Loseke: Only in the darkness can we discover the light
St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish mystic and Carmelite reformer, is well known for his writings about spiritual darkness – especially for the soul that seeks greater union with God. At first blush, it seems almost counterintuitive that a soul moving closer to God should experience darkness instead of light.
After all, in Jesus Christ, haven’t we been made “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own … who called (us) out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9)?
Indeed, the light of Christ illumines everything and enables us to see all things more clearly. Nevertheless, when we turn to gaze upon him who is the very source of divine light, we, who are so tied to the things of this world, are often blinded by his brilliance. We can think of this in terms of our experience with the sun. We see all things clearly by its light; however, to look directly into the sun would leave us blinded and in darkness.
When Abram was called by the Lord to leave his homeland and journey to the Promised Land, he acted in faith (Gen 15:6). It was a faith that simultaneously gave him knowledge and left him in darkness. On the one hand, he knew God’s plan for him, but, on the other hand, he was unable to see or comprehend how it would be fulfilled.
When he asked God to show him what he could not see, God responded by casting him into a deep and terrifying darkness (Gen 15:12). When everything else was obscured from his sight, Abram, alone in the darkness with God, saw the Promised Land “from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates” (Gen 15:8).
Likewise, when Jesus first predicted his Passion to the apostles and revealed the conditions for discipleship – namely, that they deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him even unto death (see Lk 9:23-24) – they neither saw nor understood what he was revealing to them. To bring them to deeper faith, he led them up the mountain and was transfigured before them. In this great display of his glory, he once again spoke of what he was going to do in Jerusalem, and then a cloud came and shrouded the apostles in a frightening darkness. As with Abram many generations earlier, once everything else was hidden from their eyes and they were alone in the darkness with Jesus, the apostles saw him clearly as the beloved Son of the Father (Lk 9:34-35).
“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). On the one hand, this is comforting to us, for it is through faith that we gain the knowledge of God and his plan for us. On the other hand, it is unsettling, for what we know by faith cannot be known in any other way. To desire union with God, to “see” him more clearly, the believer must turn more and more from the comfortable knowledge that the world provides and enter into the terrifying darkness to which God calls us.
It is darkness, however, only insofar as it challenges us to be stripped of all the things of the world and to let go of everything we know here. Once we do, we find, as St. John of the Cross would say, in the “nada” (that is, the “nothing”) the very Presence of the One who has called us to live in his light.
Father Jeffery Loseke is pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.