Thoughts around darkness and light

 

On Saturday 30th May, my family watched the SpaceX/NASA launch sending two men to the International Space Station, the first launch from American soil since the ending of the Shuttle program in 2011. The launch had been delayed from Wednesday due to bad weather, but there was one downside: as the launch was now earlier in the evening it would be too light to see the Falcon 9 rocket as it came over on its way into orbit. Sometimes there can be too much light: the sun means that we cannot see the stars during the day or for that matter ISS and Falcon 9.

 

Recently I have been doing some reading about Christian spirituality, different approaches, different metaphors and different ways of helping us grow more Christ-like, which essentially is what Christian spirituality is. One thing that really stood out during my reading, was the different ways that darkness could be interpreted and I’ve looked at two of them here.

 

The Dark Night

 

Often in our Christian faith we think of darkness as something negative or bad, in Genesis the move from dark to light is linked with the creation of order from chaos, from Isaiah 9:2 we think of “the people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light” and in John’s gospel Jesus is described as the light of the world (John 8:12).

 

But I actually think darkness is necessary in the same way that night is necessary for us to rest and recharge. Darkness gives us “time out” to process events, to explore ideas and to dream dreams. We all have experience of those challenging questions that occur to us in the middle of the night: “why is this happening?”; “how did it come to this?”; “what should I do now?” and even “are you there God?”

 

One thing I love about the Bible is that we can hear the same questions cried out over millennia, both at a personal level in Job or the author of Ecclesiastes but also at national level in Lamentations, or the stories of Israel’s repeated disobedience and then repentance throughout the Old Testament. There are many instances in Jesus’s life and ministry too, for example when he hears of Lazarus’s death and when he is pleading with his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. During this pandemic there are many personal and national moments of darkness as we live through these unusual times. We are allowed to cry out in the dark and ask “Why?”  Doubt is a natural reaction and we shouldn’t ignore it or sweep it under the carpet.

 

When we are in the middle of difficult times all we can do is what we have learned over the years, as we often do not have the capacity to take on more. Routines of prayer, bible study and worship can really help. We are still open to God even if it feels like we are just “going through the motions”. Later we may be able to speak to trusted people or read and try and process what has happened. Doubts can actually be a prompt to explore our faith, learn more about God and we can grow more Christ-like.

 

Medieval writers of spirituality like St John of the Cross have written extensively about these ideas as the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul in their spiritual journeys. We will all experience a dark night at some point and doubts are natural so we should not ignore them and please ask for prayer, help or discussions.

 

The Light is Blinding

 

Another view of darkness, is like that of the sun and moon. God’s glory is so bright, so beyond human comprehension that we cannot look directly at it, any more than we can look directly at the sun. There are references regularly throughout the Bible of God being in the darkness, like Moses approaching God (Exodus 20:21) or Paul’s description of “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Cor13:12). This idea that humanity cannot grasp the enormity of God is known as the apophatic tradition.

 

I found the quote below to be really helpful:

 

He [God] is known not in his essence but in his energies, that is in the ways in which he opens up himself to human knowledge and voluntarily reveals himself to humankind. (Italics are mine)

 

For me, part of my work is relating challenging concepts back to those more commonly understood especially when I am discussing science. So while the irony of trying to explain this is not lost on me, trying to explain God as an unknowable ‘non-being’ makes me think of the physics of energy in that it cannot be created or destroyed only changed from form to form.

 

I find this way of thinking really helpful, because in challenging situations or when I have been reading some difficult theology, I can get frustrated because of my lack of comprehension. I have to accept by faith that whatever explanations I might give, theology I learn or metaphors I use, that they can never be sufficient.

 

And the dawn…

 

These themes using darkness could be considered as linked, humankind’s inability to comprehend God and His ways may lead to those times of confusion and doubt. However, we have the assurance through Christ’s death and resurrection that we will eventually see God face to face.

 

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!

 

O what a foretaste of glory divine!

 

Heir of salvation, purchase of God,

 

born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.

 

Refrain:

 

This is my story, this is my song,

 

praising my Saviour, all the day long;

 

this is my story, this is my song,

 

praising my Saviour all the day long.

 

Perfect submission, perfect delight,

 

visions of rapture now burst on my sight;

 

angels descending, bring from above

 

echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

 

[Refrain]

 

Perfect submission, all is at rest,

 

I in my Saviour am happy and blest,

 

watching and waiting, looking above,

 

filled with his goodness, lost in his love.

 

[Refrain]

 

Fanny Crosby 1820-1915