October 22, 2017

Doxology in Darkness

sunset over bay“… to give thanks in a state of interior desolation, to trust in the love of God in the face of marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life is to whisper a doxology in darkness.”

—Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust

Recently, I made an unexpected business trip with my husband. It was an unusual request for a design and estimate from a client with a top-drawer vacation home in one of the prettiest places on Earth. It wasn’t a trip we would ever have thought to take, nor could we have afforded it. But accommodations in the client’s home were provided, so we went, hoping for a good job for our small business. The trip would be fairly short and there would be significant time working, but the house, the scenery and the climate promised to be spectacular.

We arrived via land, sea and air after a long day … hot, tired and having eaten only airline peanuts. I’m not an adventurous traveler anyway and especially not a last-minute adventurous traveler. My husband had to cajole and plead to get me to a begrudging agreement to leave home, family and important projects at the office to be travel companion and an extra set of hands and eyes on the work he needed to do. I was empty and queasy from a HAIRRAISING mountainous cab ride sans seatbelts with a driver who told us he believed he was related to a well-known NASCAR driver because they shared the same name and both enjoyed driving fast. Lord, could this possibly be worth it?

Yes, it was. As I said, the digs were primo and a new experience for me in open- air living. For one who is used to being hermetically sealed in house, office and car to conserve heating and cooling, this was a new concept. I liked the constant breezes and having no impediments to the outdoors. But what I really liked … no, loved … were the views. I hadn’t known that part of the inexplicable hunger I felt chronically in my soul was for the visual feast I was now seeing through every open door and every open window to blue sky and turquoise water and white sand below.  The day was waning, but a type of beauty I had never experienced first-hand before eased something inside me.

Night came and pangs of emptiness returned. I sat up late surrounded on all sides by open doors straining to see something. I felt conscious of being vulnerable and visible seated by the one lamp that burned, though the property was gated and walled and neighbors remote. I, being in the light, could not see into the darkness. An occasional sea vessel passed far beyond the terrace, the hillside, the beach and the bay. I watched the lights creep by in the southern sea until they disappeared. My eyes might have been deprived, but my ears were now filled with a chorus of raucous frogs and a coming storm. When it blew in, I reluctantly shuttered the house and went to bed.

And then came morning. I flung open the doors hungry for the turquoise bay and the arms of jutting land that held it like a beautiful bowl in front of me. There it was looking differently beautiful or beautifully different than it did as the sun had set. And so it was throughout the day. The ever-changing light from dusk to dark to dawn to the brightness of midday made it a pity to look away. Earth’s rotation met the sun diversely from hour-to-hour and the scudding clouds cast shadows on the water one minute and rays of light left diamonds dancing on it the next. Each moment was worthy of a look. Working in that place was simultaneously joyful and painful, for we did have to ignore the magnificent seascape for periods and stare at papers, and measurements and calculations.

During those few days, I came to realize that my moment-to-moment fascination with the view was partly due to darkness and light mixing in seemingly infinite combinations. My tendency, and perhaps the tendency of most, is to eschew the dark and cling to the light, whether in nature, in intellect or in spirit. I am fearful and dark things scare me. It’s why I always stay up too late, fight like mad to make sense of mysterious people, circumstances and ideas … and feel desperate to come to the end of a years-long dark night of the soul. Yet, much as I often don’t like the darkness, I am finding there is much benefit to be had from it.

Darkness is to light what rests are in music, adding dimension and punctuation and interest and necessary rhythm. Earlier this year, I visited a Benedictine monastery and since then have been reading and re-reading “The Rule of St. Benedict” in order to get a grasp of the ebb and flow of monastic life. “The Rule” is a small book filled with simple and profound exhortations as well as some minutiae that doesn’t seem overly spiritual. For example, Benedict writes that during the winter season, monks should sleep a little longer (if I am interpreting correctly) and move their Vigils back. At the monastery, life seems to move mostly according to the light given, though there is that inexplicable … sorry … prayer in the dead of night. Nevertheless, monks especially (and monks especially before the advent of electricity) follow the cadence of the day and adjust their activities according to light and dark. When it is light, they work and pray. When it is dark, they rest and pray. (Again sorry, but now visions of P.D. Eastman’s book, “Go, Dog, Go!” come to mind. Twenty dogs are lined up asleep at night in an extra large bed while a crescent moon peeps in the window. The brightness of morning has them springing up and racing off to do what dogs do for the day.) But I digress. Benedict’s way is to pray without ceasing whether it is light or dark and to perform all other activities in accordance with much light or minimal light. In winter, there is more darkness and more rest.

Darkness naturally requires a slowing or stopping. If we walk into a dark room, we slow down and feel our way along. If we are on a wilderness hike and it grows dark, we stop and make camp. It is unwise to forge a head in darkness. If we insist, we may get lost or hurt or just miss a good night’s sleep. Darkness is as much God’s plan as light, though what feels wasteful to us is necessary in God’s economy. Our bodies heal and recover and repair while we sleep. And during our darkest times emotionally and spiritually, when we feel as if we are in desert wastelands or hell, God is at work flaying our flesh.

In his book When the Well Runs Dry, Father Thomas Green says, “Sooner or later we have to be made divine if we are going to love as we are loved … becoming like him means, as the gospels make abundantly clear, dying to all in ourselves which is selfishness and sin.” He further states that dark nights are purgatory for some, begun on earth and assented to, however painful and however unwittingly, in prayer. I am not Catholic and not completely sure what I think about purgatory, but Green makes a compelling case and is echoed, strangely by Scottish Congregationalist, George MacDonald (1824-1905) in his Unspoken Sermons. MacDonald also wrote of a type of earthly purgatory and believed that God uses the devastations of it to burn away all that is not of Christ, not out of loathing … but of love. He will move heaven and earth to save us and to change we humans into the likeness of his son. Painful things and darkness are evidence of the loving lengths to which he will go to have us wholly his.

Perhaps we are not always happy about it, but Scripture tells us that God has made the darkness. “I form the light and create the darkness. I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) On the surface, this just seems like a “Because I said so” statement.

“Dad, why is darkness good?”

“Because I said so.”

“Oh.”

Yet, promises do come with God’s creation of darkness. It isn’t dark without a purpose. “I will give them treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord …” (Isaiah 45:3) I have no knowledge of the ins and outs of Old Testament Hebrew. I have only studied Greek a bit, but the word “of” stands out to me. It makes me think of the Greek genitive case that shows possession or origination – darkness’s treasures or treasures born out of darkness. It’s interesting because we tend to think of darkness as void and empty. But Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit says that darkness possesses or gives birth to treasures, that they are riches stored in hidden places and that God himself gives them to us so that we may know he is God.

Yes, there is plenty of expression in Scripture about the goodness of light and I don’t dispute it, but Isaiah has chosen imagery to indicate that God not only uses darkness as the birthplace of lavishness for his children, but also as a cloak for his private and intimate bestowal of it on them. Darkness is a place where he reveals himself to be the Lord.

I don’t know why he does this.

I have always thought that God dwells in light. In fact, it says so in 1 Timothy 6:15, 16. “…God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.” And again in Psalm 104:2 “He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent.”

Yes, well what about Exodus 20:21? “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” Or Psalm 97:2? “Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”

Are these passages examples of glaring inconsistencies that cause the spirit of cynicism to rise up in us and pounce? Perhaps. Much as we would like explanations, we don’t always get them, especially with God. He seems to delight in a good mystery … and he chooses to manifest himself in both light and in darkness and all the ways between. When we come down to it, it is a joyful thing to have a God of bothness and of extravagant possibility … instead of god in a tidy little box. David put it well in Psalm 139:12. “Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” God does as he pleases. He is God as it pleases him to be.

My beautiful bay disappeared from view every night with the sun, but darkness was only a temporary cloak. Morning was its fresh unveiling. This mingling of light and darkness throughout the day was constant cause for astonishment. How much more the One who blinds with the burning brightness of his light at moments and then hides himself at others while we twist and turn, painfully devastated by his seeming disappearance? Loving such a God is at once exquisitely painful and painfully exquisite. Yet, in this we are drawn up into the center of his every possibility … true cause for thanksgiving, however painful and inexplicable, at times, the journey there may be.

Comments

  1. Exquisite. Thank you, Lisa. I write these words in darkness of many kinds.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      +1

      I’d only add that you missed an extension of the metaphor – darkness of night is only visual darkness. There are other ways to ‘see’ in the night. You were more keenly aware of the wind and it seemed like the night erupted with sound. But was the day actually quieter? The air less telling? Or did the human perception bias for sight ‘blind’ you do these other senses.

      If you ever have the opportunity to be in a forest with night vision goggles – there are myriad creatures in the darkness, all of which seem to ‘see’ and be able to move quickly and nimbly – without the light we require [or demand]. For them the darkness is comfort and shelter from those that ceaselessly search with their eyes.

      The image of God as dwelling in light can also be taken other ways – as the wheels of fire and the seraph about his throne perpetually engulfed in flame [the seraph are “the burning ones”]. To me this is always an image accompanied by the deafening roar of a mighty furnace [flame is not only light, but the sound of consumption]. Such thoughts, and reflections on my impotence, can make me envy the little field vole and his ability to scurry into the safe darkness offered by the slightest gap. ‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’… the wise man shudders at the thought that he is seen, clearly, exposed.

      “He is God as it pleases him to be.” And I am only what I am, much of which is not pleasing, even to me. Please Lord, shroud yourself with shadows.

      • Part of orientateering/mobility training for people who are partially visually impaired is done wearing blackened and then half blackened glasses. Our brains are so wired to prioritize visual information that even when your vision is very poor or you know it reports false information, it is very hard to get your brain to pay active attention to your senses that work much better.

      • Adam, this is so true. I agree. In fact, Father Green (whose book I referred to in the post) wrote on this idea, though I don’t have it in front of me. He said something to the effect that darkness and light, both in terms of sense and spiritual sense are manifestations of our perception. The times that it may appear dark or that God has left the room may in fact be the times he is closest and that we either blinded by his brightness or have yet to develop the senses to perceive him.

    • Mike, thank you. You will be in my prayers.

  2. What a beautifully rendered piece of writing; what deep thoughts.

    And it lead me to the thought that for many, the darkness is never to have the visceral experience of darkness you had on your trip, but always to live in the half-light of a world far away from such palpable night; this, too, in its paradoxical way, may be a gift of darkness from God.

    The paradoxes of God are beyond light, and darkness.

  3. Thanks!! I have a “tough” day ahead, but this really helps put it into perspective.
    “…God is at work flaying our flesh.” I certainly need more of God’s flaying – especially in recognizing what’s really “tough.”
    Beautiful post.

  4. Absolutely beautiful.

    There’s an Arab proverb that says something along the lines of “If all of life was sunshine, the world would be a desert.” Henri Nouwen wrote wonderfully about how joy and sorrow are inexplicably tied to one another..without the pain of crucifixion and the sorrow of death, there would have been no joy of resurrection. If we don’t understand loss, we will never comprehend victory. The same logic applies to the type of darkness you write about, I believe…If we can’t grasp the absence of God, then we would never fully appreciate His presence.

    Masterful writing. Thanks for starting my day with this.

  5. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

    Regarding the Rule, prayer, and the winter months, I recently read about a phenomenon that was apparently pretty common before electricity: two sleeps. Apparently, especially in winter, it was pretty common for folks to sleep for about 4-5 hours, wake up for a couple or few hours, and then sleep again for 3-4 hours until it was dawn. Folks would still get about eight hours of sleep, but they’d break it up into two sessions. Often times, the time between the sleeps was spent in prayer, reading, visiting with the other family members, or (of course) making new family members.

    Since reading that I’ve found myself wondering if some of the wee-hours prayer times found in the monastic disciplines were more natural due to the second sleep than they’d be today.

  6. Lisa, I am speechless …except to say “thank you”. There’s poetry here today.

  7. Well-written blog. What I got from it is how important it is to step outside your comfort zone because you never know what you might find. I think God wants us to be out of our comfort zone more than we’re in it because it forces us to be in Him. God bless.

  8. A poem about wrestling that loosely relates. Jacob wrestled with God through the darkness of night. A draw, of sorts, was called when the light shone.

    A Yes

    God wants a yes from the breath of the baby,
    He’ll give no quarter to no, or maybe.
    We fight that yes to the last, till the dying,
    Still He will hear it midst the anguished sighing.
    He rides hid on the breakers to crash down upon us,
    Breaking our stance in the shallows,
    Brutish perhaps but then we meld
    To that setting where the sun is all hallows.
    Shell-sloughed and broken, washed up and forgiving,
    We say it; Yes, yes, yes, yes.

  9. Thanks Lisa,

    Helmut Thielicke in a sermon or meditation (I forget which) points out that we cannot see the stars unless we look into the darkness and that some stars can only be seen when we’ve looked long into the darkness.