggling. Incidentally, even the great saints of old experienced significant doubts and struggled with imperfections. They did not become saints by moving from uncertainty to clarity. They moved, rather, from uncertainty to trust, which requires the ongoing presence of uncertainty. Likewise, while many saints experienced small and large victories over the course of their lives, they moved not from failure to success, but from failure to faithfulness, which requires the ongoing possibility of failure. (8)

This feels like just the affirmation I am learning to make right now, just the bit of wisdom I am beginning to understand and claim for my own life.

Elnes enumerates seven gifts found in the Dark Wood journey: uncertainty, emptiness, being thunderstruck, getting lost, temptation, disappearing, and misfits. On first glance, these may sound more like burdens than gifts, but I recognized them immediately as blessed elements of my journey into the unknown. Each gift gets its own chapter, where Elnes explores that gift deeply, using both personal stories and stories from the scriptures to illuminate how that gift presents itself and points us toward God.

One story he shares under “The Gift of Uncertainty” rang especially true for me. It’s a conversation between David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, and David Whyte, a successful non-profit executive about to become poet, who is struggling with exhaustion. Brother David says,

You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest? … The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness… You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after awhile. You need something to which you can give your full powers. (29-30)

I tried to articulate this very thing in my sermon on Sunday. Sometimes, rest is not what we need to overcome exhaustion–it is a deeper, fuller, more consuming engagement in that which gives life meaning.

Another section I appreciated, in a related way, was his chapter on temptation. Elnes sees temptation in the Dark Wood not as the usual suspects of various indulgences, but as the temptation to do the wrong good–the good we are not called to do. Again using David Whyte as an example, he shows how his move from non-profit leader to poet moved him from doing good to doing his good, making his unique contribution to the world. Jesus’ temptation is the model. Satan (whom Elnes calls the Adversary) tempts Jesus not toward self-indulgence, but toward good things. They are simply not the right good things for him. I find myself in this bind of temptation regularly, and one of the lessons I am learning in my journey through the Dark Wood right now is how to let some good things go undone because they are not mine to do.

Having read this book on the heels of The Abundant Community, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels, especially in the chapters on temptation and “The Gift of Misfits.” The Dark Wood is not the consumer path. It shapes us in ways too unique for systems and markets. After a fascinating story from his wife’s work developing a frozen macaroni and cheese product, Elnes says,

Countless are the processes that seek to tame the wild energy inside you, just as they seek to tame the wild energies of the world. While this energy inside you is a direct gift from the Spirit, there are a number of processes governing everything about you, from your vocation to your vacation, that will attempt to shape your life until it is as palatable to the masses as that macaroni and cheese product. … Far better to consume you this way. (155)

The Dark Wood makes us misfits, unable to consume and be consumed by the systems of the world because we are shaped by the gifts of God.

From beginning to end, this book is an affirmation that God will find us. When we get lost, get empty, grow uncertain, those are just the openings God needs to find us and use us. Whether you call it the Dark Wood, the wilderness, “the dark night of the soul,” or “the cloud of unknowing,” this book is an excellent companion for anyone journeying through that difficult terrain. It has blessed me and it will bless you too.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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