Hope in the Darkness: Two Kinds of Darkness
Darkness is a good and necessary teacher. It is not to be avoided, denied, run from, or explained away. First, like Ezekiel the prophet, we must eat the scroll that is “lamentation, wailing, and moaning” in our belly, and only eventually becomes sweet as honey (see Ezekiel 2:9-10; 3:1-3).
By the time most people reach middle age, they’ve had days where life has lost its meaning, they no longer connect with an inner sense of motivation or joy. Sometimes this manifests as clinical depression and requires a therapist’s skilled care and medication. But even if we don’t experience depression, most of us go through a period of darkness, doubt, and malaise at some point in our lives.
There’s a darkness that we are led into by our own stupidity, sin (the illusion of separation), and selfishness (living out of the false self). 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. We resist going through the darkness and facing our shadow, so we usually need help, as the Twelve Steps wisely identify. An accountability partner, spiritual director, or counselor can help us navigate this difficult, ego-humiliating process.
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. The saints and mystics called it “the dark night of the soul.” But even while we feel alone and that God has abandoned us, we 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.
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 different forms and ways than we’ve become accustomed. Even if we don’t feel like praying, staying committed to contemplative practice is particularly important.
Sometimes it may be tempting to remain in the darkness—it becomes familiar and we rebel against the light; the paralysis and self-pity has a strange attraction. We may feel an inner restlessness, as if we’re aimlessly pacing back and forth on the same path. Allowing periods of this seemingly fruitless darkness may be part of deconstructing our false self so that we can rebuild on the foundation of our True Self. We must lose our old image of God and our old ways of experiencing God’s presence to discover the absolute reality beneath all of our egoic fantasies and fears.
~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.