"Here Be Dragons"
In medieval days when the world was not yet fully explored, vast swaths of space on maps remained empty of land or sea. These uncharted territories were often filled with drawings of mythological beasts and fantastic creatures of the human imagination, as they remained mysterious to explorers who had no idea what lay there. In modern times this has given rise to somewhat popular belief that the phrase "Here Be Dragons" was widely used on maps to indicate unexplored territory. This, however, was not the case. Only one ancient map actually has the Latin words Hic sunt dracones printed on it: the Hunt-Lenox Globe, built in 1510 in Europe and made of copper. These now famous words probably originally served as an artistic warning that what lay in this unexplored territory was unknown and was therefore dangerous. Those brave enough to venture into such uncharted space would be wise to heed the warning, either proceeding with extreme caution or to simply not go there at all.
The spiritual journey should be prefaced with a similar warning.
I have learned this in my brief time as a spiritual explorer: The further you travel in your spiritual development, the more “uncharted territory” you will discover. At this very moment, there are enormous, undiscovered realms of untapped energy and potential within you. They are places of joyful discovery and profound wisdom, but they are also places filled with mystery, fear, and danger.
If you have eyes to see in such places, you may notice there are signs posted: “Here Be Dragons.”
Over the last few months I’ve moved into one such unknown place, a place I knew all too well existed, but where I had long ago placed the “Here Be Dragons” warning and vowed never to go there. I knew what awaited me there, or at least I thought I did. And that knowledge generated a great amount of anxiety and fear within me.
I have been reluctant to write about this for many reasons, but I’ve only recently realized that nothing else I’ve tried to write has had any depth of meaning or purpose because THIS needs to be said first. This is the starting point. Everything else just might depend on getting this right. I’m not sure if that’s right or wrong or somewhere in the middle, but I definitely have the sense it’s what I must do.
So here goes.
After nearly 19 years of virtually no contact, I reached out to my father. We talked. We laughed. We cried. We hugged. We shared stories. I introduced him to his grandchildren, and though it took a little bit, they warmed up to “Peepaw” and played with him, laughed with him, and later told me, “He was nice. Let’s see him again.”
I cannot express how happy this makes me. Or relieved. It feels like a giant, twisted, dark, sticky, nasty ball of anxiety and fear and doubt has begun to come undone. I can see it breaking into ashy bits, and beginning to blow away in the wind. It feels like I can breath deeply again.
For years I was under the impression that my father was not someone with whom I would wish to associate. There were lots of reasons and plenty of blame to pass around. It’s really quite the soap opera but I won’t go into all the gory details. It wouldn’t be appropriate or loving. But I will say this: when parents separate and divorce it is never easy for anyone, especially children. And while I wish things had been different, I also have arrived at the place where I choose forgiveness and reconciliation and love over continued anger and fear and indifference.
Nowadays I’m not blaming anyone for anything. Because in the deepest places of my being all I want is a loving, healthy, and abundant relationship with everyone in my life. And nursing old wounds and grievances only poisons and sabotages that process. No more.
Nineteen years is a long time. It feels like a lifetime. And while there wasn’t really a day that went by that I did not think of him in some way, I began to develop a kind of hardness toward the situation. I became indifferent, dismissive, almost casually unconcerned about it as if it were no big deal. There certainly were times when God managed to break through that stiff outer shell, and showed me the truth. But I would quickly restore my defenses and trudge on in willing ignorance.
For years I worked as a hospice chaplain. I would routinely see family situations and histories that eerily mirrored my own. I would watch as families scrambled to get in touch with an adult child who “Papa hadn’t seen in 30 years” so they could say their goodbyes. Sometimes another family member would speak up and say “Well he hadn’t come around in 30 years so why would we want him here now?” To which an elderly family member, usually a matriarch, would reply, “Because it’s important. If they don’t do it now, they’ll regret it for the rest of their life. They just don’t know that yet. And if they ever do figure it out, it’ll be too late.” Sometimes the estranged person would be found in time, but other times they would not. And somewhere in the back of mind I would think: “Someday that’s going to be me.” And the anxiety would build, because the whole hospice team would shake our collective head and say, “What a shame they couldn’t have had a better relationship. What a loss.”
And I’d shake my head with them. Yes, what a loss indeed.
I saw the above story played out too many times, but as powerful as it is, it was not my primary motivation for reaching out to him. Along with seeing other peoples’ experiences, there was always a vague sense of emptiness, of regret, the constant nagging sense of this-is-not-how-things-should-be, just itching in the back of my mind. There was always a feeling of incompleteness, of things left undone. Another step to take.
I’m not sure how it happened, but that nagging sense of this-is-not-how-things-should-be became things-could-be-different. That sense of emptiness and regret was replaced with a longing for things to be different. That desire and longing kept creeping up on me, getting closer and closer, until one day I realized not only was it something I wanted but the possibility for reestablishing a relationship was very real.
So I took a step of faith. Like Peter, I got out of the boat and walked on water. I’m learning this is an ongoing process. Getting out of the boat isn’t a one time thing. It happens over and over and over again. It’s an intentional choice I continue to make.
While God used a wide variety of people, situations, and experiences to take a step of faith and make that phone call, one poem by Robert Bly captures the essence of my experience.
There was a boy who never got enough.
You know what I mean. Something
In him longed to find the big
Mother, and he leaped into the sea.
It took a while, but a whale
Agreed to swallow him.
He knew it was wrong, but once
Past the baleen, it was too late.
It's OK. There's a curved library
Inside, and those high
Ladders. People take requests.
It's like the British Museum.
But one has to build a fire.
Maybe it was the romance
Novels he burned. Smoke curls
Up the gorge. She coughs.
And that's it. The boy swims to shore;
It's a fishing town in Alaska.
He finds a telephone booth,
And calls his father. "Let's talk."
For many years I had a longing within me, a deep resonating call, an almost primeval desire that I could not easily identify. Just a few short months ago I could ignore it no longer, so I responded and followed it into the wide, unknown place of the wilderness. And it led me to the depths of the abyss, what the psalmist calls “the valley of the shadow of death,” or what mystics call “the dark night of the soul.”
There, in the shadowy deep, I saw it: the great dragon, that monstrous beast I was sure was sent to devour me and rip up my soul into tiny bits to drown in that awful, dark place. My God! Here really be dragons!Trembling with fear and rage, I despaired. I was sure I had neither the strength nor the ability to get out of its grasp. But I soon discovered the beast was there not to destroy me, but to bear me from the place I was to a place I needed to be. He would be the unexpected vehicle that would transport me further along on the journey.
In the belly of that great beast is a library: there is wisdom and truth and grace in that wretchedly dark place, and it is treasure that can be found nowhere else in all of creation. It is hard won, and therefore precious.
While in the belly of the beast, I did what I needed to do to survive: I am learning how to say goodbye to my desires for how I want things to be (much like burning the “romance novels” in the above poem!) in order to ready myself to embrace whatever comes next. Accepting life on its own terms. Allowing God to be who he is in my life on his terms, not my own.
The resulting fire warms and promotes life in those dark places, but it is also a catalyst, a spark that creates movement, and again I journeyed, this time upward, to a new reality, more spacious and real than the last, but also more dangerous, because I now knew what I had to do. Now I knew the source of my longing and desire. Now I knew why I could only arrive at this place in the belly of the beast as it traversed the darkness of the deep.
It sounds simple enough, yet the cycle of death and resurrection was the only means for me to do it. I found myself in an unknown place, and with a telephone in hand, I called my father. And we talked.
Here be dragons? Yes, but not all are evil. Some I have mistaken for dragons, but were really angels in disguise.
And they have been sent from beyond as guides, as messengers, as honorable guests who, as the ancient poet Rumi says, “may be clearing you out for some new delight.”
A new delight? What an understatement!