Tuesday, December 3, 2019
I have shared the writings of Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister many times. She is a tireless advocate for the poor and marginalized, and she is also a brilliant and prolific writer, with more than fifty books to her credit. She writes here of the effects of literal darkness or the absence of light:
Psychologists tell us that one of the most difficult conditions a person can be forced to bear is light deprivation. Darkness, in fact, is often used in military captivity or penal institutions to break down an individual’s sense of self. Once a person becomes disoriented, once they lose a sense of where they are . . . once they can no longer feel in control of their physical surroundings—a person loses a sense of self. Every shred of self-confidence shrivels. The giant within them falls and they become whimpering prey of the unknown. The natural instinct to be combative is paralyzed by fear. The spirit of resistance weakens. The prisoner becomes more pliable, more submissive, more willing to take directions.
It disarms a person, this fall into the sinkhole of sensory deprivation. It can drive them to madness. It is, every military knows, an effective technique. . . .
Simple as it may seem, when the lights go out, we simply lose our bearings. The density of the dark makes it impossible for us to fix our positions anymore. We find ourselves alone in the universe, untethered and unprepared. . . . Lightlessness leaves us no internal compass by which to trace or set our steps. Unlike [the] blind, few [sighted people] ever learn to develop our other senses enough to rely on them for information about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Interestingly enough, it is those who consider themselves sighted who are most limited without light. And so, in the end, the [dimness] undermines the average [sighted] person’s self-confidence, affects their vision, leaves them totally vulnerable to the environment and out of touch with the people around them. And that is only its physical effects.
The darkness of the soul is no less spiritually punishing than is the loss of physical light to the psyche. We talk about faith but cannot really tolerate the thought of it. It’s light we want, not shadow, certainty not questions. The aphotic, the place without images, is no less an attack on faith and hope than those periods in life when nighttime brings nothing but unclarity, nothing but fear. Where am I going? the soul wants to know. When will this be over? the mind wants to know. How can I get out of this sightless place I’m in? the heart demands.
The spiritual darkness Sister Joan describes can be a truly difficult and terrifying experience, but all the saints and mystics assure us that darkness will never have the last word. The Scriptures promise us that the Light shines on in the darkness and will not be overcome by it (see John 1:5).
Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (Image: 2015), 17-19.