Lent: Dancing in Shadows & Light

A Secular Franciscan friend emailed, thanking me for the Kaddish I linked to here. She wrote: “I’ll use it to accompany me through the rest of Lent (because this one will be very very hard to forget any time soon)”.

Within minutes of her email, another friend wrote: “Lent is here with a vengeance.”

To both of these I snorted a wry, “tell me about it…I’m having the sort of Lent I prayed I would have because I was too stupid to remember that God takes us at our words. It has been rich but difficult, fruitful but humbling (so humbling), very beautiful but also terrible. Lent has felt merciful but painfully thorough, though I suspect that it feels more thorough than it has truly been. At this point, I almost feel like I am in a spiritual fetal position, half cowering, half giggling and waiting to finally emerge at Easter.”

Lent has been for me a daily movement through shadows and light; so many to pray for, so much to pray about and the comprehension of all of my limitations and deficiencies. I begin to know all I do not know and have never felt so little. Sometimes, as the psalmist says, “my sin is ever before me,” and the shadows feel very heavy; other times the silence and contemplation thrust me into dizzying light, where there is warmth but then I know even less. I realize I am almost wholly unschooled in love, unacquainted with decency. What I have learned most whole-heartedly this Lent is that my instinct throughout my life have been pretty-much right on: that I am an uncultured, untutored, self-concerned and barely conscious rough beast, and I have been slouching unaware through humanity for almost 5 decades; I am only finally evolving just a little – a very little – for the better.

The revelation only stings for a bit because understanding it helps me to throw myself wholly on the mercy of God, of which I have not a doubt, and leads me to pray “I am unformed and raw, an amoeba; do with it what you will because on my own there’s nothing,” and oddly it pulls me toward the Song of Songs:

Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth!
More delightful is your love than wine!
Your name spoken is a spreading perfume-
that is why the maidens love you.
Draw me!-

This is a very strange dance, at once I feel like the lowest of creatures and the lover pursued. It is – as I say – a movement between shadow and light and somehow trust fits itself between the two and keeps me assured and clumsily waltzing on. In truth, there is a kind of joy – and I suspect it is a very deep-rooted joy – in all of this, because I know what I believe, and I know that this is all leading somewhere, not nowhere, but I have not the art or words to explain any of that to you.

Fortunately, over at America Magazine Fr. James Martin has thrown us a safely line with, this piece, “Shadows and Prayer” wherein he examines “The Seven D’s of the Spiritual Life” – darkness, dryness, desolation, doubt, disbelief, depression and despair.

An experience of darkness can be a gateway to finding God in the nada, or nothingness, and an entry into the via negativa, the negative way. Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, writes in her book Essence of Prayer that God “wants us to trust him enough to live with him unafraid, totally defenseless in his presence. We can truly say that John of the Cross’s teaching has as its sole aim to bring us to this inner poverty.”

A person in darkness feels isolated from God. Yet with patience (whether or not one can identify which “dark night” one is experiencing), one can let go of the need to feel God’s presence constantly and gradually move through the darkness to discover greater intimacy with God.

This is a really valuable article, and I hope you’ll take the time to avail yourself of Fr. Martin’s gleanings. Do any of these “D’s” apply to your current state? I admit I have more than made the acquaintance of a few of them along the way, and I’ve bumped into one or two of them since Ash Wednesday, too, as I’ve engaged in the 8th “D” – this dance of shadow and light.

Julie at Happy Catholic has a Flannery O’ Connor quote that fits here.

Related: Mother Teresa’s Decades-long Dark Night

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