“Carl Jung believed that this image of a future potential self—the best person we could possibly ever become—was manifested on a moment-by-moment basis in our daily experience by making us interested in those things that will lead us to maximum development somehow. It may not be clear but if you pursue what interests you you will eventually figure it out.”Read More
Dr. Giles's Blog
Reflections from Dr. C. Scot Giles, the Consulting Hypnotist and practice owner at Rev. C. Scot Giles, D.Min., LLC
Filtering by Category: Sermons
“We are not out of options unless we decide that we are. And Cognitive Science tells us that if we make such a decision we are probably mistaken. There is always a way for a creative person to find a path to happiness. “Read More
"Today I want to talk about the spiritual aspects of the martial arts. I believe they teach a lesson that all can benefit from, even if you never intend to put on a uniform, walk onto the mat in a dojo and bow to a martial arts master."Read More
"As researchers have poured over these studies speculation has grown that their might be a larger energetic phenomena involved. Perhaps we can think of our world as has a “compassion field” generated by the acts of compassion by people the world over. Each time one of us does something compassionate we “feed the field” and make it a little bit easier for other people to also be compassionate. "Read More
"Chaos is a ladder only if it leads to a new and better organization. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m interested in what helps it lead to something better."
"Because my work as a Consulting Hypnotist with a medical specialty brings me in contact with people who are very ill, I’ve had to think about the phenomena of death, illness and other dark topics."Read More
"The more worried you are, the less effectively your mind works. To manage that worry your nervous system goes to work and chunks things together trying to find some simple way of thinking about what is happening."Read More
I do believe dreams are meaningful. They are treasures bestowed by Leviathan, bestowed by the deepest part of our human consciousness. I think there is a lot of self-knowledge to be gained by studying our dreams.Read More
Once you have stopped allowing other people and institutions to siphon off your energy and deplete you, what do you do next? What is the healthy way to invest the energy you have protected from depletion?Read More
The Power of Not Giving a Damn
Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
February 7, 2016, Community Ministry Sunday
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
The First Really Bad Job I Ever Had
I have another psychological sermon for you today. This one inspired by the harm that happens when people do too much for others and become victimized. I see this all the time in my work as a Community Minister. A lot of people make themselves sick.
I started my working career in food service. I entered the culinary union at the age of 15 as labor laws did not apply to food service and I needed a job. Back in those days Culinary School wasn’t a thing, and I would do four years as an apprentice and five years as a journeyman. I cooked and catered my way through High School, College, Grad School and Theological School.
During those years I had some really fine jobs. And one bad one.
The bad one was when I took a position with a fast food company. I wanted to get married and I needed a second job to earn enough cash to pay for the wedding.
The people who worked there had “spirit.”
What I mean by that is the company actually had what amounted to motivational speakers who traveled around to give pep talks to the employees about what a wonderful job they had.
We would all stand in a circle and there were chants and cheers. We were all supposed to yell “This Is The Best Place To Work Anywhere In The World!”
I’m proud to say the job didn’t last. It was in fact the dirtiest kitchen I’ve ever worked in. There wasn’t a food safety rule that wasn’t routinely ignored. The employees were mistreated and often cheated out of pay they’d earned.
The job of the motivational cheerleaders was to convince the workers that the job was better than it was. The workers were told they should care so much about having happy customers and a happy shift supervisor that they were not supposed to notice that the pay envelope had been shorted and the boss was a bully.
If you complained that your pay didn’t add up right, or that you were told to do something you knew wasn’t safe in the food locker, you were told you “Didn’t have the right spirit to work here.”
The bosses used that to turn every objection around. The problem wasn’t that the company was cheating you. The problem wasn’t that food safety was being ignored. The real problem was that you didn’t have the “Right Spirit” to work on the “Team.”
Even after all these years I still find myself angry when I remember that job.
This was one of my first experiences with what we in helping professions call “Overcare,” following the lead of Doc Childre of the HeartMath Institute.
Overcare is when you care too much about something, and as a result someone takes advantage of you. The only cure for it is to care up to a point, and then put on the brakes.
Care is Good
I’m a big fan of living a caring life. Heathy care, which we who follow the HeartMath system call True Care, is a tonic. It renews our nervous system. It builds and then reinforces the connections that link us to other people. It’s regenerative when we are stressed. It even improves brain function.
I sometimes think of it like a really good cup of coffee. It’s smooth, rich, renewing and almost worth the money the barista overcharges for it.
But there can be too much of a good thing. One cup of great coffee is a good thing. Fifteen cups of coffee will turn any of us in a jangled, anxious wreck.
So also for care. If we go too far in our feelings of care for others, we become the victims of Overcare.
Today I want to talk about Overcare, how to recognize it, how to correct from it by knowing when to set limits to the amount of care you give another person.
Feeders v. Drains
We have have an inner energetic life. There are things that renew us and pour energy into the bucket of our lives. But there are things that deplete us. They are like holes in our bucket.
I encourage my clients to always have a rough awareness of the ratio of “feeders” to “drains” in their lives. The idea is that you try to set things up so that there is always a positive balance. If you are pouring out of your energetic bucket into the buckets of other people by caring and helping them, you need to be sure you’ve got enough pouring into your bucket so the level of energy stays at least half full.
We all want to cultivate the things that renew us, and control the things the deplete us. If your spouse has cancer it’s great that you want to help him or her through that. But, the advice you will receive from the cancer care community is that you have to set limits. You will need respite yourself. You will need to be sure that the demands made on you are counterbalanced somehow.
As I put this, “You can’t be there for someone else if you are not going to be there for yourself first.” Just like you were in an aircraft that lost cabin pressure. You put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to help someone else. Otherwise you will both pass out.
The bank account of your inner emotional energy should always have a positive balance, and if it dips into the red you need to take care of that to bring the balance back up. And quickly.
A World of Overcare
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get that wrong.
Overcare is seductive and subtile. We see it in addictions work where an addict will exploit other people with claims of helplessness in an effort to guilt-trip others into helping. The addict then takes advantage and the addiction continues.
Or you feel sorry for someone at work who is having trouble. So you help out a little bit. Except that, over time, it’s more than a little bit. Pretty soon the other person feels entitled. They may even get promoted because they seem calm and cool—mostly because they got you to do their work.
Overcare allows others to take advantage of you.
Many of us come from homes that have issues. In troubled homes people who are being abused sometimes put up with the abuse because they have an emotional attachment to the the family, so they conceal all the bad stuff out of a misplaced loyalty. Overcare can get you abused.
The common theme is we can easily become pushovers. We can be taken advantage of, or easily defeated. We end up doing things we don’t want to do, maybe even tasks that legitimately belong to others.
In the 1970s psychologist Lawrence LeShan did research on the personality of people who were diagnosed with cancer. He quickly discovered, and the finding has proved to be a robust one, that overwhelmingly people living with cancer tend to be the care taking members of their families who put everyone else first and themselves last. Whenever I mention that and ask for a show of hands at one of the workshops I do to help people boost their cancer resiliency, hands still go up all over the room. Overcare can make you sick.
I began many years ago working with people who struggled with illnesses that had a stress-related component. It’s been rewarding, but there were some things about it that I found very, very surprising. I found case after case of people who realized they were exhausting themselves on behalf of other people, but they wouldn’t stop because they believed that would make them blameworthy. They were taught that caring for other people should be self-destructive.
The blame for this I place squarely on the people who wrote the Bible and on a whole lot of traditional religious education. Or least the parts of it about Jesus.
The Dark Side of Christianity
In our society there is a dark and dangerous social meme in Judeo-Christian culture that we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves for other people. Some of you who grew up on churches that had a heavily emphasis on sin and guilt will remember this. I feel it is really destructive.
In lots of places we were taught by our elders that it was wrong to look after our own self-interest. When working with the very ill I often find that they cannot distinguish between having a healthy self-interest (seeing to it that your own legitimate needs are met) and being selfish (advancing yourself at the expense of the legitimate needs of others). They have a healthy self-interest confused with an unhealthy selfishness. As a result they do not take care of themselves and end up being taken advantage because they Overcare.
I have met women expected by their families to prepare Thanksgiving Dinner for the whole extended family, the day after they had chemotherapy. I’ve seen unsuccessfully launched children take financial advantage of their parents, justifying that by saying “Well, if you really cared about me…”
An Issue of Punctuation
In the 5th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we read the Sermon on the Mount said to have been given by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. It is the longest teaching and one of the most widely quoted. It contains some of the most remarkable verses, including the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. But is also contains some really dark stuff. Like this:
“…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Really? “If anyone wants to…take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Say What? I’m supposed to give everything I have, including the shirt on my back, to anyone who asks for it?”
“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Wait a minute. Am I actually expected to do just give out unlimited loans to anyone who wants one? Am I actually obligated to give to every single beggar I meet, even those who are obviously running a scam?
No. That’s not what it means at all. But that is how it has been translated and that is how it got picked up into our culture. The theme is that it is somehow praiseworthy to care about others to the point where you hurt yourself.
This is the dark side of the Jesus tradition, and it’s been interpreted to mean that there is something praiseworthy in self-destructive caring. We are not supposed to honor our own legitimate self-interest. Instead, we are supposed to let others walk over us even to the point where we are harmed.
Jesus didn’t really mean this. The educated classes in Jesus time spoke Hebrew or Greek. Jesus was not an educated person. He spoke the language of his time, a rough street vernacular called Aramaic. We know that because there are places where his actual words were considered so important they were copied down.
On the cross he is reported to have said “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). Those words are neither Hebrew nor Greek. They are Aramaic.
Aramaic was a street language in use among everyday people. One of its features is that it had no formal punctuation. Especially, it had no way to show emphasis in that way we might emphasize a statement with an exclamation point.
Instead, an Aramaic speaker showed emphasis by exaggerating what was said. Today we call this hyperbole. These exaggerated statements were not meant to be taken literally and the hearers in Jesus’s time understood that.
So, when elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said…
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.,,,And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”
Jesus did not actually mean that he wanted people to cut off their hands or pluck out their eyes, and we can be sure there were no eyeless followers with amputated hands among his disciples. If there were, I’m sure someone would have mentioned it.
Jesus was simply using hyperbole to show emphasis as all Aramaic speakers did. He was just saying it was a good thing to be a generous person.
This is also what he was doing earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said those things about caring for others.
He wasn’t recommending Overcare —giving anyone anything they wanted, whenever they wanted—that was hyperbole. He didn’t really think anyone should do that. He was just saying it was really good to be a caring person.
But when his words were written down in Greek (the language the New Testament) they were copied down literally. And for centuries people have mistakenly believed that self-destructive caring was good. It’s not. Overcare is never a good idea. It has never been recommended by any person of true spiritual authority.
How do we tell Legitimate Care from Overcare?
There is an easy way to determine if the care you feel for someone else is True Care, or if you have gone too far and are Overcaring. It goes back to paying attention to Feeders and Drains—those experiences that pour energy into the bucket of your life and those things which are like holes in that bucket.
True Care is renewing. It helps both the person who gives and the person who receives the care. It reinforces healthy connection. Basically, it feels good regardless of whether we are the giver or receiver.
This may be a silly example, but let me use the example of one of my cats—The Late Lord Gray Shadow Underfoot. Shadow was a magnificent cat who ruled our household for18 years with a gentle paw. He would sing to the other cats when they were upset, and when they were ill he would stay close and snuggle.
Toward the end of his life Shadow had a lot of medical problems: Cholangiohepatitis Chronic Bronchitis, Malignant Melanoma and he was an insulin dependent diabetic. For all that, with excellent veterinary care he was happy right up to the end. But it was expensive to care for him, and with the needs for two insulin shots and one blood test per day, he took up a lot of our time.
It didn’t matter at all. I loved this big guy and I loved taking care of him. It felt good to meet his needs and every day he was with us was a joy because he gave back more energy than he took. That is an example of True Care, whether for a cat or a person. The hallmark is that both parties benefit. It feels good.
When I hooked myself up to my biofeedback equipment and looked at my heart rhythm what I would see would be coherent and synchronized rhythms. All my body systems worked together better. I was stronger, happier, healthier because of my care for my Feline Overlord.
Overcare is the reverse. It takes energy away. It is burdensome. It doesn’t feel good. It feels bad, worried, anxious. You feel used, taken advantage of, inconvenienced and so on. The energy flow is all or mostly one way. Your heart rhythms become incoherent and chaotic. Cortisol and Adrenaline flow instead of the vitality hormone DHEA in the blood, and endorphins in the brain. Overcare may sometimes be unavoidable, but it always takes its toll.
You can tell True Care from Overcare by how you feel when you do it. Once you set aside the social conditioning that says you should sacrifice yourself for others, your feelings will guide you correctly.
The thing is that all cases of Overcare began with True Care that somehow went wrong. Often we became over-attached. We get an idea of how things should turn out and tried to shape events to cause that.
Sometimes another person simply takes advantage from the get-go, and they go looking for someone who will dance the Dance of Overcare with them.
As one of my colleagues says, “Here’s a simple question you can ask yourself from time to time. ‘Is what I am caring about adding quality to my life or is it adding stress?’”
This is what the title of my sermon this morning is about.
The phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is of course what Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film, Gone With The Wind, believed by film scholars to be one of the top movies ever made.
Rhett Butler has been trying to win Scarlett’s affection for many years and she basically puts him through hell because of it. She secretly loves another, Ashley Wilkes. But she knows Rhett loves her so she plays him and takes advantage. Rhett moves into Overcare for Scarlett, and she makes him miserable.
In the script, Butler finally gives up on trying to win Scarlett’s genuine affection, says the famous phrase and walks out into the early morning fog. He set a limit.
In the last scene of the movie Scarlett feels regret, realizes that she’s lost a good thing and vows to win him back. We’re not told what happens. Maybe in some imagined realm they will reconnect and move into a healthy relationship. If so, that happened only because Rhett set a limit and decided he would not Overcare any more.
And that is the power of not giving a damn. It’s the realization that you are in Overcare. What you care about is adding stress and not giving enough back. Then it is time to set a limit. Perhaps not explosively walking off into the morning fog as Rhett Butler did. Perhaps starting with smaller limits and then strengthening. But not continuing to be hooked.
I can promise you one thing. If you do this you will learn something about how the people you care about care about you. If they sulk, escalate and try to get you to change back, the people you care about do not really care about you.
But if they say, “Oh!” and stop the pressure. Then the possibility of a deeper, healthy relationship exists. I think even Jesus would approve of such a change.
And that’s my sermon.
Curate your interior life so that you do not lose sight of the fact that your life is supposed to be for your benefit. While it is great to help out others, you should not be harming yourself in the process. If you are, maybe that job, the relationship, those responsibilities are not wise. Maybe a change of pace, a downshifting, a lightening of the load or a change in priorities are in order.Read More
It’s the ultimate heart transplant because you remove stressful feelings and replace them with better.Read More
Everyone knows zombies are not real. By our unconscious choice of the cultural image of the zombie as a representation of those fears, our Collective Unconscious Mind proposes that perhaps those fear are not as inevitable as they seem either. Maybe a way will be found and a sun-filled future could await us all.Read More
As I read the story of the manna I am struck with how the writer presents the tale....The legend of the manna is the answer. The ancient Israelites simply decided that they would live as if there would always be enough to sustain them. That is the meaning of the story of the manna.Read More
"My sermon today is about how to take control of what is in your mind so you can live the way you want, instead of the way someone else wants. It’s not easy. There are powerful forces that are trying to shape you and that’s why the world is as messed up as it is...."Read More
Over the years I received many requests to post the text of some of the sermons I have given at churches of my denomination. I've decided to go ahead a do that with a selection of my best pulpit work. The text of the sermon will be at the start of the Blog entry, and you will find service details (readings, prayers, etc.) at the end.
Endarkenment: Dark Nights of the Soul
by the Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles at Countryside UU Church, September 3, 2006
I’m an optimistic and positive person. But like everyone, there have been times of emotional trouble. The sermon is about how I think of those times.
St. John of the Cross
His name was Juan de la Cruz, St. John of the Cross. He was a major figure in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. A mystic from Spain and a member of the Carmelite religious order. He is now numbered as one of the 33 “Doctors of the Church” whose thought helped heal it after the sundering of the Protestant Reformation, which eventually gave birth to congregations such as ours.
He was a close friend and confident of the woman now known as St. Teresa of Avila, and like her, practiced a spirituality that was passionate to the point of sexuality. The homoerotic imagery of his Stanzas of the Soul are obvious, and you can find similar passion in the work of St. Teresa, whose sculpture by Bernini in the year 1652 shows a woman, lying legs akimbo, writhing in an ecstasy that Art Historians long ago realized appears orgasmic.
Yet despite the passion of all Carmelite spirituality, St. John of the Cross is known for a concept called The Dark Night of the Soul.
I’ve had Dark Nights of the Soul, and so have you. These are times of Endarkenment, when our plans and hopes have unwound and failed.
The athlete faces a Dark Night of the Soul when the game has been lost, and the athlete realizes that if he or she had only played a bit differently the outcome might have been different.
The man or woman faces a Dark Night of the Soul when they sit home, holding the pink lay-off notice and realizes that plans for house, education and vacation are dashed; and it will be a strain to find the money for food as the dry time of unemployment awaits. Labor Day will bring no celebration this year.
The lover faces a Dark Night of the Soul when the email opens on the computer screen and he or she realizes that the person he or she loved and desired actually loves and desires someone else.
The comfortably-off person faces a Dark Night of the Soul when the stock report shows that half the value of a key investment has been lost and there is no way to recover.
All of us know times when light has died, when hope seems gone, where resources seem exhausted and we do not know how we will be able to continue. St. John speaks of the Dark Night of the Soul as having two parts: “The Night of the Senses” and “The Night of the Spirit.”
Ever notice how when things are going really well for you that the world simply seems more intense? Colors seem brighter, tastes more delightful, aromas, like a lung-full of autumn air, seem more grand? The mystics of all nations have spoken about “the Light” when things are in sync. I don’t think it’s a metaphor. We perceive things differently when happy. That is the Daylight of the Senses.
The Night of the Senses is when the opposite is true. When things seem gray and bland because emotional pressure pushes out he joy. But mostly St. John of the Cross is concerned about the Night of the Soul, when God and hope seem far away and spiritual distress comes calling.
I’ve had my Dark Nights of the Soul. So have you. They are one of the things that unite up into a human community.
The Critical Factor
I don’t know about you. But when hard times pass from my life and the day once again tastes sweet, I want to forget about the difficulty times and look ahead with optimism. That’s a whole lot more fun.
“But wait,” St. John of the Cross says. “Tarry!” His teaching is that if one looks back on the times of Endarkenment you can often see that they were not all bad. Often, they were actually the times that caused us to change. Often the very success we have later, comes from changes and understandings we gained during our Dark Night.
Far from being bad, St. John of the Cross proposes that our most difficult personal times are actually doorways that open us to improved functioning and greater happiness. While they are never fun, they may in retrospect be good.
That’s the key learning about life’s bad time. They are never fun, but they may be good. They become good if they motivate us to change our habits.
The human mind contains a function that hypnotists call the Critical Factor. It is a very old part of our consciousness. The job of the Critical Factor is to unconsciously set things up so the future will resemble the past. It wants the future to resemble the past because it knows we have survived the past, and if the future is similar, it figures we’ll survive that too. The Critical Factor resists all change--even good change.
And so the woman raised by an abusive father recruits someone just like him as a husband. The man whose mother was mean-spirited finds that only mean-spirited women seem attractive--at first. The person who grew up in a family where money was scarce finds him or herself drawn to jobs that continue a hand-to-mouth-lifestyle by offering no possibility for advancement.
The pain of the Dark Night of the Soul may be the only thing that can hurt us enough so we will ignore the Critical Factor in our mind and do things differently in the future.
The woman holding the layoff notice finds a way to go back to school. Skills improve, new skills are gained, better employment becomes possible.
The lover’s heart mends and with it the understanding that the woman who had been so beloved may not actually have been the best long-term partner after all. A new love is found and this time a more considered decision is made before love is given.
I am a specialist in working with persons who live with a cancer diagnosis. When the horror of 9/11 came onto the television screens of our nation, we had a whole nation of people who went into a sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Seeing that horror shook us, and changed us. But it didn’t shake the people who live with cancer. They already knew that bad things can happen to good people. The Dark Night of the Soul that opened for them when the physician gave them their diagnosis had changed them. They already viewed the world more realistically.
No one consults a helping professional, especially one who charges as much as I do, unless they are in a time of difficulty. The sun has set in their world and a Dark Night has come. They seek help.
Time and again I have witnessed in my own consultation room how people can cull from their time of pain and difficulty critically important insights about themselves that allow them to transform themselves in good ways. As the hindu Tantric Masters taught, sometimes a poison can turn out to be medicine.
The man who was born with the soul of a poet but become an accountant instead (because Father insisted it was more practical) finds poetry again and reinvents himself. The woman who was born to dance (but got a Master’s Degree in Counseling instead) finds a way to bring Dance Therapy into her practice.
In the late 1980s I faced a medical crisis that forced me to realize my time on earth was not without limit. With the help of a colleague I made an inventory of my life and realized that I had problems (one of my favorite quips about this time is to say that I realized I had a problem in only three areas of my life: my marriage, career and lifestyle. Everything else was okay). The realization led me to change, and those changes are among the best decisions I have ever made. My stress level dropped to a fraction of what it was and in response my health improved.
Yet I cannot honestly say I would ever had made those decisions if life had not kicked me in the keister on the morning when my doctor looked up from his lab report and said, “Scot, I don’t like what I see here.”
Often the darkest times in our lives contain the seeds that will grow into a better life for each of us. The Dark Night of the Soul is never fun, but it can be good--or at least good for us.
When I received my first Board Certification it was given at the 1993 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, DC. The keynote talk was given my a Connecticut psychiatrist I’ve long admired, M. Scott Peck. Some of you may have read his popular book The Road Less Traveled.
The very first sentence in that book is “Life is difficult.” And so it is. But, Peck went on to say, the reason for life’s difficulties is that life presents us with problems, but it is by solving life’s problems that we find life’s meaning. I agree.
His keynote talk was a plea with his psychiatrist colleagues to recognize that sometimes a temporary depression is actually a good thing--a Dark Night of the Soul--and if that patient just works through it, the patient may become a better person.
Not all depressions, he argued, should be medicated away. The medication is a blessing to those in pain, and they are always good if the depression is biological. But before reaching for the prescription pad, Peck asked his colleagues to wonder if perhaps the patient needs to learn something from the pain first.
Now, I’ve seen hundreds of people helped by anti-depression medication. I am not critical of the use of those drugs. But still, there is something to what Peck said. Even if the Dark Night can be lifted with a drug, there is still benefit in asking oneself what there is to learn from the fact that the Dark Night came upon us at all.
The Layered Brain
The Unitarian clergyman Ralph Waldo Emerson once taught that we didn’t need to read books as much as to read the “Book of Nature.” By that he meant that we need to look at the world and learn from it what God intends.
When I do this I like to look at the brain. It’s a wonderful organ. The brain is arranged in layers. The outermost is called the cortex, and it is the source of all higher thought. Beneath it is the limbic brain which governs emotion and memory. Sitting in front of that part of the brain is the amygdala. It is the size and shape of an almond. It tells us when to feel fear.
When something happens that causes alarm, the amygdala switches on. The center for emotion and memory activate so that we will not only respond to what we fear, we will also remember it so that we might avoid a problem in the future. In this state of mind we create memories differently. They have a special and deep power.
The aircraft we were on almost crashed. Now we have a phobia about flying.
One of my cats was terrorized by her former owner at a gang initiation, transported there in a pillowcase. She was rescued, and yet for the rest of her long and happy life (where she ruled over my professional office from her throne that used to be the IN BOX on my desk), she would run when she saw a pillowcase.
The one experience creates a powerful learning. No repetition is needed. This is how the memories of all trauma and all bad things are created. This is why we remember the bad times with special clarity.
Unfortunately, that can give the bad times a distorted importance in our mind, and we give them too much consideration in our future. In our fear we forget they may be useful to us.
For years now I have followed the work of a contemporary writer named Thomas Moore. I have all his books and love them. His best known book was very popular some years ago, called Care of the Soul.
Recently he published his inquiry into the St. John’s idea. He calls his new book Dark Nights (plural) of the Soul, because he wants to make clear that all of us can expect to have more than one of them.
But he’s got an interesting notion. He thinks a Dark Night of the Soul can be fun.
Well, not fun exactly. Drawing on the spiritual psychology of James Hillman, Moore argues that the fact that one has a time of Endarkenment--the times when it’s all fallen apart for us--means that one is a very interesting person.
Shallow people don’t hurt the same way deeper people do. The Dark Night of the Soul is the emotional heritage of only bright, self-aware people. When such people talk about their spiritual journey, they usually identify the dark times, not the bright times, as being the most transformative.
I get this. I know someone from my family who I swear will live forever. She has not a bit of stress. She has never had a self-doubting thought in her life. She is absolutely certain that she is right about everything. If confronted by incontrovertible proof that she has made a mistake, she will simply announce that it is someone else’s fault, and she will believe that to the very bottom of her heart.
She would not know a Dark Night of the Soul from a dust bunny, and you can probably imagine that she is a rather stimulating person to be around (when she comes to visit even the cats have the good sense to hide until she is gone).
Only sensitive and self-aware people can be shaken in the way St. John of the Cross proposes. If you have ever known a Dark Night in your life, it means that you are a more interesting person than you realize, and some time should be given to appreciating your own depth.
And now I’m going to talk about alchemy and medicine. Hang in with me. All this will make sense eventually.
Alchemy is usually considered the medieval forerunner of chemistry, but that’s not right. Psychiatrist Carl Jung in his great therapy based on archetypical symbols argued that Alchemy was actually the dark side of Christianity. It kept everything that Christianity had discarded in an effort to make itself nice and socially acceptable, after Charlemagne declared it as the state religion of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800.
The medieval alchemists sought to transform matter. They tried to develop processes by which lead could be turned into gold. The sought to take dead matter and find a way to make it come alive. They attempted to compound medicines that would allow a person to live forever.
Along the way they discovered things that did in fact evolve into modern medicine and chemistry, but that was never their goal. Their goal was actually spiritual. The Alchemist sought to change the lead of personality into the gold of enlightenment.
The greatest alchemist was Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, a name historians have shorted to Paracelsus. He lived from 1493 to 1541, a time that was one of the fulcrums of western civilization.
He was a physician whom the other doctors of the age hated. They hated him because his patients did better then theirs did. Way better.
At the time most physicians refused to touch their patients. Instead they dispensed medical advice based upon classical Greek texts by Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen. The physicians of the age based everything they did on these texts, even when the texts were obviously in error about human anatomy (for example, Aristotle got the number of teeth a human being has wrong). The practice of dispensing medicines was left to the apothecaries, and surgery was left to the barber-surgeons. Both were considered low class occupations. Doctors never got their hands dirty.
Paracelsus got his hands dirty, and was scorned for showing disrespect for the classical texts. Today he is remembered as the father of modern medicine because he was one of the first physicians who actually examined his patients. Also, because he made his remedies from chemicals instead of herbs, he is also credited with being the father of chemotherapy.
Of course almost everything Paracelsus did was wrong. His patients did better because while mistaken, his methods were also harmless. People who went to other doctors did worse, because the other doctors were using methods that were not only mistaken but actively harmful (such as packing all wounds with batting, which always caused infection).
Goethe, in his 1801 drama Faust, has the physician of the age who had grown rich by dispensing harmful medicine, say while standing in a graveyard:
"That was the physic! True, their patients died,
But none ever asked them who was cured.
So, with a nostrum of this hellish sort,
We made these hills and valleys our resort,
And ravaged there more deadly than the pest.
These hands have ministered the deadly bane
To thousands who have perished; I remain
To hear cool murders extolled and bless’d."
Yet in his off-hours, Paracelsus was an alchemist, and he left behind texts which illuminate that discipline.
The alchemist used substances as symbols for people. Mercury was a symbol for men while copper stood for women. Other chemicals stood for concepts, planets and virtues. They mixed chemicals in crucibles heated in a special furnace as symbols of the kinds of relationship people could have. When they attempted to turn a bit of lead into gold they always failed, but the legends say that a few succeeded. Maybe they did in a purely spiritual sense.
At the end the alchemist would decant from the crucible that had been put through the flame a crude black stone, called the Lapis Niger. It was said to be an ugly thing.
But when held in tongs and struck with a hammer the skin of the Lapis Niger would shatter, and beneath it was said to be a nugget of gold, the color of warm butter.
Because of the fire and the struggle within the crucible, the alchemist said, a dark ugly thing was formed. Yet within it was gold.
The Dark Night Today
That’s sort of what the Dark Times of our lives can be like too. They seem so ugly and they hurt so much, but perhaps within them there is something important.
Perhaps they can be the stimulus to make a change that we need to make but were kept from making because of the inertia of life and daily responsibility. Perhaps within the ugly Lapis Niger, there can be a nugget of gold.
So when the Dark Night comes upon you. And they will come upon you if you are a sensitive and caring person. When your plans fail. When you are betrayed or scorned. When “someone done you wrong” and your optimism collapses, pause.
Before you lose hope, look at the circumstances of your life. Is the ugly thing you confront actually a Lapis Niger? Is there something within this time that you can learn from or be motivated by? Is the really a reversal, or is it a Dark Night of the Soul that will actually open to a future happiness.
The testimony of the mystic is that it often will be.
Call to Worship (Jacob Boehme, On True Resignation)
A [person] must wrestle till the dark centre,
that is shut up close, break open,
and the spark lying therein kindle.
Whatsoever things are true,
whatsoever things are honorable.
whatsoever things are just,
whatsoever things are pure,
whatsoever things are lovely,
whatsoever things are good,
if there is any virtue,
and if there be any praise,
think on these things.
from DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, by St. John of the Cross (16th Century) This work is regarded by scholars as the summit of Spanish mysticism as well as one of the greatest works of Spanish literature.
STANZAS OF THE SOUL
1. On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy
chance!—In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where
5. Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the
6. Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the
cedars made a breeze.
7. The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
8. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense ...spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things…. they lose the spirit of tranquillity and peace which they had before. And thus they are like to one who abandons what he has done in order to do it over again, or to one who leaves a city only to re-enter it, or to one who is hunting and lets his prey go in order to hunt it once more. This is useless here, for the soul will gain nothing further by conducting itself in this way, as has been said.
Silent and Spoken Prayer
I have chosen a prayer today that sounds Christian, but it is not. The writer was the hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore. He was a member of Brahmo Samaj (the Unitarian form of Hinduism) and his reference to “Lord” and “King” is not to Jesus of Nazareth but to the concept of God in general. His words perfectly capture my theme of “Endarkenment” today.
Let us keep silence….
When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon us with a shower of mercy.
When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.
When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides
shutting us out from beyond, come to us, our lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.
When the beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, our king, and come with the ceremony of a king.
When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful, come with thy light and thy thunder.
Show us the way. Amen.
Offertory (by Peyton Conway March)
There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life -- happiness, freedom, and peace of mind -- are always attained by giving them to someone else.
For we shall go out in joy, and return in peace;
The mountains and the hills before us shall burst into song,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isa. 55)