When we are in the dark, the temptation is to put on an artificial light to illuminate our way and make us feel better. However, to do this before the blackness has taught us all we need to learn may mean missing out on wisdom we’ll need for the rest of our journey. Putting on a light might be literal. A friend responded to my last blog by telling me how when she was awake in the night with all her worries and fears looming large in her mind, she instinctively put on the bedside lamp, but then chose to turn it off again. When she did so, she realised the new day had dawned and it was actually naturally light again outside. She says of this experience, “I was reminded, if we don’t let the darkness fall how can we see the dawn when it comes? Trusting the process of the dark seems in some ways like giving in to circumstances, to me it seems like that anyway. And I’m scared, to be honest terrified. Can I really trust an unseen God whose ‘church’ has so often been so hurtful? But I really want to trust Love, the God of love.”
Other ways in which I’ve become aware of turning on the light is to immerse myself in busyness. I can keep darkness at bay by allowing no time to let it in. I can kid myself that all is well, I’m loved and productive all the time I’m doing worthy things for God and for others. Yet, I’m a human being not a human doing. Intellectually I know that I am valued because I’m made in the image of God. But I still try to earn approval and justify my existence with constant activity in Her name. How else do we rely upon artificial illumination to make ourselves feel better? Dare I suggest that upbeat, charismatic-style worship could offer a similar means of avoiding the reality of disappointment and confusion when what we’ve been led to believe about faith does not tally with our experience of life? Can church become an unreal bubble where we pretend that the Bible is literally true and prayer always works when in our day to day lives we are struggling to come to terms with relationship breakdown, childlessness, redundancy, bereavement, terminal illness, and countless other symptons of a world that is not exactly the way God intended it to be?
However, this week I have been reminded that it was out of blackness and a nothingness void that God created all that is good, beautiful and wonderful in the universe. It was also out of the darkness of the tomb where Christ’s broken body was laid that death was finally defeated and new, everlasting life became possible. God comes alongside us in the darkness, but He doesn’t leave us there forever. If we are brave enough to sit and wait, She will, “bestow upon us a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61: 3) For joy does indeed come in the morning.
Some people think me odd. This is because I don’t much like being in the country. I have good reason, though. I get hayfever, grass literally gets up my nose! If I walk too fast, asthma is the result and I struggle for breath. And at night it’s just too dark without the comforting glow of light pollution. I fear I will fall in all that disorientating blackness, injure myself and be miles away from swift medical attention. I have, therefore, come to the conclusion that green fields and rolling hills are best enjoyed from the window of a nice, quiet pub with pint in hand.
Yet this week I was encouraged by author Barbara Taylor Brown to learn to walk in the dark. Like me, she grew up with the conventional Christian teaching that light was universally good and to be magnified, while the dark was synonymous with all that was devilish and to be resisted. The words of Jesus such as, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19) and, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If you eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” (Matt 6:22) seem to overwhelmingly support this. But as she dug deeper, she realised that many significant divine encounters actually happened at night. God affirming His promise of countless descendants to Abraham by pointing out the stars in the night sky. Jacob wrestling an angel all night to receive a dislocated hip and new identity at dawn. Hebrews enslaved in Egypt making their exodus under cover of darkness. The shepherds witnessing the heavenly host heralding the birth of the Messiah. Countless dreams foretelling events, giving directions or issuing warnings.
Also in scripture, God’s presence is not only described as coming in light. For example, while Moses is initially called out of a burning bush, he later meets God in cloud on a mountaintop. Maybe there are times when encountering the divine can actually obscure or confuse our vision, rather than simply bring greater clarify and sharper focus? This seems to be what many of the mystics came to understand. These include Gregory of Nyssa, St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila whose writings are often about the mystery of un-knowing. Perhaps just as we experience joy and sorrow and all other emotions in between on the journey through life, we should expect varying degrees of light and shade in our spiritual walk? God seems to use times of darkness and gut-wrenching uncertainty to deepen our relationship with Her and stretch our faith to attain greater wisdom and maturity in Christ.
Oh how I wish it were otherwise! No one would choose the dark night of the soul. I am currently lost and wondering where next. It feels God is stripping away support structures, friendships and even my very hopes for the future. And I’ve been here before. It’s just last time I had the arrival of the new to make sense of the grief and confusion at what I was leaving behind. This time there is nothing and nowhere obvious to jump. I am letting go of the constant, purposeful activity that staves off depression and attempting to confront my deepest fear that I have no significance. It is hard and I have no idea how long this emptiness will last. But as I’m learning to enjoy the outdoors by walking along the seashore at my own pace, so I trust I will come to a new appreciation of the dark. I will overcome the panic of not being able to see, my eyes will adjust and I will find God is enough in the unknowing.