“Meg suddenly finds herself alone in complete darkness. She has no idea what is happening to her. She seems to have vanished into nothingness. She is lost in a void. Then she hears Charles Wallace saying that they have had quite a trip. Calvin reappears too. Meg finds herself in a sunlit field, where everything is golden with light. There is an atmosphere of peace and joy. …They arrive on a mountain peak, from where they can see a moon of Uriel. As the sun sets, they see a faint shadow of darkness that seems to have a life of its own. The stars come out, but the dark shadow remains. Meg feels how terrible the shadow is,and is afraid." Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
Afraid of the dark. How many of us have known that feeling, either as a child in a dark bedroom, or running up an ink-black stairwell, always fearing that someone is coming up quickly behind you to grab at your ankles and pull. Or, even having to take the trash out on a dark night-that skip of the heart, that dread is real and rarely do we dally there. Meg’s fear in A Wrinkle of Time is one based on the immediacy and darkness of evil. But even in her quest to journey to, and confront, this ominous presence, she is brought to a place of self-knowing and light; a kind of self-knowledge to which we can only arrive when we have journeyed through alien lands.
What we call these alien lands in our life may have many names and metaphors, but common themes, however, hinge on the images of wilderness and woods, deserts and darkness. The journey through these themes is often equated to a pilgrimage. Phil Cousineau describes sojourns such as this as “a transformative journey to a sacred center full of darkness, hardships and peril.” We are brought through the wilderness-through the labyrinth, which is often the long way around-to our sacred destinations, to our places of divine answers and self-knowledge and understanding. If we are to arrive at the heart of our pilgrimage, sometimes this means we must enter that dark wood and go into that lightless labyrinth. But we mustn’t believe that we are destined to be lost there. Darkness is just part of the trip. This is the typical point of panic and precariousness. For when are we ever really encouraged to BE in the dark? You know, to be okay with it? At night there are street lights everywhere. In our homes we likely have night lights in the hallways. We are never completely in the dark. But to be well with it is to allow it to be a holy-dark and to surrender to it enables us to journey to the real light.
Dante spoke truly of this journey in the following passage from The Inferno:
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. To tell about those woods is hard—so tangled and rough and savage that thinking of it now, I feel the old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter. And yet, to treat the good I found there as well I’ll tell what I saw…. (Canto I)
Traveling through times of darkness will ultimately bring us to that sacred center – full of light and joy. While darkness is not the whole of the story, as pilgrimages often have vistas of beauty and happiness, it is often the part of the story left untold. Parker Palmer writes prolifically about these obscure seasons and offers a mandate that we share with others about our journeys. He wisely recognizes that in telling what we saw in our dark woods, we cross an essential threshold into a place of selfhood and regenerative new life. Furthermore, there is a sense that to tell the whole of one’s story-to illuminate one’s life journey- can actually help to keep us out of the darkness.
I need to tell my truth, my story, for another reason. Many of you today are journeying through the wilderness and traveling without the knowledge of company or solidarity. That kind of isolation can eclipse all hopes in ever leaving the labyrinth. Those of us who have gone before you would be false if we withheld the shadowy parts of our own lives. We have the power to provide community and comprehension for others when we share authentically about our own story.
The tale of my journey through barren wilderness is no more or less important than anyone else’s. Mine is simply mine, and therefore the only context from which I can speak. My dark night began when I was a university student. I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew and called a friend. The darkness of that particular night became that of an endless, starless season. I became pregnant as a result of the rape. Horrified doesn’t even begin to touch the emotional state in which this realization spun me. For so many varied and vulnerable reasons, my overwhelming shock hunkered into my deepest, softest places and alone, in quiet confusion, I made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. I soundlessly screamed against a God who could allow this to happen to me. I reticently raised my fists at systems that seemed to condone such manifestations of mysogony and misappropriations of power. I was in shock. I was in denial. I felt I like was dumped at the trailhead of a trek for which I would never in a lifetime have signed up. But like it or not, my life was taking me into the darkness of a journey that called me to wrestle with dark angels and beg me to ask this question: toward what newness is God calling me?
This assault brought me to my knees, my spirit to the ground. I felt alone and alienated in my pain, and completely unknowable in my experience. This isolation later contributed to factors that diagnosed me with clinical depression. Wise counsel helped me understand that instead of perceiving these attacks as being crushed by the enemy, I could see this rather as an invited time of being laid down on the ground, a place where it would be safe to curl up and cry, but to ultimately stand up tall again as well. I had to discover the ground of my own truth, my own nature, my own mix of darkness and light. This wilderness journey, this labyrinth, wasn’t leading me to hell, but was journeying me towards God.
Now here are where the paradoxes of our faith come into play.
Now, clearly I don’t believe that God willed and allowed me to basely suffer at the hands of that man. That happened because our world is fallen in nature. Nor do I believe that God wanted me to have an abortion and become depressed. There is deep and distracting theology around both those points; here is not the place to delve into either. However, what I do believe is that God inhabits the perilous places in our pilgrimage. The Bible often uses darkness as a metaphor for sin and the absence of God. On the other hand, there are references to darkness being a place where God dwells and seems to take comfort. In Psalm 18:11, the Psalmist describes it this way: “God makes darkness his hiding place, the covering around Him, the dark rain clouds of the sky.” The image of the Creator of the Universe shrouded in darkness with images of distended, dark rain clouds is not our normal frame of reference; the Psalmist’s perspective, though, has sufficiency and solidarity all over it. God in the dark. God living your darkness. Therefore, darkness can feel strangely nurturing, swollen with the mystery of becoming. All of life first incubates in darkness. New development follows and life begins. Darkness indeed is a necessary condition for development. Whenever a new life begins and grows, darkness is crucial to that processes. Whether it is the caterpillar and the chrysalis, the seed and the soil, the wee one in the womb, or the true self and the soul. There is always a time of waiting. In. The. Dark.
In John’s Gospel, there is a story of when Jesus tells a high ranking Pharisee named Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again. This did not mean reentering his mother’s womb; rather, Christ was talking about a spiritual transformation. As Christians, we often just focus on the-life-everlasting after the rebirth and forget to recognize the inherent (and necessary) gestation period. Sue Monk Kidd describes this as a time of “incubating darkness.” I believe that Jesus selected this strongly feminine metaphor not just so we could grasp the power of new life but also to engage in the implications of the womb that precede every birth. If we want to enter the kingdom of God, we will have to enter a place of waiting, of darkness and of incubation. We will have to walk the wilderness. Julian of Norwich wrote that “our wounds become the womb.” This touching image points us to the awareness that transformation hinges on the ability for us to turn our wounds into a fertile place where life is birthed-the womb.
I have now been out of these dark woods for many years now. That devastating time in the desert slowly began to change to seasons of oasis; the shadowy woods became my own personal Tree of Life. I now have a loving, supportive husband and three beautiful children who daily teach me so much about life, our world and how to live well into it. And I have a life that would not be what it is had I not sojourned through that dark, wild forest. The wound of that trespass so many years ago is now the site of great life and fertility. The darkness of that decision and depression has given way to new perspectives on life and the Christ-light. My threshold for empathizing with another’s story and listening without judgement has increased in depth and breadth because of that journey. There is a great sense of light in my life these days and this certainly isn't to say that I won't once again travel in the hard, rocky places. It is simply that I have such a clearer understanding that out of death, comes life. We only know light because of the darkness. I walk in the woods now and I witness a fallen tree on the forest floor and I smile and understand a little bit more; for this wizened wood has now become a nurse log, a fertile place which will provide life, and company, for a gazillion little creatures for a long, long time.
And so today I ask this: let the Christ-life incubate within the darkness of your wilderness. Share your dark journey with a safe-someone else, for it is in sharing our story that we invite others to be light, to be grace, to be hope, and to be Christ to us; thereby bringing us out of the darkness or simply being there to illuminate it.