The Dazzling Darkness

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

“There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness”

— Henry Vaughan

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Savior.”

— Isaiah 45:15

“Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. The darkness is enough.”

— Thomas Merton,
Prayer Before Midnight Mass,
Christmas 1941

 

God is always present, yet hidden. When the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan described God’s “dazzling darkness,” or Thomas Merton declared that God’s brightness is his darkness, they were participating in a mystical tradition that can be traced back through Saint John of the Cross (“the dark night of the soul”) to the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (who equated darkness with God’s mystery) all the way back to the great mystical theologian of the sixth century, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who  eloquently spoke of God’s mystery as “hidden in the darkness beyond light, of the hidden mystical silence.”

When we enter into silent prayer, we make ourselves available to God’s hidden presence. Because God is “a God who hides himself,” all we typically experience in contemplation is silence — or the buzz of our own distracted thoughts and feelings, although the silence is always just beneath our mental chatter. Indeed, the heart of contemplative prayer consists of continually returning to the silence as our thoughts and emotions keep distracting us.

But when we let go of our distracting inner chatter, what do we find? Silence… darkness… unknowing.

By faith, we know God is present in the silence. Yet our faith may be weak, and often it seems to us that the silence is boring, or uncomfortable, or pointless. Sometimes in silence we may feel restless or anxious. Sometimes we can feel deep peace. But other times the silence just seems to highlight how unruly our inner lives really are.

Yet even in the most boring moments of restless, fidgety prayer, our souls remain — at a level deeper than our awareness —immersed in the brilliant light of God’s unseen, unfelt presence. Praying into the silence beneath the normal chatter of our thinking minds is like walking outside on a bright sunny day after being inside in a dimly lit room.

When we enter bright sunlight after being in the dark, our eyes blink in order to adjust to the light. Distracting thoughts during silent prayer function in a similar way. These thoughts are the mind’s “blinking” in order to shield itself from the dazzling darkness of God’s silent presence.

On a physical level, human eyes simply do not function well in darkness. So there is almost a primal fear of the dark, which can terrorize little children trying to sleep, or compound the suffering of those who struggle with depression, anxiety, or loneliness. On a mythic level we associate darkness with evil, and a recent study of Daylight Savings Time changes and crime rates affirm that perception: an extra hour of daylight can reduce serious crimes by 40% or more — at least, for that hour.

Even the Bible gets into the “darkness is bad” theme: consider this verse from the Gospel of John: “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). But other verses suggest that there is more to darkness than meets the eye, such is Psalm 139:12, addressing God: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

How do we sort all this out? God is a God of Light, so darkness can be a metaphor for all the ways we human beings resist and reject God’s love and goodness. But that metaphor hardly makes darkness itself evil. Isaiah 45:7 reminds us that God created darkness as well as light, and we know that human beings and other living creatures need the rhythm of daylight and night for times of rest and rejuvenation. Just as the earth needs winter as a time of rest before the new life of spring and summer, so too does all of God’s creation need the “dark” time of rest to prepare for the hope of a new day.

Perhaps to understand the spirituality of darkness, we need to consider the Genesis creation story, which begins with God creating light to shine in the darkness. This is echoed in Micah 7:8: “When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.” God is Light, and darkness is the container into which light is poured.

As Arlo Guthrie once folksily proclaimed, “You can’t have light without a dark to stick it in.” So the darkness of God’s mystery and seeming absence — the darkness of unknowing, of uncertainty and ambiguity, of feeling like God is far away — the darkness of the silence that resides deep inside each of us — is not an evil darkness but a receptive darkness, a place of hope and waiting. 

And when the light comes, it dazzles us. And our eyes blink. Just like when we encounter silence, our mind “blinks” with distracting thoughts.

The key to contemplative practice is perseverance. Take time to sit in the silence each and every day. However you respond to the silence — with feelings of peace, or boredom; restfulness, or fidgetiness — simply notice it, and let go of any impulse to judge or criticize. Let your relationship with the silence be what it is. God is present, whether you feel it or not. God loves you, whether your feel it or not. God’s dazzling light is bathing over you, whether you feel it or not. The invitation of contemplation is to simply bask in the darkness that is dazzled by inaccessible light.

 

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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5 thoughts on “The Dazzling Darkness

  1. When out in the woods or on the beach or in the mountains or even just sitting in the house, I get my mind and surroundings to be silent. Silence is truly golden and has always brought great peace to me. But chatter is also important and not something to push away, but to embrace. How else can one improve except to understand what the mind is confused and restless about except you mulling it over and fixing yourself and/or the problem.

    • You’re right, of course. It’s definitely “both/and” — even in the old days when Trappist monks observed rigorous silence, they still spoke with their superiors and their confessors, and used sign language to communicate with each other. Part of being human is our ability to communicate with one another, and contemplative practice is not about opposing that, but rather creating the space in our minds and hearts to truly listen — not only to God, but to each other, and even to the whispers deep in our own hearts.

  2. A Facebook friend recently posted one of your blogs which included the line (which I must paraphrase, since it’s been several weeks), “…eternal life is the cosmic dance between the human and the divine…”. Your words were lovelier than my paraphrase, and I read them the morning after a really hard day and night. It was Sunday, and after reading the post I thought about worship for the first time in a while. Not church, but worship. I am a retired pastor in the Society of Friends, and there has been so much conflict among Friends in my state. The conflict is centered on “right belief”, which is divisive rather than inclusive because it concretizes Mystery, or tries to. Not very friendly Friends, of course, so I have not been attending meeting very much.
    There is a small group of Friends who meet in silence at the ‘church’ I served for so long. They are not members of that meeting, nor of our yearly meeting, but are associated with Friends who are not in continual conflict. After reading your words that morning I attended meeting with those Friends, and felt a shift in my soul. I will go again this morning, after having been away last week, and will remember the words of this post about darkness.
    You have said it so well, and have taken the implications of evil from a matter so essential to spirit. Thank you. In my recent darkness I’ve read too much about Christianity and not nearly enough about Christ, which is one name I give to Spirit. The other name is Mystery. I feel reading your blogs is reminding me of why I turned to Quakers in the first place, why I even believe in God at all.
    Thank you.