In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.
I first read this quote as a freshman in college, in Dante’s classic Inferno. Chronologically, I was not in the “middle of the journey” of my own life. However, this one phrase deeply resonated with me at that particular point in my life:
“I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.”
Up until that year of my life, everything had been carefully mapped for me: first, elementary school, then intermediate school, then high school. First grade, second grade, third grade, and fourth…and so on until I reached twelfth, at which I point I was primed and ready for the “best four years of my life.” Or so I had been told and prepared to think for the past 18 years. I believed this firmly and unwaveringly until I actually began those four years as a freshman at Boston College, unprepared for the culture shock of moving from California to New England, unprepared for the inevitable rejection and failure that comes with beginning a new life, and unprepared for God.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I excelled in school, and generally in the things that were expected of me. I believed that my life would continue on as I had always envisioned it; I would excel in college too, make lots of friends, possibly meet my future husband- or at least have an intelligent, witty, and sophisticated college boyfriend- and most importantly, be launched into a glamorous and deeply fulfilling career. I would make money, use my talents, live in New York City (as I had seen in the movies), and look fabulous while doing it all, in a trench and heels.
Trouble is, I realized on arrival at Boston College that “the direct way was lost.” Those dreams and aspirations evaporated in a cloud of uncertainty and a new consciousness: all of a sudden, I realized that more than living from my own self-definition of worldly success, I wanted to live from a place of deep connection to my soul, and more importantly, to the Creator of my soul. I didn’t have the heart to muscle my way into success anymore, and I couldn’t see the value of pursuing success to “look good” or “because I should” or even “because I could.”
In one particular course, I read the Western classics of philosophy and religious literature, including the bible, Plato, and Aristotle. I couldn’t write these off as tasks to check off to get my way to an A. For these assignments, I actually had to think about and engage with the bigger questions in life- that is, the nature of truth, how we can know it, how we perceive reality, and how we determine morality. And those questions eventually led me to the “dark wood,” where I couldn’t escape from the fact that I could see only one light: Jesus.
There’s a wonderful quote in Flannery O ‘Connor’s novel Wise Blood that perfectly expresses the tension of following Jesus:
Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
The quote speaks to a character in the book with no real relationship with God, but who uses religion to manipulate others. Nonetheless, this falsely religious man can’t ignore Jesus, and he can’t ignore the fact that following Him means losing control.
Likewise, as a freshman in college, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Jesus Himself was asking me to follow Him, and that my “yes” might mean the loss of worldly success. My “yes” might mean I would lose friends (I did) and pass up opportunities to pursue conventional or lucrative careers (did that too). But the direct way was lost, and the only light I could see was the Light- that is, the One who said, “I am the light of the world.”*
The dark wood was still dark. Jesus illuminated the path ahead of me, and there were times when I could see far down the path (such as when I felt called to go to Morocco, a couple years later). But then- and now- most of what I can see is just ahead, illuminating my steps in front of me.
Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
Sometimes, He is a light on our path—in those moments when we receive deep revelation of how the future will unfold for us, or at least those parts of ourselves that we know will come to fruition some way down the line.
But most of the time, God guides us step by step, and the rest looks murky. It is a dark wood. It is not the way of the world, which instructs us to have 5, 10, and 20 year plans, to carefully control everything in our lives (money, relationships, possessions, even our bodies) carefully controlled so that we know our circumstances.
“When we keep properly to the well-lit and charted route, we limit ourselves from learning the courage it takes to enter a wilder unknown: a way subject to dangers, but open to mysterious joys, adventures and revelations we might otherwise never know.” – Julie Pointer for Darling Magazine
Pointer so well articulates this opportunity that presents itself when we willingly enter onto the alternative path. This path will not only mean yet-unimagined moments and experiences of joy and adventure, it will teach us courage. And it will teach us trust.
God does not necessarily call us to know how everything will unfold in life. Instead, He calls to trust– not a principle or a plan, but a person- Jesus. And in these dark woods, focusing on him and holding His hand is often all we can do to stray completely off the path.
We may not be able to always see clearly on this path. This is no city sidewalk. There are thick roots, tangled cobwebs, and branches to contend with. But there is also a quiet peace, thrill of adventure, and connection to our Creator that nothing else will afford us. It’s there that we come to ourselves.