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Center for Action and Contemplation

Darkness and Light

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Unknowing: Week 1

Darkness and Light
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one. —Psalm 139:12

Perhaps the most universal way to name the two spiritual traditions of knowing and not-knowing is light and darkness. The formal theological terms are kataphatic or “affirmative” way—employing words, concepts, and images—and apophatic or “negative” way—moving beyond words and ideas into silence and beyond-rational knowing. I believe both ways are good and necessary, and together they create a magnificent form of higher consciousness called biblical faith.

The apophatic way, however, has been largely underused, undertaught, and underdeveloped since the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. In fact, Westerners became ashamed of our “not-knowing” and tried to fight our battles rationally. For several centuries, Christianity in the West has been in a defensive mode, a siege mentality where not-knowing and the mystical tradition are considered too risky.

If we are going to talk about light, then we must also talk about darkness, because they only have meaning in relation to one another. In much of the world’s art, the sun and the moon are pictured together as sacred symbols. The solar light gives glaring brightness but paradoxically creates defined shadows. Patriarchal religions usually preferred “sun” gods and the worship of fire, light, and order. While order and clarity are good, they also give us an arrogance about that very order and clarity. The very sun that illuminates also blinds, dehydrates, and kills when we get too much of it.

Lunar light is much more subtle, filtered, and indirect, and in that sense, more clarifying and not so quickly conclusive. Note that when God first divided light from darkness, God did not call it “good” (Genesis 1:3). At the very beginning of the Bible we are warned that we cannot totally separate light from darkness, or the two have no meaning. The whole of Creation exists inside of one full cycle: “Evening came and morning came and it was the first day” (Genesis 1:5). Separating them is apparently not good!

All things on earth are a mixture of darkness and light. When we idolize things as totally good or condemn otherness as totally bad, we get ourselves in trouble. Jesus simplifies this task by saying: “God alone is good” (Mark 10:18). Even the good things of this world are still subject to imperfection, wounding, and decay. I find it very hard to admit, but often tragedies produce much good fruit and good people.

Jesus is a “lunar” teacher, patient with darkness and slow growth. He says, “The seed is sprouting and growing but we do not know how” (Mark 4:27). He even shockingly says to let the good and bad seeds grow together until the harvest (Matthew 13:30). He seems to be willing to live with non-perfection, surely representing the cosmic patience and freedom of God, who is Infinite Love and Life that finally fills all the gaps. When you are God and you know you will ultimately “win”—because Love will always win—you do not have to nail everything down along the way. You can work happily and even effectively with “mustard seeds” (Mark 4:31) and with “the good and bad alike” sitting at the same table (Matthew 22:10).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 115-116.

Image credit: Philosopher in Meditation (detail), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1632, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: If we are going to talk about light, then we must also talk about darkness, because they only have meaning in relation to one another. All things on earth are a mixture of darkness and light, and it is not good to pretend that they are totally separate! —Richard Rohr
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