31 March 2015

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Darkness :: Week 4 

Lent is over, the 40-day fast in the Christian liturgical calendar leading up to Easter. Lent is a season of purification, making us supple and receptive to Grace.

Holy Week is now upon us, which commenced on Palm Sunday and brings particular attention to Jesus’ suffering death and resurrection—“The Paschal Mystery.”

The Paschal Mystery is particular helpful for navigating spiritual darkness in our lives. As we reflect on and meditate on Jesus’ human experience of extreme darkness, we find a pattern by which to steer through our own dark experiences.

Like Jesus, we too can open to our pain and suffering, and let parts of us die, so that new life can be resurrected in us. This is the mystery of Christ that we are all invited into—an invitation to transformation. Contemplative spirituality is especially attuned to this invitation.

The contemplative path is sometimes referred to as a dark path. An anonymous 14th century spiritual director breaks open the concept in his old revered book called The Cloud of Unknowing. As we deepen our connection to God, it’s like entering a cloud of unknowing.

St. John of the Cross, too, gives seekers an understanding for the dark nigh of sense and the dark night of soul that is often experienced in the spiritual journey.

Spiritual darkness isn’t the same as psychological depression, though one can accompany the other. Spiritual darkness is the experience of having no felt sense of God’s presence. It can have a psychological effect on the continuum of mild uneasiness to intense fear. The point of this season of the journey is to instruct the soul that our relationship with God is not based in our senses and our feelings. If so, it would end at the time of death.

Darkness along the spiritual path is training us for union with God beyond our limited faculties of reason, imagination, feeling and will. Darkness is preparing us for the unitive state that transcends time and space and carries us through to eternal life.

So I’ve come to understand that as my relationship with God deepens, God sometimes hides as a way of wooing me to follow the Divine deeper and further. God’s hiding can leave me feeling as if God is absent, causing a sense of darkness.

But God’s hiding and the subsequent felt darkness is an essential part of the spiritual journey. The experience strips us of crutches we’ve grown dependent on in relationship with God, beckoning us out of our comfort zone and away from dependencies that can so easily become idols.

Any created thing that helps lead us to God is good until we begin to seek the created thing instead of the Creator. Anything, and I mean anything can quickly turn from doorway to God to a hindrance to God.

Darkness is an important aspect of the spiritual journey because it helps us let go of dependencies that take the place of God.

Darkness is a crucial part of the spiritual journey because it teaches us to walk by faith, not by sight.

In my own life, the darkness doesn’t feel as scary as it first did. By God’s grace, I’m learning how to walk in the dark.

As we deepen our contemplative relationship with God, we come to know God not simply as the Transcendent Other (of which of course God is), but we come to know God’s immanent essence, that God is with us and within us and furthermore that God is the Ground of our being.

Another way of putting it is that we are in God and God is in us and we cannot exist apart from God. Through periods of darkness, the separate self merges with the Divine. We become more aware and conscious of the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

I like how the anonymous poet penned it:

God is my center

when I hem Him in

my circumference

when I melt in him.

Dark seasons help us realize this oneness.

An image of this evolving awareness of God and self has visited me on a number of occasions. Recently during a spiritual direction session, my client began to describe her love affair with water—any body of water. She spoke about how she loves to swim in the middle of the ocean. Unafraid, abandoned and free, she can enjoy the immensity and comfort of the water. Being a seasoned, competitive swimmer, she described the effect of training for a race and the process of recovery in the heated whirlpool.

As she described her water experiences, the imagery of being in a womb surfaced to consciousness—held, safe, connected.

Circumstances of life aren’t guaranteed. All manner of things can happen. At times the stuff of life can push us around and may even cause us injury, but all the while we are held in the womb of God.

God is the source of our life.

God carries us in God’s womb.

The womb is dark, but we are safe. Because unlike natural gestation and birth, the umbilical chord to God is never cut.


*photo credit: Lanecia Rouse