You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.
Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
As much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I’m a person who thrives on control. If there’s a problem, I won’t rest until I’ve found a solution. Is something confusing or complicated? Let’s analyze it (to death!) until it gives up its secrets. Is life not going quite the way I’d like it to? Time to devise a shiny new plan.
Bear with me if this sounds obvious, but in order to do these things, I need… light. (I told you: Obvious.) I need to be able to see a thing to analyze it. I need my bird’s-eye vantage point in order to anticipate the next turn in the road, my next obstacle or challenge. If I want to pick apart a complicated thing and find its core, I must be able to see how every cog, switch, and wheel of it fits together.
That’s human nature in a nutshell, of course. As co-creators and participants in the universe’s drama, we naturally crave greater perspective, greater understanding – things we traditionally believe that light gives us. And make no mistake: I fully believe that God is the light that allows me to see anything at all. I’m not just speaking metaphorically; the physical terms used to describe light have always resonated with me as well – the fact that light is energy in its purest form, that all matter is made up of relationships of energy (in Him we live and move and breathe and have our being), that light is both a wave and a particle (all truth has paradox at its heart).
But here’s something I’ve been learning bit by painful bit over the past year: God is also present in darkness. God is expressed in the night as much as in the day. And the dark is where God changes us.
At least, that’s where God’s been changing me.
When I suddenly found myself sitting in the dead of night last April, cut off from all the carefully-curated vantage points I used to exercise control over my life, I panicked. I couldn’t even seen my own hands in front of my face, that’s how brutally black everything felt. And it grew worse in the coming months. All of the little damaging idiosyncrasies I’d spent so long ignoring in myself – mental, emotional, spiritual, physical – started crowding around me until I couldn’t perceive anything else. For a long time, I stumbled around blindly, reaching for all the things that used to make me feel stable and secure, but were no longer around to feed that illusion.
At some point, I became intensely aware that there was Someone in the dark with me.
Even after that realization, I kept trying to turn on weak Ali-made lights in an attempt to illuminate my way forward. Without any exaggeration, I can say that accepting two things – I can’t see and maybe I don’t have to – has been one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life (so far) (oh that deadly caveat). Maybe God has a better angle on things. Like, duh? But seriously, I fought this notion for an entire year. Which is why it’s so strange to be able to say, right now, that accepting my state of blindness – taking the hand of the One who is present with me in it – has become my greatest source of peace.
I can see nothing. I can anticipate nothing. There are no answers readily available for me to compartmentalize away. There is only God-with-me, and the realization that this is enough.
God’s eyes are the ones I need, not my own. I always knew that, but until now, I didn’t really want it – at least not enough to let go of the ways that I’m used to seeing things. I may think I have some pretty swell ideas for my life, but God keeps leading me to places I would never take myself. I may think I’ve conjured up an exciting new plan for my future, but God challenges me in ways I would never dare challenge myself, growing me into someone better than the false self I’ve dreamed up. All my schemes, as wonderfully ambitious as they seem to my eyes, never quite have the spark and excitement of the roads God leads me down.
None of it is possible unless I close my eyes, like a child, and trust.
I forget so quickly that darkness is our very point of origin. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.* In science’s version of it, the elements that make up light were still being formed minutes into the Big Bang.
The Spirit of God was there in the darkness, before the creation of light. God knows it better than any of us.
As Annie Dillard reminds me, the stars are only visible in the dark, and this is not God trying to ruin my life – it’s simply the way reality functions. The darker it is, the better we can see the truth of the larger world that surrounds us.
Just as we need to get away from city lights to be graced with a proper view of the Milky Way, we have to let ourselves step inside of the dark – accepting greater eyes than ours, accepting our own painful limitations – in order to reach a wider and more complete understanding of this strange cosmology we inhabit.
We have to give up control.
There is a light in us that only darkness itself can reveal. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it… Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life.
Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight
There is a God and I am not it.
Life is not about me; I am about the project of finding Life.
I no longer want things any other way.