The Dark Wood: Courage in Suffering

If there is one experience that unites us as a human family, it is suffering.

Ludolf Bakhuizen, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” 1695
Ludolf Bakhuizen, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” 1695 (photo: Public Domain)

One of my favorite opening paragraphs of any work of literature has to be the description of Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. After explaining everything a hobbit hole is not (including being filled with “an oozy smell” and “the ends of worms”), the paragraph concludes: “It was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.” This, of course, is an excellent description not only of the place, but also of its chief inhabitant, whose life is turned upside-down by the arrival of Gandalf, the dwarves, and a call to adventure which will take him decidedly out of his “comfort zone.” 

We like to be comfortable. We like hot tea and warm fires and cool ocean breezes. We like soft blankets and the smell of flowers and everything tidy and just so. But sometimes, like Bilbo, we experience a moment that takes everything we thought was stable and secure in our world and upends it. The experience makes us uncomfortable. It may make us suffer — even suffer beyond what we think we can bear. 

If there is one experience that unites us as a human family, it is suffering. We all must navigate periods of illness, mental distress, loss and grief. We might realize on some rational, abstract level that everyone suffers at some point. We might even think, or have been told by some well-meaning (but very likely impatient) soul, that suffering can bring us closer to God, so we should “offer it up.” 

But in all honesty, we’re probably much more tempted to echo St. Teresa of Avila’s feisty response to God when she slipped and fell in the mud on her way to the convent: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder why you have so few of them!” 

A few months ago, I had the chance to interview New York Times columnist Ross Douthat about his memoir and his years-long struggle with Lyme disease. In the interview, we talk about the problem of suffering and the challenges of navigating chronic illness. Douthat uses the imagery of the “dark wood” to express the experience — an image taken from the opening lines of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy

In the first canto of the poem, the pilgrim Dante begins his journey lost and close to despair. His efforts to rescue himself have failed, but at the critical moment, a guide appears: the Roman poet Virgil. Virgil assures Dante that he has many friends in Heaven, and that there is a way out of his present distress. 

For Dante, the experience of the dark wood is an opportunity for grace to enter stage right. All he needs is the courage to take the first step. And I think it’s important to realize that he isn’t walking this path alone. He has guides — those who come with him on the journey, who help him to see what he needs to see, who hold space for him to learn and to struggle, and who encourage him when his strength and his faith are flagging. 

Clinging to faith while we are in the midst of the dark woods of suffering is no small feat, as we see in the biblical story of Job. The story is challenging to read, but its reassurances are deep and very real. God permits Satan to afflict Job with every kind of evil, but Job maintains his steadfast faith in the wisdom and providence of God and acknowledges his own humility. One of the most commonly-quoted lines in Scripture comes from the Book of Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away ... blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). The test of Job seems to be a test of endurance — of choosing, again and again, to trust God in spite of every temptation to abandon the God who seems to have abandoned him, and to hope in the resurrection that awaits us after this life. 

One of the reasons we love stories so much is because they help us to see that perseverance and courage, in the very darkest times of our lives, are possible. They also reassure us that we aren’t alone in our struggle. We not only have the care and support of those around us, who are no strangers to suffering and difficulty, but also the love of the God who chose to redeem us through his own suffering, death and resurrection. 

As Emily Dickinson writes:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

The darker the storm, Dickinson argues, the more sweetly the song of Hope sounds in our hearts, and that gives us the courage we need to continue on our journey.