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Theme:
Darkness

Darkness

Summary: Sunday, December 1—Friday, December 7, 2019

People who live with faith in the midst of darkness never stop growing, are not easily defeated, are wise and compassionate, and frankly, are fun to live with. They have a quiet and confident joy. (Sunday)

Experiences of darkness are good and necessary teachers. They are not to be avoided, denied, run from, or explained away. (Monday)

All the saints and mystics assure us that darkness will never have the last word. The Scriptures promise us that the Light shines in the darkness and will not be overcome by it (see John 1:5). (Tuesday)

There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. —Joan Chittister (Wednesday)

I believe I have learned, because of my own struggles, how to see, hear, and feel the struggles of others, voiced and unvoiced. —Diana L. Hayes (Thursday)

Christian wisdom names the darkness as darkness and the Light as light and helps us learn how to live and work in the Light so that the darkness does not overcome us. (Friday)

 

Practice: Seeing with the Heart

She,
In the dark,
Found light
Brighter than many ever see.
She,
Within herself,
Found loveliness,
Through the soul’s own mastery.
And now the world receives
From her dower:
The message of the strength
Of inner power.

—Langston Hughes [1]

In the wonderful little book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the Little Prince discovers inner power when the tamed fox shares a secret with these evocative words: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” [2] Spirituality invites us to look with a different pair of eyes, beyond what Thomas Merton called “the shadow and the disguise” [3] of things until we can know them in their connectedness and wholeness. The nondual or mystical mind fully experiences and learns to love limited ordinary things and peeks through the clouds to glimpse infinite and seemingly invisible things. The contemplative mind “knows spiritual things in a spiritual way” (1 Corinthians 2:13). [4]

William Shannon writes:

The paradox of the contemplative way . . . involves a darkening and blinding of the exterior self and an awakening and enlightening of the inner self. The time comes when it is necessary to darken and put to sleep the discursive and rational lights that one was familiar with in meditation. This is no easy task, for one tends to feel guilty about relaxing and resting in the darkness; and there is a strong inclination to climb back into the safety and security of the boat of habit. [5]

Barbara Holmes reflects on Shannon’s insight, applying it in particular to people of African descent:

The disassociation with darkness as the price of assimilation has alienated dark people from its restorative potential. Shannon introduces the possibility that darkness may be the blessed dimming of ego-driven striving, a destination and condition of safety and repose. In this state of trusting refuge, the light of divine revelation, which pierces but does not castigate the darkness, may finally be seen. [6]

For this week’s practice, I invite you to take some time to consider “this state of trusting refuge,” where you might experience “seeing with the heart.” As you engage this practice, allow yourself to be relaxed, sincere, and playful at the same time.

Find a place where you can observe or be present with others for 15-20 minutes. This could be a public park or library, a church before services, or some other place where you feel safe and comfortable. Slowly and gracefully look around you in every direction, including behind you, noticing and confirming that all is well in your environment.

Now close your eyes or lower your gaze so that you can shift your focus to your inner experience. Bring your attention to your heart. If possible, actually feel your heart beating, as it has, tirelessly, since before you were born. Smile or breathe deeply in acknowledgment and appreciation of this gift. Let yourself feel that sense of gratitude for a few minutes.

Now, without looking up, focus your light of awareness to “see” the beating hearts of those in this place. Feel, as deeply as possible, your connection to each one.

Finally, slowly lift your face and look around you, allowing yourself to experience whatever you are experiencing.

Did bringing your attention to your own heart and considering your connection with other hearts allow you to glimpse infinite and seemingly invisible things? You might consider saying a silent prayer of thanks, writing your impressions in a journal, or creating some art as a way to reflect on this experience.

References:
[1] Langston Hughes, “Helen Keller,” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad, assoc. ed David Roessel (Alfred A. Knopf: 1994), 146. Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates. Copyright 1994 by the Langston Hughes Estate.

[2] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, trans. Richard Howard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2000, ©1943), 63.

[3] Thomas Merton, The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, ed. Patrick Hart (HarperCollins: 1998), 323.

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

[5] William H. Shannon, Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey: Writings on Contemplation (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2000), 136.

[6] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 7-8.

For Further Study:
Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, illus. by David G. Klein (Paraclete Press: 2016)

Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (Image: 2015)

Diana L. Hayes, No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books: 2016)

Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos (October 11, 2019), https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ordinarymystic/2019/10/beyond-light-supremacy-let-there-be-light-and-darkness/

Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2001)

Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009)

Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Meditations for Advent (Franciscan Media: 2008)

Image credit: Helen Keller, no. 8 (detail), 1904, Whitman Studio, The Helen Keller Foundation; colorist, Jared Enos.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. . . . The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” —Richard Rohr
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Darkness

Waiting in Darkness
Friday, December 6, 2019

The darkness of this world will never totally go away. I’ve lived long enough and offered spiritual direction enough to know that darkness isn’t going to disappear, but that, as John’s Gospel says, “the light shines on inside of the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it” (1:5). This is our own belief in paradox and mystery, the Christian form of yin/yang.

We must all hope and work to eliminate suffering, especially in many of the great social issues of our time. We work to eliminate world hunger. We strive to stop wasting the earth’s resources. We peacefully fight to end violence. We don’t ignore or capitulate to suffering, yet we must allow it to transform us and the world. Suffering often shapes and teaches us and precedes most significant resurrections.

The power of suffering is surely our creative and courageous relationship to it. Most of us have not been given the “winnowing fan” of discernment that John the Baptist ascribes to Jesus (see Matthew 3:12). For the most part, hard and fast laws are not a winnowing fan. Laws rush us to judgment instead of the slow sifting of prayer, context, and motivation. The most common way to release our inner tension is to cease calling evil what it is and to pretend it is actually not that bad. Another way to release our inner tension is to stand angrily, obsessively against evil—but then we become a cynic and unbeliever ourselves. Everyone can usually see this but us!

Christian wisdom names the darkness as darkness and the Light as light and helps us learn how to live and work in the Light so that the darkness does not overcome us. If we have a pie-in-the-sky, everything is beautiful attitude, we are going to be trapped by the darkness because we don’t see clearly enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Conversely, if we can only see the darkness and forget the more foundational Light, we will be destroyed by our own negativity and fanaticism, or we will naively think we are completely apart and above the darkness. Instead, we must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness, even our own—while never doubting the light that God always is, and that we are too (Matthew 5:14). That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world—through the darkness and into an ever-greater Light. It seems we must all let go of our false innocence to find that “God alone is good” (Mark 10:18).

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Meditations for Advent (Franciscan Media: 2008), 22-24.

Image credit: Helen Keller, no. 8 (detail), 1904, Whitman Studio, The Helen Keller Foundation; colorist, Jared Enos.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. . . . The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” —Richard Rohr
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Darkness

Trouble Don’t Last Always
Thursday, December 5, 2019

Today I share the writing of a modern mystic, Dr. Diana L. Hayes. She is an author and professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University. I appreciate how her writing integrates her intellectual knowledge with her deeply embodied life experience. Hayes’ words are a testament to the deeper “knowing” that comes about through bleak times of suffering:

Reality for blacks in the United States has always been one of seeming paradox. “Trouble” always seems to be in our way, regardless of the form it takes, from forced migration, slavery, second-class citizenship, to the constant enervating struggle with proponents of racism and the lack of opportunity for education, decent health care, and a life of dignity and happiness. Yet, through it all . . . we have been a people with our eyes “fixed” on God, a people for whom “trouble don’t last always.” . . .

My own life has enabled me to follow . . . the struggles of my people and to experience the pain of being “different” in too many ways to make life in this world, with its stress on conformity, an unvarnished blessing. . . .

My growing up years were ones split between bursts of athletic energy . . . and times of reflective quiet spent in bed reading while I recuperated from one illness or another.

Paradoxically, it was those quiet times which always gave me the strength to go back out into the world again. God has always seemed to come to me in days of pain-filled darkness and disillusionment, to hold my hand, to counsel me, to prepare me to go forth renewed in spirit and body. . . .

I wrestled with God on my bed of pain as I do still today . . . I argue and shout and listen and pray and question and doubt and finally acquiesce, only to move further down the path to another fork in the road where the struggle begins yet anew. . . .

I believe I have learned, because of my own struggles, how to see, hear, and feel the struggles of others, voiced and unvoiced. This has led me to explore theology . . . a new and challenging way—from the bottom up. I know what it is like to be poor, to be discriminated against because of my poverty, my race, my gender, and my disabilities. These many years of struggle and pain [physical, mental, and spiritual] . . . have forged me in the fiery furnace of God’s love. . . .

My life, a seeming paradox of contradictions and odd twists and turns, has truly been one where troubles of many different forms have always been in my way. Yet I know now, deep within me, that “trouble don’t always last.” God is not through with me yet.

I am touched by the way that Diana Hayes shares the struggles that have brought her into deeper solidarity with all who suffer and have shaped her reading of Scripture “from the bottom up.” Surely that is the point of any descent into darkness—to share the new kind of light we have discovered within it. 

Reference:
Diana L. Hayes, No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books: 2016), 38, 39, 42, 43, 44.

Image credit: Helen Keller, no. 8 (detail), 1904, Whitman Studio, The Helen Keller Foundation; colorist, Jared Enos.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. . . . The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” —Richard Rohr
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Darkness

Life Goes On
Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Sister Joan Chittister continues to reflect on what it means to suffer through times of doubt or unknowing when it comes to our faith:

The sense of being stranded in the midst of life . . . is enough to drain a person’s very personality until there is little left to recognize. Where did the joy go all of a sudden? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away.

There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.

There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. . . . Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment, spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. And it is that light that shines in darkness.

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition. Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

The light we gain in darkness is the awareness that, however bleak the place of darkness was for us, we did not die there. We know now that life begins again on the other side of the darkness. Another life. A new life. After the death, the loss, the rejection, the failure, life does go on. Differently, but on. Having been sunk into the cold night of . . . despair—and having survived it—we rise to new light, calm and clear and confident that what will be, will be enough for us.

And I, Richard, believe that even when we or someone we love does die, life has not ended; it is merely transformed. It takes great humility to admit we have suffered through this kind of darkness, because it often sounds like a loss of faith to those who have not endured it. But when everything we thought we knew has turned to “nada,” in the language of John of the Cross, we actually become more loving and compassionate human beings, for we no longer rely on our own light but upon the Light of the world living within us.

Reference:
Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (Image: 2015), 19-20.

Image credit: Helen Keller, no. 8 (detail), 1904, Whitman Studio, The Helen Keller Foundation; colorist, Jared Enos.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. . . . The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” —Richard Rohr
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Darkness

Lightlessness
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).

Reference:
Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (Image: 2015), 17-19.

Image credit: Helen Keller, no. 8 (detail), 1904, Whitman Studio, The Helen Keller Foundation; colorist, Jared Enos.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. . . . The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” —Richard Rohr
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Darkness

Gaining New Traction
Monday, December 2, 2019

Experiences of darkness are good and necessary teachers. They are not to be avoided, denied, run from, or explained away. Even if we don’t experience clinical or diagnosed depression, most of us will go through a period of darkness, doubt, and malaise at some point in our lives. I hope during these times we can reach out to someone—a therapist, spiritual director, friend—to support us. And when we feel strong may we be the shoulder someone else can lean on.

There’s a darkness that we are led into by our own sin (the illusion of separation), and selfishness (living out of the false or separate self), and stupidity. We have to work our way out of this kind of darkness by brutal honesty, confession, surrender, forgiveness, apology, and restitution. It may feel simultaneously like dying and being liberated.

But there’s another darkness that we’re led into by God, grace, and the nature of life itself. In many ways, the loss of meaning, motivation, purpose, and direction might feel even greater here. Some call it “the dark night of the soul.” Yet even while we feel alone and that God has abandoned us, we can also sense that we have been led here intentionally. We know we are in “liminal space,” betwixt and between, on the threshold—and we have to stay here until we have learned something essential. It is still no fun and filled with doubt and “demons” of every sort. But it is the darkness of being held closely by God without our awareness. This is where transformation happens.

Of course, the darkness that we get ourselves into by our own “sinful” choices can also become the darkness of God. Regardless of the cause, the dark night is an opportunity to look for and find God—in new forms and ways. Neither God nor goodness exist only in the light but permeate all places, seen and unseen. It seems we have to “unknow” a bit every time we want to know in a new way. It is like putting your car in reverse in the mud and snow so that you can gain a new track and better traction.

United Church of Christ pastor and Living School “sendee” Mark Longhurst describes how both light and dark are essential for transformation.

In spirituality . . .  we elevate the light over the darkness and praise the light and expel the darkness. Light conquers the darkness, the darkness will not overcome the light, John’s Gospel says [1:5]. . . . The more Genesis works its wisdom on me, though, the more light and darkness seem bound up together. . . . God separates light from darkness, but they both need each other, and they both bear the breath of God. This, too, I think, is the truth of our lives. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Spiritual transformation does not happen only on the light level. We have to do the inner work of facing the shadow, or repressed realities, of who we are, both the beautiful and the bad. Some of our most painful experiences in life—whether death, divorce, or disease—often turn out to create a capacity in us for greater love. What we think is light shows up in what we think is darkness—and vice versa. [1]

Periods of seemingly fruitless darkness may in fact highlight all the ways we rob ourselves of wisdom by clinging to the light. Who grows by only looking on the bright side of things? It is only when we lose our certainties that will we be able to deconstruct our false images of God to discover the Absolute Reality beneath all our egoic fantasies and fears.

References:
[1] Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos (October 11, 2019), https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ordinarymystic/2019/10/beyond-light-supremacy-let-there-be-light-and-darkness/.

Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2001), 165-166.

Image credit: Helen Keller, no. 8 (detail), 1904, Whitman Studio, The Helen Keller Foundation; colorist, Jared Enos.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. . . . The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” —Richard Rohr
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Darkness

Waiting and Unknowing
Sunday, December 1, 2019
First Sunday of Advent

Advent [meaning “coming”], to the Church Fathers, was the right naming of the season when light and life are fading. They urged the faithful to set aside four weeks to fast, give, and pray—all ways to strip down, to let the bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark, to know what Jesus called “the one thing necessary”: that there is One who is the source of all life, One who comes to be with us and in us, even, especially, in darkness and death. One who brings a new beginning. —Gayle Boss [1]

I hope it isn’t difficult to understand why I’m beginning the Advent season reflecting on darkness. [2] I’m not trying to be a spoilsport, but once Thanksgiving is over, we in the United States are rushed headlong into the Christmas season. Yet Advent was once (and still can be) a time of waiting, a time of hoping without knowing, a time of emptying so that we can be filled by the divine Presence. Though you may be wrapping gifts, planning special meals, and spending time with family and friends, I hope you will also take time to allow the Advent darkness to do its work as well.

Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. Those who demand certitude out of life will insist on it even if it doesn’t fit the facts. Logic and truth have nothing to do with it. If you require certitude, you will surround yourself with your own conclusions and dismiss or ignore any evidence to the contrary.

The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” We can’t be certain of what’s in front of us, but with some time and patience, our eyes adjust, and we can make the next right move.

The Gospel doesn’t promise us complete clarity. If God wanted us to have irrefutable proof, the incarnation of Jesus would have been delayed until technology and science could confirm it.

Scriptures do not offer rational certitude. They offer us something much better, an entirely different way of knowing: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we must discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary for survival in an uncertain world. You only need enough clarity to know how to live without certitude! Yes, we really are saved by faith. People who live in this way never stop growing, are not easily defeated, are wise and compassionate, and frankly, are fun to live with. They have a quiet and confident joy. Infantile religion insists on certainty every step of the way and thus is not very happy.

References:

[1] Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, illus. by David G. Klein (Paraclete Press: 2016), xi-xii.

[2] For those readers unfamiliar with the Christian liturgical calendar, Advent is the period of four Sundays before Christmas. It is intended to be a time of preparation, through prayer and reflection, on the coming of Christ at the Nativity (Christmas), in worship and community today, and at the end times.

Adapted from Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (Whitaker House: 2016), 100-101; and

Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009), 120.

Image credit: Helen Keller, no. 8 (detail), 1904, Whitman Studio, The Helen Keller Foundation; colorist, Jared Enos.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. . . . The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” —Richard Rohr
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