So often we think and feel as if we are wandering in darkness. Archbishop Romero, whose photo is to the left, entered a deep darkness, a crisis of faith, in his lifetime. More on him later.
We all walk through so many darknesses. The darkness of grief. The darkness of moving forward in faith when we discover that our ideas and values are no longer the same as that of the group we belong to. The daily darkness of challenging trials and relationships.
Darkness is a lonely place, an isolating place, and at the time we feel as if we will be there forever.
But Jesus is the Morning Star Who never sets. In His Light, we see Light: the Light of Faith. We know in faith that if we keep our eyes turned to the Light of God's Face, we will know that we are never alone. God is always with us, even if He is silent. God is indeed Light, and in Him there is no darkness. Even if it seems we are in outer darkness, the inner Light of our faith in God is a flame forever burning.
In faith, we trust that God can use everything, even darkness, as an instrument of our transformation. Sooner or later, God will come to us through the various forms of outer darkness that seem to hold us bound and blind-folded. Darkness is often the tool God uses so that our faith continues to mature, and He can dwell with us at deeper and deeper levels of our being.
The darkness of grief seems devouring, all-encompassing. Well known spiritual writer C.S. Lewis lost his dearly beloved wife and wrote of the special darkness of grief:
“The death of a beloved is an amputation..... How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, 'I never realized my loss till this moment'? The same leg is cut off time after time. We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination." (from "A Grief Observed.")
Yet God can transform us even while we grieve. His healing Light shines on us in the love of friends. Fr. Henri Nouwen, losing his beloved mother, mused
"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares."
Nouwen, like Lewis, eventually found himself coming out of darkness into the new unexpected Light of Christ, revealing new depths and perspective in his faith and in his living: he chose to re-embrace life with love and hope.
"The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief......Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain."
Sister Joan Chittister writes of the newness that can be born from grief:
"Death gives us all the gift of time - our own and the time of those around us. It calls us to stop and look at sunflowers next time, to care for the grasses always, to embrace the planet forever, to pay attention to our friends, to take comfort in the dark, to remember that the daffodils will unfold again. It is time to plant spring in our own hearts, to remember the light that no darkness can take away." (from "A Month of Memories")
Re-finding God's Light in the midst of grief is, simply, learning to love again, learning to believe again that life is good and rich and full, a blessing.
Some outer darkness is a necessary darkness, a stage of our growth, a searching for truth. If we believe what our family and closest friends believe without any spiritual curiosity, sooner or later, we meet someone or have an experience that will make us question what we believe, often in a good way, a way leading to growth. Our experience is the sort that throws our faith into crisis because it calls us to realize that our faith is a largely unexamined faith, a faith that perhaps has been unduly influenced by the social group that is most dominant in our life. Part of our growth in faith is critically examining the beliefs we have accepted because they are the beliefs of those closest to us. Do these beliefs really reflect Gospel values?
This dominant social group might indulge in soul-destroying gossip. Or act as if it's better than the other groups around us. They might believe that the source of problems in our country is the Jews or the Muslims or the blacks or the Hispanics or "those lazy poor." Or our dominant social group might believe that most cops are bad or most immigrants are thieves and thugs or that gays and lesbians are spiritual lepers whom we should not associate with. Or our dominant social group might believe that the main goal in life is to get ahead at any cost, and that God smiles most on the rich and successful. We need to ask ourselves: has our dominant social group seamlessly - and falsely - melded their personal beliefs with their Christian faith?
A momentary darkness might descend on us when we realize that the Jesus of the Gospels teaches us a worldview diametrically opposed to the one we have unthinkingly absorbed - up until now. What do we do? We ask ourselves. There is a great pain, anxiety, and loneliness that we experience if suddenly we begin to believe differently than those with whom we spend our lives. Some will choose to refuse to interiorly change their beliefs because they most value the approval of those around them. They simply don't want to rock their own boat.
Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M. says
"Most Christian 'believers' tend to echo the cultural prejudices and worldviews of the dominant group in their country, with only a minority revealing any real transformation of attitudes or consciousness. It has been true of slavery and racism, classism and consumerism and issues of immigration and health care for the poor."
This kind of growth in our faith, our belief system, occurs when we choose to embrace the one who before was taboo and unlovable, to embrace with love the cause that before seemed opposed to who we are and which now seems necessary to who we have become. This true story comes from "U.S. Catholic":
"Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador ( whose photo is at the top of this blog post) was a surprise in history. The poor never expected him to take their side and the elites of church and state felt betrayed. He was a compromise candidate elected to head the bishop's episcopacy by conservative fellow bishops. He was predictable, an orthodox, pious bookworm who was known to criticize the progressive liberation theology clergy so aligned with the impoverished farmers seeking land reform. But an event would take place within three weeks of his election that would transform the ascetic and timid Romero.
"The new archbishop's first priest, Rutilio Grande, was ambushed and killed along with two parishioners. Grande was a target because he defended the peasant's rights to organize farm cooperatives. He said that the dogs of the big landowners ate better food than the campesino children whose fathers worked their fields.
"The night Romero drove out of the capitol to Paisnal to view Grande's body and the old man and seven year old who were killed with him, marked his change. In a packed country church Romero encountered the silent endurance of peasants who were facing rising terror. Their eyes asked the question only he could answer: Will you stand with us as Rutilio did? Romero's "yes" was in deeds. The peasants had asked for a good shepherd and that night they received one.
"Romero already understood the church is more than the hierarchy, Rome, theologians or clerics—more than an institution—but that night he experienced the people as church. 'God needs the people themselves,' he said, 'to save the world . . . The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of hand-outs from governments or from the churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation.'
"Romero's great helplessness was that he could not stop the violence.... Over 75,00 Salvadorans would be killed, one million would flee the country, another million left homeless, constantly on the run from the army—and this in a country of only 5.5 million. All Romero had to offer the people were weekly homilies broadcast throughout the country, his voice assuring them, not that atrocities would cease, but that the church of the poor, themselves, would live on.
'If some day they take away the radio station from us . . . if they don't let us speak, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left a people without priests, each one of you must become God's microphone, each one of you must become a prophet.'
"By 1980, amidst overarching violence, Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to cease sending military aid because he wrote, 'it is being used to repress my people.' The U.S. sent $1.5 million in aid every day for 12 years. His letter went unheeded. Two months later he would be assassinated.
"In March 23 Romero walked into the fire. He openly challenged an army of peasants, whose high command feared and hated his reputation. Ending a long homily broadcast throughout the country, his voice rose to breaking, 'Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasant . . . No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God . . . '
"There was thunderous applause; he was inviting the army to mutiny. Then his voice burst, 'In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people I ask you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression.'"
"Romero's murder was a savage warning. Even some who attended Romero's funeral were shot down in front of the cathedral by army sharpshooters on rooftops. To this day no investigation has revealed Romero's killers. What endures is Romero's promise."
Some darkness falls on us through daily, arduous pain that seems like hell. Walking through it, step by painful step, we are challenged to grow in our trust of God, and in our love for those around us.
Tim Farrington puts this in practical language:
“You don't need to retire to a cloister or the desert for years on end to experience a true dark night; you don't even have to be pursuing any particular "spiritual" path. Raising a challenged child, or caring for a failing parent for years on end, is at least as purgative as donning robes and shaving one's head; to endure a mediocre work situation for the sake of the paycheck that sustains a family demands at least as much in the way of daily surrender to years of pristine silence in a monastery. No one can know in advance how and where the night will come, and what form God's darkness will take.”
― Tim Farrington, "A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul"
On our faith journeys, we often encounter darkness on the road, faith crises that we fear will damage our faith or destroy our lives. If we trust our God Whose Face continually shines light on us, we will trust that, like Jesus, true God and true Man, our unwanted crucifixions in darkness can lead, like His, to resurrections in Light. Fr. Ronald Rolheiser challenges us:
"We speak of Jesus' death on the cross as 'paying a debt,' as 'washing us clean with blood,' as 'making expiation for sin,' and as 'breaking the power of Satan.' These expressions, metaphors essentially, might give the impression that Jesus suffers on the cross as part of some divinely scripted plan and that the purpose of his sufferings is to pay off a debt within the divine realm. Jesus' sacrifice then is simply something we admire and appropriate in grace, but it isn't something we imitate. That's our mistake.
"What Jesus suffered on the cross and what he suffered just prior in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals a deep, nonnegotiable secret about human love, and it is something we are asked to imitate. Jesus' suffering on the cross reveals, among other things, that real love costs and costs dearly. If we want sustained, faithful, life-giving love in our lives, the kind of pain that Jesus suffered on the cross is, at a point, its price tag....
"If we want real love beyond romantic daydreams, if we want to keep any commitments we have ever made in marriage, parenting, friendship, or religious vocation, we can do so only if we are willing to sweat blood and die to ourselves at times. There is no other route. Sweating some blood in the garden of commitment and shedding blood in the surrender of intimacy is the price of love, the cost of moving out of alienation....Love invites us to look at the pain that is involved in real commitment and say, as Jesus said: 'Not my will but yours be done.'" (in "The Restless Heart.")
Jesus is the Morning Star Who never sets, the Sun of Justice. When we trust Him with our entire hearts, we know that we are never alone, even if He is silent. We have faith that His Light shines on us in the midst of every darkness, maturing our faith and embracing us with peace, a deep peace that only God can give us. The peace of trusting that He leads the way. The peace that promises that every crucifixion of darkness and depression will eventually end in a new, transformed life for us.
"In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high (Jesus) shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace." (from the Canticle of Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79)