Saturday, April 7, 2012

Light in the Darkness


“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2-7)

“When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

For those who doubt, this talk of "light" can be a bit hard to fathom.  If you find yourself in the category of people for whom faith does not come easily, this post is for you.



(Lighthouse Westerheversand at night byWuse1007, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus at various times referred to himself as a gate and as a shepherd.  (Blog post HERE).  Now, today’s post is about his use of light as a metaphor.  He wants us to come to the light, like moths to the flame.  The sadness of the crucifixion, of betrayal, of pain and death and servitude, gives way on Easter morning to the dawn of liberation from evil.  What is this light?  How can we find it?  Does it rest in faith experience? 

Some would argue “yes.”  Teaching a gospel of individual salvation, they might say that the light is to be found through individual conversion and a personal, mystical faith experience.  At its best, a faith-filled religious feeling of closeness to God is an exhilarating feeling.  

Zanzibar sunrise by AJ Levan


Zanzibar sunrise by A.J. Levan

It’s great when someone has this experience.  But this is not the measure of faith, or of God’s meaning in our lives. 

At its worst, a faith which relies on our own feelings of closeness to the eternal  may be a selfish indulgence in piety.  Seeking to define god according to our own anthropomorphic views and needs, we remake God into an image in our own likeness, telling us exactly what we want to hear and making us feel good all at the same time  Such a religion is, indeed, the opiate of the masses.  If you feel left out, wondering “why not me,” consider that perhaps missing this aspect of faith is like missing a B grade popular film.  Just because everyone else has seen it, is not a reason to think you’ve missed anything worthwhile. 

A more authentic journey might be to admit that we have trouble experiencing this.  Not everyone can, after all, see the emperor’s new clothes.  What about people for whom faith is much more challenging?

For all its feel-good-ishness, perhaps a focus on personal experience and personal faith may in fact be rather self-absorbed.  It also can lead to excess.  I once knew a man who was intensely religious in this way.  He was very pious.  But then I noticed his absence from the church we both attended.  When he returned, I asked where he had been.  His reply was, “Oh, I’ve been backsliding.”  Like a yo-yo?  Going up and down?  This is one problem with a faith that is based on our own experience.  Any time we lose the sensation of closeness to God, we are like a boat that has lost its mooring.

Another problem with a faith which focuses on experience is its selfish nature.  When we focus on our individual relationship with God, we may forget about community, about the greater social responsibility that is an essential component of shalom.  What about our responsibility to others?  What about the long haul? 

Indeed, considering the greater picture, what if someone else has a different faith experience entirely?  For example, what if one has no personal sense of God’s presence, at all?  Zero!  Does it mean that this person has any less faith?  Or, does this mean that God doesn’t exist?  Could an absence of feeling be used to prove that our faith is in vain? 

To the contrary, a person who lacks an immediate sense of God’s loving presence may share that experience with none other than Jesus himself.  On the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” His words echo  Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?  My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.”

To anguish and not to feel the presence of God is not a sign of lack of faith.  Rather, it requires a greater, deeper faith for one who lacks a mystical experience to shoulder on toward the light anyway, in service of the light, even when one has no direct sense of contact with God at the present time.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote candidly about her anguish from lack of feeling God’s presence.  Her spiritual journey through her own dark night of the soul is chronicled in the book of her writings, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light - The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday 2007).  In 1955 she wrote to Bishop Perier of Calcutta:
There is so much contradiction in my soul. The more I want Him, the less I am wanted. —Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.—Souls hold no attraction—Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place—the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God.—Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything. For I am only His—so He has ever right over me. I am perfectly happy to be nobody even to God. . . . .
In another letter from her journal, she wrote: “I am told that God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

According to St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic who composed the poem, "The Dark Night," the spiritual effect of the dark night of the soul is to deepen our love for God.  Another writer, Meister Eckhart, has stated, "Truly, it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us."

Unless we acknowledge that we are in darkness, then we have no motivation to seek the light.  Even worse, we may even fail to acknowledge our need for it.  Or, we may vainly attempt to make our own light, deceiving ourselves into thinking that we have no need for God.  In doing so, we seek, ourselves, to become Gods.  Pope Benedict XVI, in his Easter Mass today, alluded to this same fear, that reliance on our own technology has become man’s new god:   
The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil. . . . If God and moral values, the difference between good and evil, remain in darkness, then all other 'lights,' that put such incredible technical feats within our reach, are not only progress but also dangers that put us and the world at risk . . . Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars in the sky are no longer visible.  Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment?
Though in a different context, this is the same issue alluded to by Murakami in his address concerning the underlying cause of the disaster at Fukushima (blogged HERE). We are deluded if we think we can create our own light, becoming little gods ourselves.

Compare the photo of this light house to the earlier one.  In this photo there is no dark night.  One therefore feels no need for light from the lighthouse.
 
(Lorain lighthouse at sunset - Lorain, Ohio (USA), compliments Rona Proudfoot via Wikimedia Commons)

Without darkness, would there ever be need for any of us to walk in faith?  If we fail to acknowledge our neediness, we become like the self righteous older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.  Instead of relying on our own sense of worth and righteousness, in our own solutions, what is required of us is that we must walk in faith.  For some, that walk is harder than for others. 

I propose an even more radical idea than this, however.  What if, claiming that our own emotional sense of faithfulness is fulfilling to us, we are in fact drinking from the wrong cup and taking a step which is, in actuality, a step away from faith?  What if by definition, if we have no sense of what it’s like to walk in darkness, then we have no sense of what real faith is?  What if the worthy are those who are honest enough to admit their own failings?  Unlike the righteous elder brother, for example, the younger threw himself at his father’s feet. 

Jesus commented on this more than one time.  In Luke 18, we read:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
A penitent, seeking attitude also contributes to our willingness to obey.  A few days ago, this blog speculated that a significant factor in the Passover might have been the faithfulness of the Israelites to obey blindly when God told them to follow the Passover instructions.  They did what they were told to do, even when it required them to leave behind everything that could not be carried. 

This is not easy.  There is a joking story told of a man who fell off the side of a cliff.  Fortunately, he was able to grab onto a small bush and hold onto it to keep himself from falling all the way down.  However, he could not get back up.  Hoping for a rescue, he called out, “Can somebody help me?”"  A reply came back from the top of the cliff, “Yes! I can help you!”  The man asked, “Who are you?”  The voice replied, “God!”  The man shouted back, “Okay, God, I’m ready, what do you want me to do?”  To which the voice replied, “Let go of the bush!”  The man was quiet for a bit, then he shouted back, “Is anybody else up there?!” 

Anybody else, indeed.  What are our options?  Our journey through life can feel as if we were on a dimly lit path, and we need a moral compass for guidance.  There is a light that shines in the dark -- the tiny light of our willingness to walk in faith --  but the darkness is what enables us to see even that tiny pinpoint of light.  Moreover, there is no walk more faithful than to shoulder on and to act in faith, even when one has no immediate perception of light.   C.S. Lewis wrote of this in the Screwtape letters: 
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
This is my final post in my Lenten commitment to blog each day during Lent.  I write this on Saturday evening, just prior to Easter morning.  It seems appropriate, therefore, to look at what was happening on the morning before Easter on this night, in the year of the crucifixion. 

In the earliest hours of the morning, two women went to the tomb where Jesus had been laid.  All four gospels record the story, but here is what it says in John 20:
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb  and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
Sounds a bit “dark” to me.   Mary's world has been torn apart.  She is grieving and confused and doesn't know where to turn. 

Perhaps, when our sense of light fails, is when we seek that pinpoint on the horizon the hardest. That is when we listen for the still, small voice of hope, the voice of the Shepherd in the dark. Using all of the means at our disposal, regardless of what they are, we aim for the light. We aim for a centering of values, for life, for hope.  Thankfully, The darkness is not the end of the story.  I find myself very thankful that the following promise, found in Proverbs 8:17, is not premised in the slightest degree on what my faith experience is like. It is a pure, a-priori promise from God to you and to me:

“I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.”

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