The Dark Mysteries and Arvo Pärt

… the existence of suffering is great in us and in our world, and it doesn’t resolve without embracing what we call the dark mysteries…


A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich railed against the superficial, sunny point of view in her book Bright Sided, and these days spiritual bypassing is as common as grass. I can’t say as I blame people – finding even a temporary respite, free of despair and confusion can so feel like the end of the path of religion that we want to set up shop and tell the whole world about it, or anyone that would listen.

Newscasters and philosophers today are like guides to the lower realms who are themselves lost, taking us with them. With a mind of agitation, fear, anger, and grief, and exhausted by trials, the vision narrows. Although they had a good motivation starting off, they’re stranded, seeing less and less, and without so much as a clue as to how to get themselves and others out of suffering.

Yet the existence of suffering is great in us and in our world, and it doesn’t resolve without embracing what we call the dark mysteries. This is understood by Christian contemplatives, and in depth psychology. We are not complete as persons or cultures until what is truly difficult is fully known, and healed, and its lessons assimilated.

What strength is then required of us!, What great compassion!, What far seeing and extraordinary teachers! If not for these, while some suffering will resolve just by letting it be, and cultivating all positive enjoyments, other aspects will lie dormant, or, divided in ourselves and from the greater world we all share, we will be living a partial and diminished life. There’s a journey to be taken, and it’s with good reason that the importance of qualified spiritual teachers is emphasized again and again in traditions. We could go it alone, but it’s safer and more effective to follow someone who knows the territory in full.

When it comes to the expression of the dark mysteries in music, if not for J.S. Bach, the profundity of Arvo Pärt would never have made much sense to me.

In Bach we have a music in which nothing is left out, and where all resolves at last in Grace. It is there through even in his most deeply sorrowful work. There is the presence of an unseen hand, that raises up all who receive it to the peace and perfection of love.

Discovering Arvo Pärt decades after living in Bach’s world was a revelation unlike any other I can remember with music. Here is this 20th century Estonian composer who went through his atonal phase, only to rediscover early modal Western religious music, and bring it into his composing.

I recall when one of my friends in Taipei gave me a copy of Arbos, and said, here, you probably won’t like this, but give it a listen anyway. I went home late that night and put it on. Before the first three pieces were over, I was all in. Here is a musical language that is both unique and universal, and that doesn’t shy away from the mournful, but that takes to heart the deep wisdom that can be found in it.

Wholeness results from not denying the dark mysteries, and though we need the utmost skill, and great resources of strength and courage to even so much as approach them, the end is a fuller life, one of far greater awareness and sensitivity, and ultimately reason for hope. There is light in the darkness, as the Zen teaching says.

At last, a greater peace is found through embracing what is most difficult about our lives, and being with it, holding it, and in time, transforming it with love.