holy darkness [December Synchroblog]

[This is part of a monthly Synchroblog. The topic this month is: light and darkness as motifs of spirituality. Links to the other blogs are at the end of the post.]

Most of us are still afraid of the dark. Things that we are very sure of in the light of day appear to be quite different when encountered in darkness. As the sun goes down, familiar lines and shapes grow indistinct and murky, and seem to take on strange and sometimes threatening forms. Perhaps we don’t dare to talk much about darkness because our dualistic minds can only associate the word with evil. It’s no wonder then that we love our black and white certainties. They offer us some semblance of light where we can say “we see”. We’ve learned to mistrust things like mystery with its aura of dark hiddenness. Mystery is something beyond our sight, beyond our ability to calculate, measure and figure out. It is far beyond our ability to control. It is more than a little frightening.

Yet, the season of Advent invites us into mystery. It is an entry into darkness, if you will, because in all honesty, we wait for that which we do not know. We simply know that there is something coming, something promised that makes our hearts leap in anticipation, something that can finally soothe the ache of our weary hearts and minds. We are invited to move inward to embrace – dare I say it – the feminine side of our existence as a living Body and begin to believe that something good is being formed within us. I would say we are all invited to be pregnant with hope.

It’s no coincidence that in the world of symbols the idea of mystery has long been associated with the feminine, because of the internality of woman’s being and body. Her womb is a place of dark mystery, of hidden miracles. We have little control over what happens in there. We simply have to wait and trust that new life will come. But like Zacharias who skeptically questioned the angel that brought him the good news of an impossible pregnancy, we all demand explanations; we want to see. This has caused us to forget that it must be a place beyond our sight (until ultrasound) and more significantly, beyond our control, where new life is intricately woven and birthed. 

It’s little wonder that we still have trouble believing that the Spirit can and will come over us to conceive and birth something new and beautiful and alive in our collective body, and bring it forth at the right time. We prefer our leadership models, attractional strategies, and outreach programs to give us an outward, visible sense of viability. We want our faith explained and full view. We like tangible success, like seats filled up in church. We believe in progress and production, numbers and appearances which give the impression of  life. But we have been measuring ourselves with artificial, external means. The emphasis on power, hierarchy, numbers and productivity has robbed us of our ability to trust the Spirit who continually hovers, reveals, quickens, convicts, revives and assures, birthing mercy and connected community. Just as in a pregnancy, the Spirit forms something wonderful in the dark, beyond our ability to see, codify and manipulate.

Our fear of the dark has created shame and denial regarding the darker side of our own hearts. Our dualistic thinking brings relief (albeit temporary) from having to bear the truth that in the very same hearts that are filled with Light, cruel self-absorption also abides. The Apostle Paul cries out, “I do the very thing I don’t want to do!” poignantly illustrating this battle within us all. The fact that we don’t want to do it (whatever it is) reveals the goodness within, yet we stand ashamed to admit that we are in a battle at all. With the loss of mystery and all that it entails, we have learned to mistrust the inner processes of growth and healing. We devalue the importance of our inner worlds. We have been deceived into believing that what is happening internally is not as important as what happens on the outside, where we can be seen. Perhaps we think God feels that way as well, and that we must keep our innermost selves hidden from Him too.

This problem seems to be an outflow of the first one: we can’t bear to be waiting and to not know how to fix ourselves so we force external conforming before our internal world is healed and ready. Only victorious talk is allowed. To be viewed as one who is needy or weak is a badge of shame. This leads to a Ted Haggard type of situation, where the very idea of a Christian leader (or any Christian) having an internal struggle (much less a sexual addiction) is just too awful to bear. A person literally splits into two –  a public life and a desperate private self. But we have seen that no matter how well we deny the darkness within us, it will slip out somehow. To accept the reality of our own darkness is a kindness we cannot afford to refuse for ourselves, nor withhold from one another. We must be allowed to be honest strugglers. We each deal with something. The church that can wait together with hope in the mysterious work of the Spirit will truly be life giving companions for the long journey. We each will become an Elizabeth, feeling our spirit leap with joy within us at the recognition of each other – believing that beyond their struggles each person is truly a container of the Divine.

Advent season invites us to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in darkness, that He brings order and light into chaotic, troubled places. In this season we re-member how to be open to the Holy Spirit moving in and among us, creating life beyond our control, bringing it to birth at the right time. And like the baby in the manger, this new life often comes in small, and sometimes hidden and unadorned ways through unexpected people. It may be seen in the woman who finds the courage to confess her addiction to her small group for the first time, or in a group of friends coming quietly together to help another friend be restored after a serious crash into sin. It is found in the fatherless daughters who are brought corsages and asked to dance through every song by the men in their mom’s cell group at the father-daughter dance. It is in the family brought to the edge by job loss and serious illness that feels the surrounding love and support of the church to be literally life saving. It is in the lonely old widower who finds open arms to weep in with dignity. This is the quickening of life in the church.

We have been deceived into thinking that nothing valuable is going on in hidden places – in the darkness of winter or the womb of the Church. Waiting may feel like wasting. But even a season of darkness and long waiting there are signposts leading us to the Light. In the womb an infant has hands to work and play with, though she has never done these things, feet to walk with even though she cannot begin to imagine it, and a mouth to eat with even though she has never tasted food. The one growing in darkness cannot yet see that these things all point to a different world. In all of us now there is a holy longing for connection, significance, to be seen and known and loved, all of which move us to explore new depths together. And even in the most shameful, darkest parts of us, there is always a Holy Longing which lies beneath our dark desires to point us to something truer. G.K. Chesterton said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Light will always overcome darkness. If we as a Church do not deny or flee our darkness we may learn to be midwives, delivering each other from darkness into the Light. And perhaps we will be open to see something about our mysterious God that we have not recognized before.


Phil Wyman Darkness: A Thin Place For My Soul

Adam Gonnerman On Being In Darkness

Lainie Petersen What the Mirror Doesn’t Tell Me

Jeff Goins Walking in the Light with Jesus

Bethany Stedman Light is Coming

Julie Clawson Darkness and Light

Kathy Escobar Light- I’ll Take a Sliver Anyday

Susan Barnes  and here’s a photo of one I made earlier

Joe Miller Discover Light in Darkness

Beth Patterson Advent: Awaiting the Ancient and the Ever New

Liz Dyer What the Heck

Sally Coleman Light into Darkness

Steve Hayes Lord of the Dark

Josh Jinno  Spiritual Motifs of Darkness and Light

KW Leslie Darkness versus blackness

Erin Word  Fire and Sacrifice



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Showing 13 comments
  • slanderwoman

    Damn, girl! This is some fine writin’!
    Seriously: Deep. Articulate. Beautiful.
    Write on, my friend.

  • Debbie

    This really got me thinking about the dark night from which I am emerging. I’d add to your rescources Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul, which says “our soul is involved in an eternal continuous birth.” In a dark place, a soul rebirth can be evolving. We can feel cut off and alone, but this can be necessary to live in-between the known and unknown in a process of transformation. “In your dark night, you could see issues that go beyond the sphere of psychology: matters of meaning, rites of passage, mortality, and values…You need a spiritual point of view to appreciate them and deal with them.” The world does not know what to do with a person in the dark. Yet that person may be going through an important life transition, if he or she can give themselves up to it.

  • gracerules

    Ellen- You wrote: To accept the reality of our own darkness is a kindness we cannot afford to refuse for ourselves, nor withhold from one another.

    Absolutely beautiful!

    Thanks for the call to embrace the mystery and power of God.

  • Beth Patterson

    Beautifully done, Ellen–

    Did you paint that gorgeous painting? It looks like a tuber or bulb resting in the darkness of the earth–is that what it is? It’s a lovely image. Could I borrow it?

    Many thanks for a great post-

  • J. R. Miller

    learning to trust the Holy Spirit in the darkness is such a big key and you are right on.

    Your post reminds me of the Psalmist’s prayer. Even in darkness, I shall not Diminish”

  • Katherine E

    Such a beautiful post. Thank you.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you, Ellen, for these images of waiting together with hope in the mysterious work of the Spirit. I’ve been thinking a lot about waiting and the Advent season. It does invite us to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the waiting, in the darkness, in the hope of life anew. It confounds our sense of “success” and productivity and what we can accomplish ourselves if we just “put our minds to it.” I love the phrase “life giving companions”. May we begin to recognize each other as such.

  • kathyescobar

    seriously, ellen, you rock!!!!

    so beautiful, every paragraph packed full with so many powerful images and words. my favorite, if i have to choose: “Light will always overcome darkness. If we as a Church do not deny or flee our darkness we may learn to be midwives, delivering each other from darkness into the Light.”

    love ya and hope to hang out again soon! kath

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