The Bible is the most realistic of books. Human society is shown in all its complexity. Everything is there: wars, murder, sexual infidelity, political corruption, incurable diseases and idolatry with spiritual perversions. Ecclesiastes summarized it long ago: “The days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’.” (12:1) If you are old enough to be out of primary school, then you know something of what life ‘dishes out’. The Bible reflects life and has some surprisingly relevant insights.
How can we say something honest, real and of some practical benefit? Facile is easy; tough minded is hard. But it is a task I will attempt in this brief sermon.
Into the Light?
It is easy to equate Christianity with being in the light, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5) It is risky to walk in the dark with the ‘lights switched off’. But darkness as a symbol is not bad – though it seems paradoxical. The most familiar of Psalms the 23rd. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil for you are with me.” How can we learn to walk in the dark?
I know a little about darkness. In ministry I became familiar with spiritual darkness. In pessimistic moments still I see our world shrouded in spiritual darkness, with inequalities of wealth, corruption and political oppression. Stalked by plague. I spend 25 years as a clinical psychologist in sessions with people in the greatest of distress: emotionally overwhelmed, confused and even suicidal when the pain feels too much to bear. I saw both victims and perpetrators of significant crimes. Too often I have had to assess the complete failure of parenting when an agency removes children from parents. The failures of family life, of relationships and friendships – when desperate people do desperate things. This, of course, would equate with anyone’s definition of darkness.
Also, I know what darkness feels like when it is within. I have reached out for pastoral care, my own spiritual direction and therapy numerous times over the years. But then we all know this darkness. The only place to begin a spiritual journey is where we are. If we are in darkness: How do we learn to walk?
There is a curious promise in Isaiah, Yahweh said, “I will give you the treasures of darkness” (45:3). What are these treasures of darkness, when the church speaks mostly about coming into the light? The writings of Barbara Brown Taylor are instructive in this regard. A few years ago she featured in Time Magazine with her recent book Learning to walk in the Dark (2014). As a spiritual writer she contrasts this with what she calls “a full solar church” which can be recognized by “its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”
Nothing wrong with this? Right, that is until some darkness falls on your life: You lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in an attention getting way, you pray hard for something that doesn’t happen, and you begin to doubt. Or you get old.Taylor notes that when you first begin to express reservations about God you will probably get a hearing, maybe some understanding, but ultimately the message will be that you do not have enough faith. She concluded, “Having been on the receiving end of this verdict more than once, I do not think it is as mean as it sounds. The people who said it seemed genuinely to care about me. They had honestly offered me the best they had. Since their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark, I had simply exhausted their resources. They could not enter the dark without putting their own faith at risk, so they did the best they could. They stood where I could still hear them and begged me to come back into the light.”
Darkness and light. What do we do with such polarities? I could go on: Good & evil, saved & lost, church & world, spirit & flesh, sacred & profane, and of course light and dark. It is easy to guess which side most people see as closer to God. But are these so neatly in opposition? Who knows anything about heaven without knowing hell? Or as Taylor noted, “Who knows the spirit without also knowing flesh? Is anyone all together good or altogether evil?” She has discerned that it is time for the spiritual skill of learning to walk in the dark.
A Psychology of Darkness
If simplistic answers are pervasive in the church, what about psychology? For about ten years I was an academic. I convened a training program for 60 graduate students in clinical psychology. Psychology in with its ‘evidence based therapies’ finds it easy to have a triumphalist attitude to banish psychological dysfunction. Negative thoughts are maladaptive. Anger needs management. Unrelenting psychopathology needs medication. While there is a point to using therapies with a proven record of being effective such as CBT, no therapy works every time. Or with every person.
We need to go beyond such half-truths. Indeed, some new trends in psychological therapy can help teach us how to walk in the dark. These would include practicing mindfulness (being present and aware), clarifying values and goals of committed living, self-compassion and radical acceptance. These psychological resources are relevant for learning to walk in the darkness.
I will give an example with mindfulness. It is now a big theme in psychological treatment with therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and demonstrating considerable effectiveness. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to present experience. You could mindfully count the bricks in a wall or books on a shelf. This can be helpful when our minds are full of ‘speeding thoughts’, we can become grounded and present and not tossed around by errant thoughts often leading to a low mood.
We often find ourselves on auto-pilot or with ruminating thoughts. So a first step is to reclaim awareness. We can most easily do this with our usual daily activities: eating, house-hold chores such as washing dishes or having a shower. These can be done mindfully. For example experiencing the sensations of water hitting our bodies. I walk Truff twice each day. He challenges me to be more mindful because he notices every smell, stopping to investigate and only reluctantly, with a pull of the leash, does he move on.
There are some useful spiritual practices which can be practiced mindfully. These are found in the contemplative tradition. I have never been particularly good at contemplative practices, being too impatient to be active, but even I have gained some benefit. This includes:
- Mindful breathing.
- Christian mantra such as “In the beginning God” (Gen 1:1) or “The peace of God passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7).
This can be done with an openness to God, or an amorphous spiritual dimension, or even the ‘best-in-us’. Perhaps address the Holy Spirit who blows where she will (John 3:8). One of the opportunities of getting older is to find creative ways to use time. It can be a challenge to try something different both psychologically and spiritually.
Mindful about Darkness
I believe that we should change our relationship to all that is dark. This may include a complete reappraisal of our spiritual pathway. Let me suggest an activity: write a brief account of your spiritual journey. Divide it like God divided the light from the darkness Gen 1:4 (in our digital age this might be a different font or highlighted). Then list what you learned about God and yourself under two headings: in times of light when all was well and in times of darkness when things were going terribly wrong. I will not make any prediction or state what might be obvious even when you begin to think about it.
The Rev’d Dr Bruce A Stevens (PhD Boston U, 1987) was Wicking Chair of Ageing and Practical Theology (CSU 2015-2019), he is a supply minister at GUC 2022-23.