a priest's musings on the journey

Friday, June 22, 2007

Holy Darkness: the God of Silence

Our Gospel reading introduces us to a Gentile man who is described by Luke as a demoniac who lived as a wild man, naked and often chained, among the tombs outside of the city. In today’s world he might be diagnosed with schitzophrenia or manic-depressive paranoia; at any rate, his behaviors and perceptions of the world made him a danger to others and to himself. So, he lived a life of alienation and isolation. His only companions were the delusions he saw and the voices he heard in his head. He was so afraid of everyone was out to get him, that he begged Jesus to leave him alone and not to harm him as he approached the tombs where this man lived. His manner of life is not very much different from the way many of the homeless mentally ill live in our own society- faceless, nameless, invisible- sleeping in a cardboard box under some bridge, alone and alienated from society. We pass them by and don’t even notice they are there until we see them dart across our path and in fear, we turn our faces and hasten our steps so that we can get away from the dangers that we fear they will bring us. They live their lives day after day as unloved, excluded, and expendable members of a society that long ago decided they were worthless.

It’s easy for us to judge these people and to form the opinion that somehow they deserve the condition that they are in; that somehow their laziness or their ineptitude landed them on the streets, exactly where they belong until they decide to help themselves. Some in the church even go so far as to say they are reaping the fruit of their sins, and that they deserve the judgment that God has given them. Even those of us with a more sophisticated read of the Scriptures often forget that feelings of isolation, loneliness and despair can overtake even the most faithful and devoted follower of Jesus Christ.

Listen again to the cries of the Prophet Elijah from this morning’s Old Testament reading:

“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah had narrowly escaped Jezebel’s attempts to kill him; he had fled to the hills to hide, afraid for his life, depressed, dejected and in despair. He felt alone and abandoned; he felt like a failure and he had walked away from the mission to which God had called him. His heart was broken, his spirit was crushed, and he had lost all sense of purpose and meaning in his life.

Somewhere that First grade Sunday School image of the Christian journey being one filled with happiness and peace and smiles and laughs has so formed our understanding of how life- and in particular the Christian life is experienced, that we feel that loneliness and sorrow is a sign of some spiritual issue in our life. We forget that many of the saints, and even Jesus himself experienced periods of depression, alienation and despair.

Henri Nouwen describes his bout with depressions and despair in The Inner Voice of Love. "The anguish completely paralyzed me," he wrote, "I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments ... All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn't know existed, a place full of demons."

No matter what our understandings of why and how we experience depression and despair are, we all can relate to the feelings that Nouwen described and we in some ways can identify with the exclusion of the prophet and the demoniac. Sometimes despair is created by some traumatic event in our life: a divorce, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the onset of a debilitating disease. Sometimes it is the result of being mistreated and rejected because of our gender, age, race or sexual orientation. Sometimes there is no reason at all for the onset of depression; sometimes life is suddenly meaningless and the simplest tasks become Herculean endeavors. Our life becomes enshrouded with gloom and sadness, and we have no idea why.

St John of the Cross described this as the dark night of the soul- a time when we can not find any comfort in the Scriptures or art or music or even in our prayers. Like Elijah and the demoniac, we feel as if even God has abandoned us. When we do muster up enough strength to say a prayer or enough courage to rail against God for not rescuing us from our plight, we feel as if we are praying into the air; it seems that God is silent and unconcerned.

Yet, God is there; it’s just we can not perceive the Divine presence in the silence and darkness of the night of our soul. Elijah had the same problem; he looked for God in the lightning, and the earthquake and the wind… but he kept missing God, because God was in the silence- speaking to Elijah in a still, small voice. And when we become still enough to hear it, and blind enough to see, we will see the God in the darkness who comes to us, not as some magician ready to make all of our problems go away, but as a God who suffers with us, as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, bearing in his flesh the scars from the whips and the nail holes in his hands and feet. He will take us by the hand and walk with us through our shadowlands into such a bright dawn as we cannot yet even imagine." (Clark Oler)

Those are nice words, but when we are wallowing in the pits of despair, how do we find the God of darkness? How do we hear that still, small voice? Or as the Hebrew more aptly describes it in today’s reading, how do we hear the voice of God in sheer silence, in that heavy, deep, frightening silence that tempts us, as it did Elijah, to cover our faces from the God that is revealed to us on the holy ground of our sorrows.

The Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Anthony Bloom wrote about hearing God in the deep silence in his book, Beginning to Pray. He writes tells the story of a visit to an elderly parishioner at a nursing home shortly after his ordination to the priesthood. The woman asked his advice on prayer. She explained how she had been faithful to say her prayers, she had sought advice from other Christians and she had tried zealously to follow others advice on prayer; yet, she had never perceived God’s presence.

Bishop Bloom gave her this advice: “Go to your room after breakfast, put it right…and first of all take stock of the room. Just sit, look round, and try to see where you live….And then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.” The woman followed his unconventional advice and later told him, “You know, it works.” She went on to say that as she knitted a while she increasingly noticed the silence. She told Bloom she realized “this silence was not simply the absence of noise, but the silence had substance. It was not the absence of something, but the presence of something. The silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me.”

She discovered the God in her knitting, who had eluded her in years of fervent prayer. The thing that matters most is to realize that you are always in God’s presence. Always. No matter what life throws at you, you are always in God’s presence if you will open yourself up to that deeper reality.

Sometimes my holiest moments with God are long, silent walks in the woods, when I walk and walk and allow myself to let all of the pain and stress go into the silence surrounding me; or sometimes I’ll sit with my favorite icon of Our Lady of Tenderness, and just gaze, hoping that some of that compassion and love will find a way to shatter the barriers over my heart. Sometimes I can hear God speaking in a warm embrace or a caring touch on the shoulder, or thoughtful note. It is in those quiet, ordinary, mundane moments that God reveals the Divine Presence to us. But we have to open up ourselves to the possibility of finding God there; and we have to let go of the idea that God will come to “fix us” and hold on to the idea that instead, God is there to journey with us, to suffer with us, and to keep us from being alone.

Bishop Marc Andrus tells the story of a visit he once made to an elderly clergyman who had served in the area where he was, but who was dying in Florida. He said something to him about how lonely he must be being so far from the area he loved, and away from his friends. The man replied, "the holy spirit is always with me, Marc."

This priest had developed the capacity to be still and to hear God in the deep silence, to feel God’s presence in paralyzing loneliness, and to see the Light of God in the darkest night. He learned to recognize the Spirit guiding him through the darkness, and leading him to discover the Holiness of the God who is beyond Darkness and Light. And more than that, he heard and embraced the invitation from God to walk through the path of darkness in order to nurture a deeper relationship with God. When we are in the darkness, we are disoriented and lost; and it’s in this uncertainty that we are forced to let go of our preconceived notions of God, and allow God to be reveal new things to us about God and the world, and ourselves. It is in the darkness that we realize we don’t have all of the answers and may not even know how to ask the right questions. In the darkness- as my Pentecostal grandfather would say- we learn how to let go and let God- we learn to allow God to have control over our lives, and we stop trying to control God.

In a sermon titled The Dark Night, Rowan Williams’ puts it like this,

“If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of a purchase of God, you are still playing games. On the other hand, if you can accept and even rejoice in the experience of darkness, if you can accept that God is more than an idea that keeps your religion or philosophy or politics tidy—then you may find a way back to religion, philosophy, or politics, to an engagement with them that is more creative because you are more aware of the oddity, the uncontrollable quality of truth at the heart of all things.”

And what we discover, is that this uncontrollable God doesn’t show up the way we always want or expect Him to. He rarely comes in power and mighty strength; more often he comes as a helpless infant, or a dying man on a cross, or hungry homeless woman, or a pregnant teenage girl, or a frightened teenage boy who is lost in alcohol addiction… When we are open to knowing God in the darkness and suffering of our lives and in the lives of others, then we will be ready to begin the path of transformation- that in God’s time, leads to Light and wholeness.

St. Gregory Nazianzus
The breath of life, O Lord, seems spent. My body is tense, my mind filled with anxiety, yet I have no zest, no energy. I am helpless to allay my fears. I am incapable of relaxing my limbs. Dark thoughts constantly invade my head ....Lord, raise up my soul, revive my body.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 8:42 PM


This post is overwhelming powerful and much needed for those of us (comme moi) who often cut and run from the Light and moan and piss in the dark. In that vacuous place, I only hear myself.

You've presented a powerful message of hope, one I'll keep printed and posted next to my bedroll so when I forget to hear God's silence, your words will remind me. And maybe I'll shut up and listen.

The quotation from Archbishop Rowan Williams is like a powerful-yet-loving, transforming kick in the theological bollocks.

Loneliness can be destructive, I know. But solitude in Christ is greatly procreative.

Thanks again for sharing your brilliance.
Blogger JN1034, at 9:56 PM  
Rob Your meditation has brought tears to my eyes and comfort to my soul. God bless you!
Blogger John the organist, at 10:19 PM  
Fr. Rob,

I have a friend who is struggling deeply with a fairly sudden depression. This post is like cool water to a dying man.

I am going to buy and give to him Fr.Nouwen's book.

Thank you
Anonymous Monk-In-Training, at 7:47 PM  
Absolutely beautiful.

Anonymous Jared Cramer, at 4:48 PM  
Rob where are you? Are you OK? Have a loo at godsdogz blog Dominicans at Oxford - stunning pics and meditations. Love
Blogger John the organist, at 11:36 PM  
*bows in reverence to such wisdom and words of faith*
Blogger Screeching in the Angelic Choir, at 2:12 AM  
Thank you, Fr Rob

embracing the night isn't easy, but it is a calling from God, for which we may be grateful.
Blogger johnieb, at 8:13 AM  

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