A few weeks ago I wrote a post narrating a period of vocational reflection wherein I mused about our collective call to really open ourselves to being transformed in order to transform the world around us. Turns out, we have to be careful what we ask for. Does God transform us or does God offer us spaces and relationships that can be transformational? Are the two mutually-exclusive? Lately, I’m not so sure.
What I thought was merely a semiannual vocational reflection turned out to be something more. I hesitate to refer to it as the “Dark Night of the Soul” because St. John of the Cross actually spent months in prison during his soul’s dark night. Parish ministry is many things, but a monastery prison is not one of them. If not a “dark night,” the past few months have certainly been a foggy day. I came to appreciate fog during my year at Sewanee. You haven’t seen fog until you have seen Sewanee fog. This fog renders you unable to see anything beyond a few feet in front of you. One learns to walk by faith knowing that the Chapel of the Apostles or Hamilton Hall is somewhere in that general direction. Our normal ways of moving forward and finding our way are rendered inoperative and we must rely on something else, something more instinctual. It helps when we’ve been there before. Sometimes we aren’t afforded that luxury.
For Christians in the Northern hemisphere, Advent is curiously (probably intentionally) placed at the end of the year when things are literally getting darker. We pray for light and yet the world gets darker. No matter how hard or long we pray, the world is still going to get darker. God seems to no longer be in the business of making the sun stand still ever since that Joshua thing. This year that was true for me physically and spiritually. The more I prayed for clarity and vision, the darker it got. It wasn’t until a few weeks into Advent that I realized I was praying for the wrong thing. I was so busy praying for light that I was missing the transformation being offered to me by walking through the darkness.It might be helpful to pause here and expound upon what I mean by “darkness.” Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, I no longer associate darkness with “bad.” I long ago threw off “full-solar spirituality” that seeks fulfillment, comfort, safety, and happiness at all cost. That kind of saccharine-sweet spirituality went the way of all flesh and bad theology long ago when I had to choose between life and being saved. I never had words to describe it, but I knew deep down that a cohesive spirituality embraces light and dark, faith and doubt, joy and sorrow, not as good and bad, but as part of the rhythm of life and opportunities to experience the Holy. Darkness, at least as I have come to understand it, is an inability to see what is next and therefore an inability to plan the next step with certainty. If “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the entire staircase,” I don’t know what to call it when you’re not even sure there’s a take case there for your foot to land on. Stupidity? One need only spend a few moments walking through pitch blackness to understand how much we take sight and light for granted. Now apply that spiritually. We place a lot of value on vision and light in the life of the spirit. The Word of God is a “lamp unto our feet and light into our path” according to one Psalmist and Jesus describes himself as the “Light of the World.” These things are true. But what does it mean when you can’t see your way forward? When you can’t see where your feet will land next?
Last evening while I was decompressing after an afternoon of holiday travel snarls and other first-world anxiety, I was reminded of a word I learned in seminary – apophatic spirituality. As the school of thought goes, there are two ways to come to God – we come to God through what God is (“cataphatic”) or through what God is not (“apophatic”). Put another way, cataphatic theology is experience of God through fullness. Apophatic is experience of God through emptiness. There are ways of taking this too far, I’m sure (or maybe that’s my sacerdotal need to support orthodoxy, not sure), but apophatic spirituality is a negative (not bad) experience of God. It is experiencing God in the void, in what’s left when traditional buttresses give way. It’s finally understanding that God is ultimately unattainable and that or best efforts to reach God will always leave us wanting.
If that sounds pessimistic, it shouldn’t. An ancient Buddhist proverb suggests “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Rachel Held Evans suggests that the minute we have understood it, it ceases to be God. We’re each called on our own journeys with God, to work out our own soul salvation with “fear and trembling.” Some of those journeys can take the prescribed route. Others are called to be trailblazers.
Even going through the definition of apophatic spirituality, I see how we have freighted words with so much implicit baggage. We don’t even think about it critically. Negative, darkness, void, black are all words that we uncritically associate with bad, sinister, and evil. I wonder what we’ve attached to God, good or bad, that actually get in the way of God. I wonder where we stop walking in the darkness for fear of walking too far beyond the acceptable limits of faith.
When I was in seminary in Atlanta I was exposed to a Jewish practice of writing God with a dash in the middle so that “God” was written as “G-d.” There were two explanations given to me about this practice. One said that the idea is that the name of G-d was too important to be taken lightly, so the name was intentionally defaced in order to prevent it from being casually defaced later by someone without regard to the name of G-d. In defacing the name of G-d with intention, practicing Jews are saying that this word is not G-d, it only references G-d. The other explanation suggested that no word was big enough to hold who G-d is, so God was written with space in the middle. Whether either of these is particularly Jewish, I’m not sure, but I baulked when some of my colleagues adopted the practice. It felt a little like pirating or cultural appropriation. Now, four years later into the thick of parish ministry, it feels true. In the words of St. John of the Cross, G-d is nada, G-d is no-thing. If safety and security is what I’m seeking, there is no hiding place. No where for me to go. I’m am called ever onward into the mystery of G-d, into the safety that is only available when I give up control.
What is clear for me at least is that the old ways of conceiving of faith and vocation no longer work. 2.5 years into what I hope is a lifetime of ministry to G-d, the Church, and the world and the romantic ideas of spirituality and calling are gone. If the honeymoon ended when Mike Brown got killed, then I am entering the phase of marriage to the Church where the kids need to be picked up from daycare and I’m running late from the office, I forgot to take out the trash, my in-laws are on my last nerves, the dog just chewed up the sofa, the basement is flooded, and my partner just told me he doesn’t think I’m trying hard enough. We might be angry with one another in the moment, but we keep coming back home to each other.
My own “foggy day” is surely reflected in the Church’s “dark night” as we wrestle with what it means to be Church in a shifting world. We’ll try new liturgies, overhaul prayer books and canons, introduce new songs and resurrect some old ones, but deep inside those who pay attention to the Spirit understand that this river runs much deeper than that. We encountering a shift in spirituality that will shake the Church to her core. Fundamental ways of being Church and Christian which have kept the faithful for generations may no longer be necessary as the questions the world is asking outpace the Church’s ability to address and wrestle with them. It’s why when so many are asking questions about climate change, war and refugees, discrimination and privilege, and economic disparity so much of our ecclesial common life is preoccupied with questions about average Sunday attendance, new liturgies, pledged income and endowments. Our old questions no longer work. Our old platitudes fall flat. Our language makes presumptions about the world that are no longer true. We’ve been praying for the light. Maybe we need to walk in the dark.
Henri Nouwen suggests something in The Wounded Healer that I find helpful to recall to mind every now and then – our own wounds are opportunities to experience the pain of others. I wonder if the Church has spent so much time trying to be healed and powerful, that we’ve forgotten what it was like to be broken and weak, and I wonder if we’ve lost something in that. I wonder if we’ve lost the ability to meet wounded people where they are – in the gutters of life – because we are otherwise preoccupied on the high road of salvation. I wonder if we’re so busy trying to appear in resurrection power that we miss the ministry of the tears in the garden. I wonder if we’re so preoccupied with the successful that we’re missing the striving and have forgotten about the struggling. I wonder if we’ve forgotten what it is like to hunted, to be slaves, to be oppressed. I wonder if there is a part of the Gospel that can only be understood from the underside of life. I wonder if I have been trying so hard to be whole that I’ve missed the blessed transformation of woundedness – the Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Jeremiah’s fire shut up in his bones, Jacob’s limp after he met the Angel, Jesus’s transformative witness to forgiveness even while on the cross. Maybe G-d is trying to transform us into a wounded people whose nail-scared hands point the way to transformation and union with G-d’s self. I don’t know.
What I do know is that G-d is light and darkness and neither, and God invites each of us into this mysterious relationship of doubting faith, wounded wholeness, foggy days and dark nights. Perhaps it’s not the destination that pleases G-d but the willingness to walk, in darkness or light, with a sincere desire to see G-d even if we step in the wrong direction. It may not be as sexy as claiming to have found G-d, but short of heaven it might be good enough.
And sometimes good enough is enough.