Light in Darkness

John of the Cross at Christmas

Advent is the time of year we see many references to darkness v. light, symbolic of the battle between evil and good, with light (Christ) overcoming darkness (despair).

We’re instinctively uncomfortable with darkness as a time of peril. We need light to know where we are and where we need to go, symbolic of our fateful search for understanding and knowledge, as in Eden’s tree of knowledge. This is why I love to turn to the well-known poem of St. John of the Cross (feast: Dec. 14), known as “The Dark Night.”

This phrase, “dark night,” is commonly used to describe a period of interior darkness representing fear, confusion, a sense of abandonment, and near despair. Not so for John of the Cross, as becomes clear by a careful reading and translation of even the first stanza alone.

En una noche oscura . . . Oscura, Obscure, denotes something hidden but not necessarily absent. He is not going to roam listlessly. He has a goal in mind.

Con ansias en amor inflamada . . . on fire with cravings for love. The Soul’s only motive is love. It is eagerly embracing this adventure, since it is fueled by love, not by fear and certainly not by despair. His mood is certain, his step is strong.

!Oh, dichosa ventura! O happy destiny! The Soul’s expectation is certainly not dreaded but deeply desired, since it is Love that calls him. 

Salì sin ser notada . . . I went out, unnoticed. He has not been ousted. No: the loving Soul willingly and eagerly leaves the familiar which has not succeeded in satisfying its cravings. Here is an opportunity to do something different: to leave the old life behind in such a quiet way that no one can see any difference or notice anything extraordinary in the lover’s behavior. The lover seems the same on the outside. Who could guess what is experienced within?

Estando ya mi casa sosegada . . . While my household is asleep. All around me are unaware. What the Soul is leaving is only bland, colorless, unfulfilling, in comparison to what he is seeking.

In darkness, there is no distinction between one thing and another. A landscape that seemed to be known and understood in the daytime is now clouded in mystery and unknowing. But because love is the final goal and reward, the Soul presses on, welcoming the darkness which brings peace and understanding of a different nature – perhaps even a strangely new sense of freedom.

The poem ends on a note of ecstatic bliss:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.

Overcome With Paschal Joy

It’s remarkable that during this triumphant Easter season I’ve been led to meditations on death. Could there be a better time for that topic?

First, regarding how we refer to that dread event: “death.”

We usually prefer to use a euphemism for that experience: passing away; meeting our Maker; or even the more flippant buying the farm. We save blessed event for the happy birth of a child, but we could just as easily and accurately apply that phrase to death, especially during this holy season when we are “overcome with Paschal joy.”

At Easter, we refer to Christ’s victory over death. It’s easy to grow over-accustomed to phrases like this and lose the depth of their meaning. Only recently have I come to a discovery of what this phrase means. Jesus obviously did not “conquer” death by eliminating it. Instead, he ran to meet it, even though his was the very worst kind of death, having been unjustly convicted of the most heinous crime, so far removed from the very purpose of his existence: total dedication and fidelity to God’s message and his mission. His was a cruel death to both body and dignity.

The victory was in his resurrection, attested to by so many so that we latecomers might be convinced of an unending future with him. At his farewell, Christ told his Apostles:

You have faith in God; have faith in me also!
I am going first to prepare a place for you,
so that you may be with me and the Father for all time.

What a blessed season for dying! A few days after Easter, our loving Benedictine Brother Justin died unexpectedly. Two of my own siblings also died during Easter week some years ago. I’ve always considered this a great grace: to enter heaven accompanied by our resurrected Savior.

I’ve also found myself inspired with a new appreciation for the famous poem of John of the Cross. The translation as the “Dark Night” is really inexact. The poet writes of a blessed night that may be obscure for sure, but not totally dark. He speaks of a graced obscurity where a divine light serves as his guide. Like St. Paul, he sees only “darkly” now. He knows there is something behind or within this obscurity; it is neither totally black nor totally empty. He has the certain expectation of finding a splendor beyond imagining. The light of faith assures him that there is a brilliance to this particular night, a brilliance hidden from his understanding, but no less true and blindingly beautiful. He knows that human understanding is too weak and limited to grasp, except through grace, what is really happening and why. While John of the Cross refers to the spiritual journey in life, his description can be equally applied to the process of a Christian death.

These contemporary Spanish mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, both wrote poems on the theme of longing for the only way to see God: in death. I die because I do not die!

John of the Cross:

I live, but not in myself,
And I have such hope
That I die because I do not die.

Teresa of Avila:

I live only with the confidence
that I have to die . . .
Death, do not delay,
for I await you,
for I die because I do not die.

These poet-saints echo St. Paul’s utterly consoling statement: For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

To die is gain. No longer will we need to content ourselves with fleeting glimpses of God’s love. Paul realized that the most beautiful aspect of being alive on this earth is knowing Christ, being certain of his love and brotherhood here, and our relationship coming to complete fruition after death. We know that a faith-filled death assures us of an enduring and ever-increasing joy in God’s presence, along with the presence of our loved ones previously considered lost to us.

I certainly won’t deny the pain that we, the survivors, must endure when a loved one dies. When a beloved friend leaves us, that death creates a large hole of emptiness and grief. But even that space is a blessing. For into that crater of grief, God pours the ever-increasing and certain comfort of His presence, love, and compassion.

This is the true joy of the Paschal season, in that we have been gifted with knowledge of Christ’s own death and resurrection. We can never again view death as a terminus, but as our third birth: birth as a human in a universe of time, space and matter; rebirth as Christians in a baptism of faith and love; and the final, culminating birth-in-death when through Christ we are transformed and welcomed into an unending union with the All-Loving Trinity.

Easter Joy
Life is changed, not taken away.