As the darkest day of the year approaches, I’m finding hope in the darkness.
My own darkness, that is.
I’ve been silent because it’s been hard to put words on a page. Hard to express what I’ve been experiencing.
A couple of months ago I entered a darkness, a place where I felt hopelessly negative and stuck. And it was painful.
Despite the pain, I recognized it as an invitation from Spirit. Draw near. Delve deeper. There’s more to discover. More that hinders you from fully realizing all that you are in Me.
So, I reached out for help.
I’ve no idea where this will take me, but I’m willing to go deeper. I’m willing because I believe my faithfulness in saying yes to this invitation will allow the manifestation of what longs to be born in me.
“The birth of the Word in the soul,” as my Living School teacher Jim Finley puts it. Through our fidelity to these yeses, to what shows up unexpectedly in our lives, Christ is incarnate in the world, he says.
But, for now, I sit in the Advent season of expectant darkness.
I sit in the silence and wait. I wait because there is nowhere else to go. I wait with hopefulness, with the courage and trust it takes to say yes. To accept what is before me. And I wait with an awareness that infinite Love is loving me in this place. And a recognition that this, too, is part of my spiritual journey.
I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. Each of us has our own moments of waiting in darkness. Sometimes it’s dealing with a chronic illness. Emotional pain. An unexpected medical diagnosis. The death of a loved one. Separation from one’s children.
Here at the border we’ve been getting more asylum seekers lately. We’re especially seeing an increase in refugees from African countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, and Cameroon, where violence has caused many to flee. I’ve begun visiting a few of these young men detained in the El Paso detention facility while they await their court date. They are not much older than my own son. Every one of them has had life-threatening experiences to get here. And every one of them has been separated from their families. If they are sent back, they will be killed.
I wonder how they remain hopeful. How they say yes to the darkness.
One young man I visit tells me his mother knows nothing about where he is. She doesn’t know if he’s safe, or even alive. I think of what that must be like for her – waiting for news. Wondering and worrying. Is she able to say yes to this darkness? To accept this part of her journey?
I think of Finley’s words: “… your ongoing yes is the incarnation.”
And then I recall a very young woman so many years ago. Her willingness to say yes with courage and trust to what presented itself in the silent darkness led to the incarnation. The birth of Christ in the world.
In the silent darkness of the night, no matter how dark, no matter how uncertain, God speaks the Word in the soul.
Like Mary, fidelity to that yes is my journey, too. It is changing my life.
Life’s water flows from darkness.
Search the darkness, don’t run from it.
Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.
Davis arrived from France a little over a week ago. Looking more like a man than ever. If that’s possible.
On the long car ride home from Dulles Airport, he chatted away. About the friends he’d made. His love for the language. How he missed speaking French already. And the food. He went on and on about the food.
You’d think he’d be exhausted after traveling for two days. But he was on fire. I could hear the passion in his voice. Already he talked about going back. About the offers of places to stay whenever he chose to return.
He reminded me of myself and what I’ve been feeling after returning from my recent adventures in Bolivia and at the border. Like me he’s expanding his outlook on life. Opening his heart to more people. And making exciting choices that can be both painful and risky.
Recently a friend sent me a link to Parker Palmer’s May 2015 commencement address on the six pillars of the wholehearted life. So much of it resonated with me. But in these lines in particular, I recognized myself and Davis:
“The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I’m 76 years old, I now know many people who have suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart.”
Hearts broken open. That’s what Davis and I have. Hearts broken when we lost the best husband and father we could have had. But hearts that remain open. Because we’ve chosen to keep them open. To not close ourselves off to the pain. To let ourselves be vulnerable and loving to those we don’t yet know. And that has made all the difference.
And there’s something else that Palmer said about brokenness. About being willing to go down into the tough, painful dark shadows within ourselves.
“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life.
Davis is learning to embrace his brokenness. So am I.
And in doing so, I’ll be better able to be present to someone else facing her own darkness.
As Joan Chittister explains:
Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition. Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.
So, on this eve of the winter solstice when we will face the longest night of the year, I celebrate my choice to embrace the darkness. With a heart broken open.
As I stood on our steep hillside shaking out a rug, a mom and her three children waiting at the bus stop caught my attention. The eldest, a boy of about 7, had gathered pebbles from the rocky mound beside them and, as I watched, he whipped them at his little brother. One at a time. The younger boy turned his body away from the force of the stones. Their mother, preoccupied with removing their little sister from her stroller to prepare for the bus, either didn’t notice or chose to ignore them. The boy continued without reprimand. I stopped beating the rug, wanting to yell down at him from my perch on the hill. Suddenly he stopped and turned his attention to his sister. The toddler now stood beside him while their mother folded up her stroller. Instantly he changed from a relentless rock thrower to a tender caregiver as he enfolded his arms around his sister and pulled her against his waist, as if protecting her from an oncoming storm. His sweet actions, in stark opposition to what I had just witnessed a moment ago with his brother, rather than surprise me, resonated within me.
Maybe that’s because when I was about his age, I picked up a metal toy shovel and threw it full force at my sister’s head. She’d pissed me off, after all. That was my natural reaction.
But the boy’s actions created something stronger than that memory — a recognition of the capabilities within myself.
I am this living paradox.
And I’m not the only one. Within each of us lies this propensity for both darkness and light — a false self and true self, lower self and higher self — whatever you choose to name them.
This recognition is particularly meaningful to me in light of the overblown negative reactions I’ve been reading in response to President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. To tell the truth, I don’t think it matters what the president would have said at that prayer breakfast. The pundits would have pounced.
But in his remarks, the president noted that religious groups have distorted and twisted faith or used it as a weapon to justify violent acts. He warned us that these actions are “not unique to one group or one religion.”
Honestly, I think he was trying to get us to pause and look within ourselves. At our own negativity and intolerance.
But some people, most of whom I imagine are Christians or politicians — or both — took offense. They didn’t like being included in this “club.”
A former governor of my home state of Virginia, Jim Gilmore (R), even went so far as to say, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”
Well, I consider myself a Christian, and I’m not offended.
Because even though I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, I readily admit that I fail — every day. Following what Jesus taught, and how he lived is just downright difficult! And it requires humility — something I didn’t see at all in any of the negative comments I read about Obama’s remarks.
I did, however, find the word in the president’s remarks:
“…we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards [God], and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.”
The truth is, still today, and in this country, people say and do terrible things, justified by their version of God, or justice. And some of these people call themselves Christian.
Somehow I can’t see Jesus condoning religious intolerance, the death penalty, and torture — all of which have occurred in or by our country. Recently.
I think the trick is to look within ourselves first.
I’m remembering these wise words: “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own?” (Matthew 7:3)
If we continue to point to evil and darkness as being “out there,” we will never reconcile these realities. We will completely miss that log lodged right in our own eye. I almost did. Thanks to a little boy at a bus stop. Just being himself.
To read the full script of the president’s remarks, go to: