Monday, November 28, 2005

Seeking God in the Darkness

I commend to you Dr. Rowan William's recent lecture delivered a the Islamic University, Islamabad. It is an excellent and concise summary of the Christian faith. I want to draw out one brief excerpt from the Archbishop's lecture:

...Some too have written about how the journey into this silence may be a road of great suffering, a following of the suffering of Jesus. Christian mysticism often speaks of the "darkness" in which God lives - not because he does not want to communicate but because our minds and hearts are too small for him to enter fully, so that we experience God as challenging and overwhelming. But it also speaks of light flooding the mind, like the light that flowed from the face of Jesus, according to the gospels, when he was praying in the presence of his friends...
We begin the season of Advent in the darkness. We light one candle each week, allowing their light to slowly overcome the darkness.

But before we move into rejoicing over the increase of light, do we have the courage to sit in the darkness for a moment? Can we consider, at least briefly, the darkness as a blessing?

We are bombarded by so much stimuli each second of the day. To manage this overwhelming flow of sensory data, we develop filters that automatically edit out much of this information. Over time, we forget about this process, and begin to believe that the information we are processing is all there is. We begin to believe that our perception is absolute truth. We begin to believe that we know.

And then some piece of data, derived from experience, a thought or a memory, slips pass the filters and enters into our conscious world. This new information does not fit within our neatly ordered categories of truth. Suddenly the danger of chaos looms, and we are forced to choose a response. We can either build our defensive filters stronger, or we can seek an objective perspective from which we can adjust our filters.

The difficulty in the latter option, which I would suggest is always the better of the two, is finding a way for a creature who is necessarily and primarily subjective to discover a vantage point from which some degree of objectivity can be attained.

One way to achieve this perspective is to intentionally enter the darkness; to strip away the constant bombardment of stimuli and incessant interior chatter. To enter the silence. To be willing to sit quietly in a place where it may appear, according to our sensory data, that God is not.

From this place we have no choice but to look within and to confront those filters, those fears, which we have put in place to keep out unpleasant, and even frightening, elements of our lives. It is from this place that we can reflect on the more uncomfortable aspects of the truth. It is from this place that we can honestly ask the question that drives our quest; where is God?

We know that entering the darkness can be helpful in our search for God because of the testimonies of those who have been forced into the darkness against their will, and have come away with insights that are of value to us all. As but one example, here is a well-known story by Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Prize winning author who survived Auschwitz, in which he describes the hanging of a young boy:

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the camp executioner refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.
The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. "Long live Liberty!" cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. "Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. "Cover your heads!"

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?"

And I hear a voice within me answer him: "Where is he? Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows. . . "
Not a pleasant story. One I would rather filter out. But in the darkness, there it is. And it leads me to the cross; to a God who is not distanced from suffering and pain, but a God who is found in the midst of it. My longing for God draws me to those who are hurting.

There is no place where God is not. If we perceive that this is not so, maybe our filters need to be adjusted.

Holy art Thou, Lord of the Universe.
Holy art Thou, whom Nature hath not Formed.
Holy art Thou, the Vast and the Mighty One.
Lord of the Light and of the Darkness.

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