Image: Martin Sattler
Because my father was the parent who slept lightly, he was the one we awakened if we felt sick or troubled in the middle of the night. There was always a soft night light glowing by the radio in the kitchen, and I’d find my way to the kitchen table while my father set about making two cups of tea. As we waited for the water to boil he would open the back door and look out at the night sky. He reassured me many times that morning would soon come, and that the things that were frightening in the dark were always more hopeful in the light. I carried that promise with me. As I grew up and left home I often remembered the hope of those words in the literal dark of night. But it was when I faced the emotional dark of broken dreams and deep disappointment that they came alive.
Like most people, I would prefer to escape deep loss and to avoid hard and challenging times. Yet the dark has given me gifts that are immeasurably deep. It was because I wrestled with the dark that I learned to see beyond what was happening on the surface of my life, and grew to understand that everything is more than it appears to be. In time I knew that the dark is not absent of light. Light moves within the dark at a great depth. With this realization came a glimpse of the inordinate beauty and power just beyond our sight.
The experience of darkness is not reserved for a single, crushing or defining event. We encounter darkness in the many challenges that arise within life. Some are great and some small, but each hold the same potential to alter the way we look at ourselves, and the way we think about our human journey.
The dark, more than the light, opened my eyes to my own conditioning. I believed that I saw things clearly until the dark taught me otherwise. As a result, an apprenticeship with the night is an inheritance I would wish for everyone.
Beyond the experience of the loss of loved ones through physical death, darkness may arise when we are deeply disappointed by some turn of events, or by someone’s actions. It can appear when we feel shamed or disillusioned, or when we confront unexpected illness, both mental and physical, as well as the diminishment of our former strength. We may face the dark if we suffer the loss of a job, or the loss of faith. It is a shadow lurking in the depth of addiction, and we know it in times of betrayal and when we’ve been judged or abused. The pain of divorce, the realities of aging, the death of our particular dreams…these all evoke the dark. It hovers nearby when we are unable to express who we most deeply are. It wears many faces and names.
The dark meets each person in unique ways, and our individual thresholds assume varying forms. Each one is significant. When a life experience calls into question the things you’ve formerly known and believed, the moment can be decisive. From my own journey, I vividly remember times of sheer confusion when I didn’t know if I was being overcome by the dark, or by a great love. Then the wondering, too deep for words, if they were in fact the same. . . .
I look from the vantage point of today at the inner experience of darkness that overwhelmed me when I lost my family without warning in 1975. A mother, father, and child in a car, a man driving drunk, and then a suffocating, unfathomable experience of loss. My husband and daughter did not survive, yet I did. I was twenty-seven years old. The words about loss that I offer here arise from the impact of that specific event, but they are not unique to me. The taste of being blindsided by life, feeling disoriented, lost, and alone is common to the human journey. It was a forceful time.
In the darkness of those nights, to my complete amazement, I sensed a Presence that seemed to be aware of me. Was it responding to my cry for help? My dreams were shattered, and yet a calm and profound silence was there as well. My awareness of this silent Presence was entirely an inner experience. Nothing could be seen or verified. Still, I could not deny it. At that time, my image of God was only of a being outside of myself, so it was unusual and unfamiliar for me to encounter a Presence that moved in the depth of the dark, responding to me from within.
I felt comforted without anything being spoken audibly. A wordless knowledge simply conveyed to me that there was more to life than my present circumstances. A greater reality transcended what I was going through; it only remained to know it. This awareness was my pearl of great price. If pain was not the final say and did not have absolute power, I had hope of finding my way. It made no sense, but it was undeniable: A surpassing love appeared to be moving in the heart of even the deepest pain.