Every so often I revisit a book I’m not sure when, where or why came into my possession. (Is that even a sentence? I’ve been visited by insomnia and am currently semi-hallucinating with fatigue).

It’s by the late Oxford-educated Dante scholar Helen M. Luke (1904-1985). It’s called Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy. And it’s well worth a read.

The original copyright in 1975, though the version I have, published by Parabola Books, was issued in 1989.

As Luke notes in the Introduction, the path toward consciousness and wholeness is impossible “without a continual dying–without repeated death of old attitudes, of superficial desires, and finally of every claim of ego dominance.” So get out of my way while I transform!

A couple of passages:

“In religious terminology, the phrases ‘contemplative life’ and ‘active life’ have a specific meaning, defining the emphasis on prayer or work in the various monastic orders. But contemplation is in fact an attitude to life, a way of relation to all phenomena, whether of the world outside or of the world within. To contemplate is to look at–and at the same time to reflect upon that which we see, with feeling as well as thought.”

Italy, N. (Tuscany, Siena?).

Luke has lots to say about womanhood and our particular journey. I especially like the following, which is both astute and, considering it was written almost 50 years ago, prescient:

“In order to find her freedom and release her own positive masculine creative spirit, she has a double task: she must discover what it really means to be a woman at the same time as she brings up and relates to the masculine in her unconscious. The equivalent for her of the lure of the Siren in a man’s unconscious is therefore the glittering image of power through identification with a masculine type of activity which swallows up her womanhood; she is dazzled by second-hand concepts and by the spell of words. This is not to say that she cannot work on equal terms with man in fields which have been considered specifically his; on the contrary, every conscious woman needs to do some so-called masculine work. But f she works in imitation of man instead of our of her own nature, she will be identified with an inferior kind of masculinity, inevitably sterile because it is based on a rejection at the core of her being. She too, then, is in the grip of the incubus, is devoured by an image, as man is by the Siren, until ‘the personality rots away into illusion.’ Many women today, reacting violently against the age-long degradation of the feminine, proclaim quite rightly the equality of woman with man on the level of value and ability, and her need to be freed from the contempt which has sought to confine her to conventional roles; but too often they try to achieve their goals by an attempt to obliterate all difference in the human nature of man and woman. The result is, of course, a far worse kind of contempt–the rejection of one half of reality itself and the submergence of the individual woman into the meaninglessness of imitation. Thus all the true freedom and creativeness of the spirit is lost.

At the other end of the scale, of course, this kind of imitation produces the very thing it rejects, and unconsciously the woman caught in it becomes a mere prostitute inwardly, if not outwardly, since her instinctual life is separated from her true creative task of nourishing responsible relationship.”

FOL. 53v, BET. 1380 AND 1400,


  1. stephensparrownz says: Reply

    Thanks for this Heather – I must look into reading Helen Luke’s book. Ever since reading The Divine Comedy I’ve loved the lines
    “For I have seen all the winter through
    The thorn first show itself unyielding, wild,
    And after all carry a rose on top.”

  2. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Gorgeous, Stephen, thank you and Blessed Pentecost–

  3. Patricia Langer says: Reply

    Good morning Heather. I’ve been looking through my copy of Dark Wood to White Rose trying to find a passage close to the end of the book that meant so much to me when I read it. Do you think I can find it!? I’ll send it along if I do.
    Have you read Helen Luke’s book ‘Old Age; Journey into Simplicity’? She looks at aging through King Lear, The Tempest and The Odyssey. I suspect you might really enjoy it. I may be carrying coals to Newcastle here, but I would like to suggest her autobiography which also contains the journals she kept after turning 70. She didn’t begin to write until she turned 70 and felt called to ‘voice’. I believe she stopped her analytic practice at the same time. I am revisiting the book as I prepare to turn 70 at the end of next month.
    I am praying for you that you may finally find the sleep you need.
    God Bless,

  4. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Patricia, not carrying coals to Newcastle at all–Helen’s autobiography is apparently called Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made Of and Old Age: Journey Into Simplicity also sounds wonderful; I have just put it on hold at my local library. I never knew, but her Applegate Farms was in Ipswich, MA, not far from the NH coast where I was raised. I’m so glad to find other fans of hers–she’s not as well known as she should be…she’s deep yet accessible. I’m just two years behind you–I’m finding it a fascinating leg of the journey. Thanks so much–

  5. Patricia Langer says: Reply

    Heather, you’re welcome. I’m glad too to know another Helen fan out there. Here books have meant a great deal to me, especially the second half of her autobiography titled A Diary of Vowels.
    By the way, her autobiography is actually titled Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On, not Of. It’s taken from The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1:
    We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.
    Hope you don’t mind the correction.

    God Bless,

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Ha I welcome corrections, Patricia (God knows I need so many of them) and of course I should have known Made On, not Of. So Helen has another autobiog called A Diary of Vowels…as my own life comes ever so gently closer to being rounded with the final sleep, I hope to explore more of her work. Thank you.

  6. Patricia Langer says: Reply

    Well, now I need to correct myself!! Sorry for the confusion. Helen’s one autobiography, Such Stuff… was written in two parts (same book), the first part is the story of her life and is rich with her inner life. The second part starts when she is 70 and focuses on her transition from the ‘consonants’ which are more of the outer life to the vowels, which carry the sound of a life. She writes about that deliciously so I won’t spoil it for you by quoting it here. Both parts are in Such Stuff.
    I have to admit that I am taking some delight in imagining that her book will be a feast for you!
    If you find you are interested, there is a DVD of her life done by Apple Farm but done professionally. It’s called ‘A Sense of the Sacred’. I have a copy but it’s stuck and won’t play past a certain part. This makes me cranky. I think it’s a bit hard to find a copy these days but perhaps you might find it through your library.
    Now, I’m off to make supper and read the post you just uploaded.

  7. SUSAN CARROLL says: Reply

    First timer, Heather, an American in London admiring your spirited account of Servant of God Blandina Segale in June’s Magnificat. Having read your recent blog, am interested in reading Helen Luke’s autobiographical journals . . .life in the 70,s age group, the pandemic, ageism, racism, we all need sleep to keep us going so I wish you peaceful sleep long before any final sleep, and no worries if you haven,t reached 70 yet. You are still a budding rose.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Susan, thanks so very much–yes I hope to explore Helen Luke more as well. I’m also thinking of another wonderful book on aging, Florida Maxwell-Scott’s “The Measure of My Days.” I read it years ago and mean to re-visit it soon…Yes, the Lord knows we need sleep. The sorrow and tension of the past week weighs heavily. So glad you saw the Blandina Sengale piece–would that we adopted her as the patron saint of prison reform…God bless you and keep well over there in London!…


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