Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
share post

What the Abyss Holds: Remaking and the Hero’s Journey 

April 18, 2024

Corey Latta

Cultivating a Mended Life is a column devoted to exploring the pains of human existence and the divinely nurtured ways in which we heal our way through it.  Here we’ll discuss how theology, literature, and creativity beautify and foster God’s work within the broken human condition and lead us to a mended life. 

We Christians are a daringly believing people.  We believe all sorts of outlandish things, like that the fragmented chapters of our lives find wholeness in the story of Christ’s life, that our spiritual mending comes through Christ’s physical breaking, and that in order to live in freedom we must first by swallowed up by surrender.  It is the Christian’s belief that somethings that feel dangerous are where we find safety and what is ultimately good is most certainly not tame.

 Indeed, the Christian faith harrows our lived experience.  Holy writ and saints’ lives all testify to this felt fact.  Grace and joy, purpose and peace are also our inheritance in the faith, but we each are destined for the shadow valley at times.  Ours is a Master whose path to glory led through hell; we aren’t allotted another trail.

I’ve come to see the relevance of Christ’s life not only to be a matter of substance, but of structure. It’s not just that Christ came to conquer death so that we might know lives of redemption, grace, and purpose. I believe that to be true. But Christ didn’t come to offer us living themes alone.  Rather, he came to show us the shape of the story in which those themes are lived. That is, the form by which our lives in this painful world must be patterned.  Christ shows us what it is to go from the known to the unknown, to enter into the darkness of life, to face evil, to emerge from that darkness in a state of transformation that leads to the blessing of others. The hero’s journey is the temporal reverberation of Christ’s timeless story.  It’s the form each other story takes to both describe and prescribe the shape of our own lives.

Now, there is an unavoidable stage in the hero’s journey in which the hero, be it Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, or Simba from The Lion King, descends into an existential abyss. This abyss serves as a cave of painful transformation, a place of undoing and remaking. Here, at the lowest point of the journey within, besieged by questions of identity and purpose, the hero must reckon with those parts of him that must be released and those parts destined to be born.

The hero’s journey is a literary convention, a story’s governing architecture, mirroring our own lived experience.  Each of us have been thrust from the known into the unknown.  Each has been accompanied by helpers and mentored by guardians. Each knows what it is to enter the dark forge of remaking. Literarily, the hero enters into his or her dark night of the soul, experiences a painful rebirth, and emerges with a gift of transformation. The abyss isn’t permanent, but it is necessary season for the transformation of the hero. What the hero, what each of us, must come to know is what the abyss asks of us. 

I’ve toured the abyss more than I’d like to admit. There was a time when I thought the abyss would be my home. I wondered if I’d ever make it out. I’ve known some who haven’t. Having emerged from the abyss, I’ve learned something of its lessons and interrogations. There are questions this dark interval asks of everyone. Here are two: a death to some part of the hero’s former way of life and a confrontation with the past.

Before it can impart any other gift, the abyss asks us what are we willing to let die? 

The abyss, in whatever form it takes, first asks for a sacrifice.  Sometimes, as in The Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Harry Potter, this death is literal. More often, the death is egoic.  Some part of the hero’s old persona must be laid upon the altar. The hero’s ways of protecting himself, of surviving, controlling, of coping, of numbing, of playing it safe, of self-reliance fail him. A rebirth is at hand. Whatever version of us emerges from the abyss, it carries with it the death of the old. 

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke reflects,

There is death in life, and it astonishes me that we pretend to ignore this: death, whose unforgiving presence we experience with each change we survive because we must learn to die slowly. We must learn to die: That is all of life.”  (The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation)

This death is the beginning of a remaking whose fruition might take years. The process begins when we can admit that we indeed need to be remade, that some limbs need amputating. When we find that previously formed parts of ourselves have jutted through to disrupt the serene, divinely ordained purpose in which we are meant to live, we will embrace this death.

Lurking within the question of what we’re willing to let die is a negotiation of when the past ends and the present begins. The abyss asks that we choose between time lived and time imagined. Will we return to the painfully numb known of the past or will we dare the wilds of the unfamiliar where our destiny lies?  Will who we’ve been told we are remain be who we are or will we shed the old self to see just who we might become? How far we’ll allow the past to creep into our present is worked when we’re in the abyss. Our remaking isn’t just a matter of what needs to die and what needs to live; it’s about whether the shames, regrets, and patterns of our pasts will become the script for our future.


A few considerations if you’re in the abyss:

  • Confront yourself in this cave of remaking. Ask yourself what parts of you need to be put to death and what parts need to breathe the free air.
  • Don’t go it alone. The hero’s journey, your journey, isn’t a solo quest.  You need your helpers and mentors.  Your Samwise, your Hans.  Your Gandalf, your Obi-wan.
  • Remember, journey always leads back home. We leave the known so that we might return to impart the gifts received in the abyss. Deeper love, authenticity, integrity, a vivacious imagination, unshakable faith, bold vulnerability, these are jewels only found in the abyss.  You bring them out of shadows not to hoard but to share. So many others around you are entering their own abysses. They need to know they can make it out. 

The beauty of the abyss is that it refuses to let us leave unresolved. Some don’t make it out, but those who do don’t have a choice but to come out changed. The abyss holds an actualization that simply won’t be denied. Irenaeus famously quipped that the glory of God is man fully alive. I’d say that truth of the abyss is man undeniably changed. In my experience, these truths can’t be separated. The beauty of the former depends on the pain of the latter.

The psalmist, that great herald of new life after the abyss, shows us something of the beauty that lies just beyond the dark veil, “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:2–5).

Beyond the pit lies love, impenetrable, saturating, deeply felt love.  Knowable satisfaction, redemption, received compassion, these are the hero’s destinies. And I do no doubt that we will each know them, but the valley comes first. In my experience, discernible goodness exists, but the fullness of it can only by known on the other side of the abyss. Our present point in the journey isn’t to be spent anticipating the abyss, but rather hoping for the goodness we believe lies just beyond it.

Recommended Readings:

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation

The featured image is courtesy of Steve Moon and used with his kind permission for Cultivating. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship

Enjoy our gift to you as our Welcome to Cultivating! Discover the purpose of The Cultivating Project, and how you might find a "What, you too?" experience here with this fellowship of makers!

Receive your complimentary e-book

Explore the

Editions Archive


organized for ease by author and category.

View Our Editions Archive