“Blessed are Those Who Mourn, for They Will be Comforted.” Matthew 5:12
He has to choose. I sit cross-legged and motionless praying in the corner of my son’s hospital room, my breast milk rejected because his 5-week old body hasn’t the energy to stay alive and to suckle milk.
Media news account after news account details racial violence and tension, and I face the problem of how I live within the skin that society tells me is inferior; being subtle targets of aggression or even bouts of physical violence are a constant, for some like me. Often the cloud of darkness and unknowing envelopes me, eating away at any hope for peace, reconciliation, equality or love for the dark person.
Mourning comes in the dark matter of my own fluctuations with anxiety disorder. I can pinpoint some triggers: at the core is fear, but most days it slowly invades until I am engulfed in its shadow, waiting for it to pass again. What I’m trying to say is that mourning for me has taken the form of dimly lit, lonely, fearful moments that keep me from seeing any light.
In such times I am ashamed of God’s invisibility.
I retreat into myself, into my head, unsure whether anyone can hear my guttural mourning, not really caring if they do. To me mourning is an awareness of the hole that I am in, knowing that others are near, but not able to engage as normal. It is as if they can see me, but not clearly, because the darkness obscures me.
Those days are not every day. Most days are filled with light, happy. During one of these sunny days my family was on a road trip listening to This American Life with Ira Glass on National Public Radio when a guest mentioned his time spent exploring the deepest, darkest place on earth. The diver described the thick, unimaginable darkness in the depths of Bushman’s Cave in South Africa. Bushman’s Cave is one of the world’s deepest submerged freshwater caves, with its floor at 270m below the earth’s surface. However, a canal drops from the cave floor, making the cave’s precise depth unverifiable. In 2004, famous cave diver David Shaw died descending into Bushman’s Cave to recover the body of a native diver who had died previously on the descent. Fellow diver Don Shirley, retelling the story of the day Shaw died on the recovery mission, describes the cave: “You’re in pitch black, absolute pitch black. So if you shined[sic] a light in any direction, it would disappear. The darkness will[sic] eat the light.” What? That is contrary to my Christian teaching. Is it possible for the dark to overcome the light? Immediately this brings to mind the line from the gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the dark has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
The radio story unsettles me because it conflicts with my theological understanding of darkness and light. But something about this natural phenomenon intrigues me, and I press into the line of inquiry it has stirred up. I wonder what I might learn from nature that can inform my theology on darkness and light. True, sometimes the darkness of my emotions swallows up the light, if only for a moment. Things seem to go dark even when my religion tells me it is not possible, if I am faithful. St. John wrote: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:1-6).
My experience, however, says, like the witness from Bushman’s Cave, it is possible to walk in darkness as a follower of Christ. I presented my discomfort and questions about this inconsistency to a small group at a Christian spirituality conference. Did they think it possible? Is it a lack of faith to think that darkness can overcome? The group thoughtfully considered my question. I wondered if the biblical metaphors of good and evil are based solely on this limited worldview that we inhabit, that we see, that is visible? What if the darkness is not evil but made in the same likeness of God, like the light? I posit, what if God made darkness? What if God is darkness?
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) .
This idea leads me to suggest that humanity has distorted darkness. We have the capacity to pervert all that is good — sex, food, animals, people, and ecosystems. What if we choose to make evil of the dark? Supposethe darkness is therefore good, but we refuse the gift? Good or bad, how then do we find solace in the earthly abyss of darkness that gobbles up light and humankind? I shared with my small group Shirley’s description, quoted in Sebastien Berger’s Ghosts of the Abyss, of the delicate balance required to avoid death in the depths of the Earth. Shirley says, “To avoid this [death], divers, following a guide rope or line, must stop at pre-determined depths on their ascent for specified times to give the nitrogen and helium in their bodies time to slowly release and prevent the bubbles from forming. Deep diving is therefore a delicate balancing act between the gases and the divers’ activity at different depths.” But, he continues, “when the balance is right, there’s no experience like it. You get to the point where there is no God, no past, no future, just now and the next millisecond … It’s not a threatening environment. It’s just total serenity.”
Much like Aristotle, I find that nature is a necessity in theology; unlike Shirley, I search for God in the natural world. Is God the Being of “total serenity” that Shirley experiences on his deep dives? Do I have to go that far?
How then do I reconcile a world created by the Divine that has places where the light is not sufficient?
My group agrees that darkness cannot be avoided, that we will walk in darkness, but perhaps it is not a place to be feared because even if the light of Christ seems truncated, it is present, exists in those dark, alienated recesses of the beloved Universe. The darkness bends the light so that we may know its many forms, distorted and warped until we recognize.
The group slowly shifts to thinking of the darkness as a phenomenon of God’s design (as experienced below the earth), and concludes that it gives way to a type of light that cannot be extinguished, as Shirley says, a serenity that can only come when a diver is totally submerged in the depths of being alone in the dark. Essentially, my group resolves that the polarity of dark and light experienced in unlikely places serves to move us deeper, beyond the world on the surface, deeper than we normally live.
If this is the case, I can agree that mourning drops me below where I can breathe comfortably, and inevitably wraps me in a comfort that resides in “the now, the next millisecond.”
How then, do I prepare for these descents, remembering the intricate balance between spiritual development and despondence? I recall how Howard Thurman’s The Inward Journey poetically expands on Psalm 139.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence;
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in the depths of Sheol, you are there. (v.7-8).
Then Thurman writes,
When night remains night
And darkness deepens;
When the evilness of evil is unrelieved
And utter desolation makes mockery
Of all that was true and good;
When the open door of refuge
Closes in my face
And to turn back is of no avail;
When the firm grip of sanity trembles
And all balances tilt, leaving
The mind tortured and crazed;
When all around, worlds crash
And winds blow torrid
Over the parched and wasted
Places of my spirit;
When sin multiplies itself
Until at last all goodness
Seems swallowed up and devoured;
When the chuckle of death
Is the only sound to be heard in the land,
Thou art there! (148)
The psalmist, as well as the natural world, tells us of God’s peripheral presence. It is true that after mournful events I can see that God was there, not as a ball of light, but in her darkness. She was there mourning with me, comforting me as I learned to replace my sense of seeing with the sense of being, just being.
Sometimes the dimness is like the light from the moon –not of a solar type but of a lunar type that reveals shadows, and allows enough to guide me out of the wilderness, to self-correct. Or sometimes it offers cave-like stillness where I can choose to settle into the stillness or panic and lose life.
The struggle to free himself from a line around his neck cost the diver David Shaw his life. The subtle balance was tipped.
As Shaw grappled with it [the body of the dead diver], the head came off and, as the video footage revealed, bobbed in and out of the frame, at one point peering directly at the camera, the blackened goggles staring straight at Shaw. Struggling with the body and the bag, Shaw’s torch, attached by a cord to his dry suit, became tangled in his guide line – a potential disaster. Berger describes his death based on Shirley’s account:
He cleared it, but his breathing, initially calm and measured, became faster and labored – each shallow intake leaving more carbon dioxide in his lungs. Even though the floating body could now easily have been pulled up, Shaw stuck to his original plan – partly due to the onset of narcosis, partly due to instinct and training – and tried again to fit it into the bag. Then, he lost his footing, slipping backwards along the sloping cave floor. Checking his wrist-mounted computer, he finally decided to begin his ascent, but again his torch stuck in the cave line. His breathing became harder. Taking out his diving shears, he prepared to cut himself free, but never managed to slice through the line. His movements became slower, and then ceased.
Psychotherapist J. Marshall Jenkins describes the fine line between calm breathing and panic in his book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith & Purpose with the Beatitudes: “Paradoxically, accepting pain in this way offers a new relationship with it. When we do not befriend the pain, it takes control like a boa constrictor that only squeezes tighter the harder the victim fights” ( 205).
My emotional response to darkness is becoming new, finding repose in God no matter where I am, be it the ascents of heaven or the depths of Sheol. Recently, after rising from a brief bout of anxiety symptoms, I told my husband, “You know what I’ve realized? If I didn’t have these attacks, I would never write.” I seem to write (it may be a form of coping, or therapy, or prayer) when I am blue. When I am energetic, I don’t find time to write, I’m too busy being luminously normal.
In All Experience Is An Arch, Thurman validates Jenkins’ interpretation that the sacred text “blessed are those who mourn” confronts the lie that emotional suffering denotes flawed faith: “I will not pull, push against the agony but move through the vicissitudes of life. I give consent . . . . It becomes my servant.”
Darkness becomes my comfort.