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Finding God in the Darkness

“And the people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21)

The year is winding down, and the winter solstice is just around the corner. For me, this darkest day is a time to reflect on what has been revealed in the darkness of this year, both for me personally and for our global community. As the verse from scripture above indicates, God is at work in the darkness. While light helps us see, darkness can give perspective.

First, a word about terminology, specifically the words “dark” and “darkness.” These words can bear a negative connotation, a suggestion of “bad” or “wrong” or “evil.” This is particularly true in how the opening to John’s Gospel is interpreted during Advent: “There is a Light in the Darkness and the Darkness shall not overcome it.” Light is good, darkness is bad. Light is God, darkness is not God. Hymns we’ve sung perpetuate this notion, “In Him there is not darkness at all….” Add white supremacy into the mix, and the concept of spiritual darkness can at best become misunderstood and at worst can result in physical and spiritual harm.

St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish monk, is credited with coining the term “dark night of the soul.” The Spanish term “noche oscura” translates to “dark night,” but the original Spanish suggests a bit more complexity than the English. Oscura more closely resembles the English word “obscure” or “hidden.” Something that is hidden isn’t necessarily bad. Indeed, buried treasure is hidden. The journey to find it may be arduous, even painful, but the fact that it is hidden doesn’t make it inherently evil.

The dark night of the soul is like a treasure hunt, but it’s not something that we can willfully set out upon. It is beyond our conscious control. It descends and it shrouds. There is no way out but through. There is no telling how long it will take. What used to provide satisfaction and contentment no longer does. What used to feel important or secure falls away.

This process of release, letting go, detachment offers the possibility of growing closer to God. But letting go is not easy, and change does not often come without pain or some kind of suffering. What used to have meaning and purpose no longer suffices. It becomes harder to care for, feel motivated by, or love the things we used to. We notice all the gaps, holes, flaws, inconsistencies, and insufficiencies. While the experience is disillusioning, it points to deeper union with the Deep Love on the other side, at daybreak. The pain of the journey may be experienced or described negatively, but there is promise in the pain. We learn and come to experience God in a deeper, more profound way.

The pandemic descended on all of us this year. We don’t know when it will be over. Far too many people will not see the other side. Those of us who do will not be the same. Forcing us home, cutting us off from each other, limiting our diversions, COVID-19 has ceased a lot of our busy motions. What has fallen away? What are we detaching from? Will old routines and habits “do it” for you like before? Have you sought to avoid the dark night by numbing to Netflix or otherwise?

John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila’s teaching on dark night and spiritual deepening with God have stood as guideposts for nearly five centuries. And yet we would prefer not to be bothered. Too often we succumb to what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “full solar spirituality.” Look on the bright side, we’re told. Stay positive! Smile! There’s not much room in our popular culture for a dark night. Keep those doubts, frustrations, and questions to yourself at home. When asked, “How are you doing?”, any response other than “good” is viewed with reticent suspicion. Keep six feet away! I don’t want whatever is ailing you!

While the dark night of the soul may be a spiritual treasure hunt without a map, society would rather we don’t go searching. A search leads to questions, and questions can lead to uncomfortable answers or worse—no answer at all. St. John teaches that God is “nada—literally “nothing” or “no-thing.” This is why detachment is part of dark night. Our attachments become idols, and they may be hard to notice without a dark night.

Spiritual practice and maturity help us see that life and our journeys are not binary—either/or, good/bad. And so this winter solstice—when we can’t avoid a long dark night—my prayer is that we accept the darkness, personally and communally. Let’s walk through this long night together as we are, as we really are, trusting that God is at work in each of us and all of us through every uncomfortable and difficult step.

I pray that we can detach from “full solar” hero narratives, the ways of thinking that both valorize (usually ourselves) and villianize (usually others). I pray that we can lean into difficult conversations, trusting that God is preparing us to listen—not to defend or fix. And I pray that our experience of darkness will reveal that we need not be afraid of what we might lose or what we might become.

I don’t know when the dawn will come. But I trust that it will. It may not be a triumphant “happily ever after” ending. But if we’re present to God in the darkness, noticing and discerning God’s invitation, the other side of this dark night promises a deeper joy—not because we can go back to our full solar lives of attachment, but because we’ll be more deeply connected to the Divine Love within and among us, moving through and between us—revealing who we really are in God’s loving eyes.

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Scott Landis
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Scott Landis

Jackson, this is a beautiful and well written reflection on darkness. I was really moved by the way in which you named the importance of darkness – not villain but necessary for perspective. Also loved BBT’s “full solar spirituality. Is that from “Learning to Walk in the Dark”? Your reference to John and Teresa could not be more apt. I shall ponder your thoughts this solstice and sit with the sadness I continue to feel in these challenging days. This has been a hard season for us all. I have no reason to complain as I find myself amidst such… Read more »

Anita Davidson
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Anita Davidson

Thank you, Jackson, for this beautiful and challenging reflection.

Gary Gallina
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Gary Gallina

Really appreciated this reflection….thanks!!