Moses’ vision of God began with light (Exod. 19.18); afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud (Exod. 20.21). But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness (Exod. 24.15-18).
Commentary on the Song of Songs,
quoted in An Anthology of Christian Mysticism
edited by Harvey D. Egan
(HT to Carl McColman over at Anamchara: The Website of Unknowing)
Last week it fell to me to draft a short article for the local community newspaper about our church's planned Blue Christmas service. (We are actually calling it Christmas in a Minor Key after the liturgy we are using, with permission of its creator, found here.) As my initial draft made the rounds of various others with an interest in the service and its publicity, one person questioned one of my phrases, to the effect of "honoring both the darkness and the light," as theologically suspect.
I wasn't going to get into a lengthy discussion about the theology of darkness over a two-paragraph publicity story. And besides, she had a point: many readers of the story might give it a glance and take it the wrong way. And she has back-up. I John 1:5-6 says that "God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true . . .".
That one does give me pause.
On the other hand, most of us are aware of the phrase "the dark night of the soul," although we have little understanding of its meaning. It's become a commonplace in our culture to use that phrase when we are talking about depression, or about a sense of confusion and bewilderment and lost-ness. In the parlance of the mystics, however, it has a very specific meaning. I don't make any pretense of grasping it, but St. John of the Cross, the 16th century mystic who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul, understood it to mean a time during which one feels the desolation of abandonment by God as God strips away all that one has relied upon ~ until only God is left.
Perhaps someday I will spend some time on how God is implicated in the images of darkness in Scripture and tradition. I am, not surprisingly, very much interested in that topic after my own experiences since my son's death, which was one of God's seemingly complete disappearance. I think mine has been a not-unusual experience of grief after the loss of a child to suicide, which leaves a particularly intense form of devastation in its wake, but I also know, because they have told me so, that others often experience a deep sense of God's love and re-assurance after the death of a loved one. In other words, my experience is neither unique nor universal. However, it is something from which people tend to shy away.
And yet, while I was on retreat last month, and pulling books left and right out of the library, I encountered two different references to that darkness in which God is so close that you do not see God there.
God as your skin, perhaps? God completely, but invisibly, enveloping you?
God there, persistently and quietly, when your attention is elsewhere? Or when you are incapable of paying attention to anything?
God must surely be in the darkness with us. How could there be anyplace more essential for God to be?