The Sufi mystic poet, Jalal-ad-Din Rumi once wrote “What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.”
In October, I went on a retreat to St Michael’s, a Franciscan retreat centre near Regina. I was delayed four hours by fog from getting out of Abbotsford in the first place, so I missed my plane connection in Calgary, and thus got to Regina hours late, and by the time I set out for the retreat house, it was dark and rainy. Normally it’s a trip that should take about 40 minutes. That night, driving out there proved to be a bit of a challenge.
The rain got worse and worse, and the darkness did too, and I marveled at how few signs the good people of Saskatchewan feel are necessary for people to find their way along a secondary highway. (In Saskatchewan, in the daylight, you can see things from 40 miles away, so maybe they just assume that the good people of Saskatchewan do their driving in the daytime, and aren’t out there poking around in the dark – that only trouble-makers are out at night anyway, so why make it easier for them.)
The drive out there was something of a prelude to the kind of retreat I was about to have. During my retreat, there were virtually no other retreatants in the place, and St Michael’s now has a very small (and elderly) staff, so they tended to shut the place down pretty early. This time of year, the days are so short that darkness asserts itself in the late afternoon. When the lights went out, it meant pretty much solid darkness in the place.
So darkness became the unexpected theme for my retreat. And I found myself embracing that darkness, which is so often something we fear and avoid.
Driving to the retreat house there were virtually no signs – all I had was an inkling of where it was supposed to be. It was hard to just settle down and trust that somehow I would find my way there, and not end up heading off on some side road into the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. I decided I would embrace an attitude of simple trust.
In a similar way, when you close your eyes to meditate or pray, there are no highway signs guiding you along that inward path– you just have to persist in looking into the darkness and trust that at some deep level, you do know the way, even though you have only an inkling of where you’re headed. “We do not know the way,” as the disciple Thomas said. “Yes you do,” Jesus replied. “You already know the way” (obviously, I’m paraphrasing here).
Similarly, when you encounter cancer or the loss of a spouse, you suddenly find yourself in a dark and unfamiliar place in which the way forward is not very clear. It’s hard to find your way – it’s hard to trust that you do have within you an inner wisdom that will help you find your way. When people lose their jobs or enter retirement, they often experience a time of darkness, disorientation and even depression that can make it seem like there will never be light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a scary place to be, and yet we all get there – we all go through it one way or another. Many people lose their faith when they encounter these times, and yet the greatest of saints have encountered the same struggle, which came to be known as The Dark Night of the Soul. St Teresa of Avila, a spiritual giant, said “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.”
Eckhart Tolle, a modern spiritual teacher, said: “[the Dark Night] can happen if something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before. Really what has collapsed then is the whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it. So that results in a dark place.”
It is hard understand and embrace what the Sufi mystic poet Rumi wrote: “What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.” I decided to experience the darkness as a kind of spiritual metaphor, as a spiritual practice, and to let the darkness speak to me, as it were. So, each night, after they turned off the lights, somewhat ghostlike, I walked about in the darkness for a while — a slow and cautious walkabout in a dark and quiet and almost empty space.
Thomas Merton started a famous prayer by saying, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
We typically want certainties from our faith – the sure thing. It goes with being part of an institution that for 1500 years owned the spiritual landscape (or marketplace). The Church has typically dealt in certainties, guarantees, absolute truths. But that demand for certainty denies the very concept of faith which is the heart of Christianity, which is why we call our religion the Christian Faith. So now we’re struggling in a world which has questioned and rejected much of what we once proclaimed as certain, and it’s like we’re groping about in the darkness, still trusting that somewhere, God is to be found. The realm of faith is like that, a realm of unknowing rather than certainty, and we have to embrace that darkness in order to re-discover God’s presence with us.
Moving forward in the dark can be hazardous to your health, especially when the place has brick walls and oddly placed houseplants in huge pottery containers. One new discovery I made was that spirituality can be hard on your shins! Being in the dark required slowing down, being more alert and sensitive, trying to get my bearings, and learning to walk a familiar path in a different way. Regardless of how safe you know the place to be, the darkness is always somewhat intimidating, and it felt good to face into that challenge. I believe there’s a message for the Anglican Church in there somewhere.
Darkness is a metaphor for mystery, for not knowing where we are, and groping about in the darkness is not a bad place to be. Over and over again, the scriptures attest to the fact that we have a God who does some of his (her?) best work in the dark. Joseph is portrayed by Matthew as receiving a divine visitation in the middle of the night, urging him not to run away but to walk in faith into this unknown territory, this murky moral place which challenges his sense of right and wrong, and to trust in this insight even though it didn’t make sense to his rational mind.
In the Christian vision of things, Joseph becomes a sign to us of God’s faithfulness and willingness to uphold the covenant and priority of love, even when we appear to be morally suspect, even when we have broken the covenant; he serves as an example of the way people can learn to trust their deeper insights and act in faith; in a similar sense, St Paul becomes an example of a great intellect who is willing to place a childlike and absolute trust in Christ. And Jesus becomes the primary sign of God’s ability to bring new life into a fearful world overwhelmed by the shadow of death.
Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah says “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son.” The actual word in the original Hebrew text does not suggest a “virgin” but a young woman or maiden – ancient translators got the word wrong. In any case, the whole story, playing out over centuries, is shrouded in mystery. Then the Christ Child is portrayed as being born at night. And then, according to Matthew, the holy family flees to safety in an unfamiliar land, using darkness as a cloak to protect them.
What is it all saying? We continue to speculate. But the concept of God working in darkness is well known to the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition. The prophet Isaiah, from whom we draw so much of the imagery we associate with Advent and Christmas, is rich in images about darkness. At one point, Isaiah says (on behalf of God): “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” 45:3. And: (Ch 42: 16) “I will lead those who cannot see by a road they do not know; by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.” These are wonderful passages to meditate upon, and spend time with, to allow them to speak into our own personal shadows and darkness.
In faith, these sayings are no longer merely encouraging words spoken to an ancient people in circumstances we might have trouble identifying with, but they become a means of spiritual formation and direction, enlightening the spiritual path to people in all times and circumstances.
Christians have often shunned darkness and labeled it as evil, creating a rather harsh and dualistic approach, but, again, according to scripture, God is apparently quite comfortable operating in darkness, sending the message that all things may serve God’s purposes and reveal God, if we are open and courageous enough to receive it. The poet Mary Oliver once said: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
In fact, I thought, as part of my retreat reflections, of the metaphor of the photographer’s dark room, the place where the full picture is developed – a process that requires time in the dark. Perhaps we develop in some way when we explore the darkness, the hidden, the unknown, probing past the areas where the light reaches, into the hidden world where things aren’t so clear.
Every year at this time we are reminded of Charles Dickens’ great story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who was obliged to peer into the darkness of his own soul, the depths of his own unconscious, as he was visited in the middle of the night, by spirits of past, present and future. After facing into the Dark Night, rather than running away, Scrooge is transformed, and faces the new day – Christmas Day – as a new man, a man renewed by his valuable time exploring and accepting the dark places he for so long did not want to visit.
Dickens’ story is a brilliant spiritual parable, as well as being psychologically insightful, long before people like Freud and Jung came along. Dickens takes us through the Dark Night of the Soul, detailing Scrooge’s descent into the realm of the unconscious, reconnecting with parts of himself he had lost, making him aware of what was going on around him in the present moment, and warning him about the consequences of his actions in life.
The Dark Night of the Soul is a place – a time – in which the usual comforts and certainties are absent, when we seem to be left naked, exposed, in the dark, uncertain, and stranded. It’s an experience described by some as a time when God walks off the stage.
One Christian described the journey this way: “I feel like the ground under me has been ripped away. My joy is gone. I feel out of control. My spiritual feelings are dull. I’ve lost interest in and affection for God. When I try to speak to [God], it feels like I’m talking to myself or to the ceiling. Prayer once came easy; I talked to the Lord all the time. Now it’s forced. It feels like there’s a big wall between me and God. My love for the Lord has been replaced by a blank. I never knew what God’s presence felt like until it was removed from me. I cry a lot now. I want [God] to return to me again.”
As the Psalmist writes: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” We want the light to return. We hate the feeling of God’s absence and the meaninglessness and emptiness that go with it.
Yet the Dark Night is a time that comes to us as part of our growth, because, like Scrooge, we all too easily become stalled and closed and our soul becomes inaccessible. So being thrown into the darkness is a way of losing our bearings so that we can find our way back to our true path and recover our potential.
The Dark Night is a time of purifying, of being thrown back upon ourselves and not being able to rely on external authorities or other people. It’s a time of intense aloneness, which is part of what a retreat is meant to teach you, and yet it is a time when you can most truly become yourself.
People rarely read scripture in terms of spiritual direction and spiritual journey – that it is a book – a collection of books – that is meant to guide us into relationship with God. Isaiah 50:10 says: “Who among you … walks in darkness and has no light, yet continues to trust in the name of the Lord, and persists in relying upon God?” One man named Robert wrote into a blog, describing his journey: “I am no longer in the dark night, but I am now more convinced than ever that it is in the darkness that we truly meet God.”
At Christmas, we again hear yet another verse from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”
Joseph met God in the darkness, at a time of great distress and confusion in his life, through a dream in the middle of the night, and it took him to a whole new place. Even in our darkest and most confusing circumstances, God comes to us, and is with us. I pray that this holy season of Advent has been allowed to do its work – the spiritual work of leading us in faith through the holy darkness of mystery and into the radiant light of Christ.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings –oh, happy chance!
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised — oh, happy chance!
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me –
A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
n St John of the Cross
Isaiah 7:10-16 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Romans 1:1-7 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.