Growing up in an Evangelical Christian context, there was a lot of emphasis on conquering, on winning. Christ had conquered the grave. God was to defeat Satan in the final battle. We were said to be a chosen nation and more than conquerers.
There was a general sense and celebration of victory, of triumph. In seminary study we examined this kind of triumphalism and concluded it needed to be counterbalanced by an authentic appreciation of our struggle and our suffering. As a culture in general and in the Christian subculture in particular, we needed to learn to embrace the shadow.
A conversion experience can be a radical change for someone. They can have deep insight, feel supported, cared for, feel unconditional love maybe for the first time. Their story changes and sometimes their entire life. But of course there’s usually more work to do after that mountaintop experience. As Jack Kornfield titled one of his books: after the ecstasy, the laundry.
If we only focus on the light and growth and make no room for our darker struggles, we suppress them, and they show up in other ways, usually destructive.
What happens when things start going wrong for those in whom sin and death were supposed to have been conquered? As the Jesus People aged, for example, they experienced the same difficulties of late 20th century America as everyone else: adultery, divorce, depression, overmedication, suicide, fighting divisive culture wars, demonizing, clinging to a sense of victimhood. Instead of working with the shadow, too often we denied it.
I sometimes think of radical conversion or charismatic experiences as glimpses of kingdom, a foretaste, whereas the daily commitment to opening oneself, to empty out, to observe and let go of what we cling to for comfort both consciously and unconsciously to be the inner brickwork, of allowing kingdom to be built within.
A conversion experience, if we have one, is a starting point, not the end. For some of us, the journey is from the mountaintop back through the valley of death before we move into divine union.
As Anthony De Mello writes, the path to love leads through the land of death.
Other traditions have more of an emphasis on this aspect of the spiritual path: the stations of the cross, reenacting the passion, the Lenten season. The way of the cross is not just a fact, a get out of jail free card, or a fire insurance policy. It’s a model for us of the road we must walk for kingdom to become manifest in us. The only question is what we will have to die to.
In Centering Prayer we empty ourselves out. Of our need to be right. Of our need to be righteous. Of our desire to show our righteousness by being offended. Of our need to be separate. Of our entire constructed self, the parts we’re conscious of and the parts we’re not.
Part of walking through the land of death is not only confronting the external challenges that bedevil us, but the inner demons, the dark side, the shadow.
One reason Jesus was extra hard on religious people is because once we’re convinced of our own righteousness, we can become blind to our shadow side. The problem is always projected externally, onto something out there.
One of the benefits of a daily practice of Centering Prayer is to drain the sewage in our unconscious. We come to recognize the patterns of our fears, our resentments, our shame, our propensity to feel attacked, our angry responses, our hatred. And we situate this within the context of divine grace, of non-judgmental observation in the awareness of an infinite love.
Once we’ve been through that process, of seeing our own shadow side, and again, and again, and watching its power dwindle through a gracious, spacious observing, we’re much more able to extend that same gracious knowing to others on their path.
Those around us are less prone to have our automatic judgmental labels slapped on them: it’s not a homeless person, or a Muslim, or a humanist, or an immigrant, but a brother and a sister, their spirit every bit as much a divine gift as our own. I’m less interested in a conversion project, or starting a fight. I’m more interested in what love demands of me in this interaction to help move toward wholeness.
Maybe that does involve talking about my understanding and experience of Christ. Or maybe it involves listening to their story. Maybe it involves getting someone a cup of water. The demands of love emerge from the moment, not vice versa.
Engaging in the practice takes what was beneath the surface and exposes it. Laid bare, at first it can be hard to look at our own ugliness. For some, it’s no longer avoidable. Something we’ve done has finally broken relationship or cost us our job or family. For others, we’ve simply become sick and tired of being sick and tired.
If we’re still playing cover up, whether we clothe our lives in triumphalist language or not, we won’t be open to the divine transformation on offer. Instead, through the practice we open ourselves to the gentle stripping away of pretense until the illusions are gone, until the strategies for self preservation are gone, until we’re a channel of loving kindness that is not self-seeking.
At the heart of the spiritual life lies a series of humiliations to the false self, to paraphrase Fr. Thomas Keating. Each humiliation allows us a more complete picture of our shadow. We identify the next thing the shadow wants to latch onto and grab hold of to stay in power and keep us from divine union. And we let that go. We work towards a deeper understanding, a deeper acceptance, and in so doing we allow love to flow more freely, not just for us, but for everyone we touch, without pretense, our shadows right before us in plain view.
Richard Rohr on Embracing the Shadow
Contemplative Outreach on Understanding The Shadow Self
Contemplative Psychiatrist Gerald May’s The Dark Night of the Soul: Darkness and Spiritual Growth