The Lord spoke with a loud voice…out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness.”Deuteronomy 5:22-24
“Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.”John 12:35-36
In winter time when the sun dips over the mountain early in the afternoon and Volmoed is overtaken by darkness, we wish summer would come early. We long for warmth and light. But we know that darkness is necessary in the rhythm of life. For it in the darkness of the earth that plants take root, just as it is in the dark night of the soul, those times when we feel most depressed. when we grieve, when we feel overcome and fearful, that God often speaks most clearly to us. So it is that the author of the Cloud of Unknowing counsels us: “Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel God or to see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”
Yet darkness remains a metaphor for all that is evil, chaotic, destructive. Do we not rightly fear the dark because of the unknown lurking there, as we fear dying because it is a journey into darkness? Yes, of course, that is so. That is why we understand the poet Dylan Thomas, when, as he sits beside his dying father, he cries out in protest:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage. rage against the dying of the light.
We do right to rage against the “dying of the light” for the light speaks to us of hope, joy and resurrection. We rightly protest against the darkness that envelopes friends dying of cancer, the darkness of the oceans depths that claimed the life of a young girl swept away by the waves in Betty’s Bay, and the darkness of death and destruction in the bombed out caverns of Mosul. And yet, do we not yearn for darkness when bright lights keep us from sleeping? Do we not shield our eyes from the overpowering rays of the mid-day sun, drawing down the blinds? Do we not welcome winter when it arrives, when the shadows lengthen and the fire glows in the hearth? Do we not dim the lights and light the candles when we seek intimacy with friends and lovers? Do we not even welcome death when it brings terrible pain to an end? And is not experiencing the “dark night of the soul” part of our journey into the light of God’s presence? For it is out of the darkness, the Bible tells us, that God speaks and the light breaks into our lives, it is when everything is shrouded in darkness that God says “let there be light” and is it not so that Easter light only dawns after the world is covered in darkness.
For the past months we have been praying for a number of people who have cancer. Among them is our friend Suellen Shay. It was Suellen who suggested that we light a candle of hope in the chapel every day to remember of all those suffering from cancer. This week Isobel and I received a letter from Suellen in which she wrote:
Over these past six months my journey of understanding and experiencing hope has become more layered. It started with a focus on light – hence the candle of hope. But more recently the focus has shifted to darkness. Darkness has so many negative associated emotions especially when linked to illness, depression, loss. These are real and I have experienced them as many of you have. But I have been encouraged to push through these negative associations (not around them) to find the gifts of the darkness. This requires a different perspective on darkness – not as the opposite of light but darkness that illuminates light.
Suellen goes on to explain the difference between darkness as something bad, evil, and fearful, and darkness as something helpful, something that illuminates the light.
Stars that are always there can only be seen in deep darkness…. Many mystics point to additional senses that are developed when you ‘learn to walk in the darkness’. So if we are to be people of hope … we cannot escape from the darkness – it is an inevitable part of our personal, social and political life. The challenge is to work with it, to mine its depths, to develop those senses that enable us to rise above cynicism and defeatism.
We cannot escape the darkness of depression, sickness, loss and death, but maybe we can discover light in our darkness, maybe instead of darkness being our enemy it can become our friend? As Suellen reminds us, it is only on the darkest night that we can see the stars in all their glory, and witness the comets streaking across the horizon. So with her and countless others across the centuries, perhaps we need to listen again to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing : “Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary…For if you are to feel God or to see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.” Or listen to the words of the Bible when its reminds us: “The Lord spoke with a loud voice…out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness.
But above all, listen to the words of Jesus to his disciples as they journeyed to Jerusalem, as they walked deeper with him into the darkness of his approaching suffering and death, until darkness covered the face of the earth. It is then that Jesus says to them: “Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.” To know God in the darkness we have to learn to walk in the light of God’s presence when the sun is shining, when life is good, when our limbs are strong, when the future seems bright, when we still experience the presence of Christ as we journey along the road before the descent into the encroaching darkness of Calvary. To hear God speak to us in the dark times of our lives we have to learn to walk in the light before the darkness deepens, before hopes are dashed and illness strikes, before we despair and are angry with God, so that while, the darkness may threaten us it will not overcome us. So we take heart from the words of the Taizé song: “Within our darkest night, God kindles the fire that never dies away.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 6July 2017