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.