Befriending Darkness

August 17, 2018

A friend asked me recently what it looks like to befriend the silence/darkness that I referred to in my previous post. Through the process of grief it has at times felt like an impossibility. When our hearts break, seeing life beyond the pain is a struggle, to say the least. In the depths of it, grief asks us to not turn away from the pain, but to really see it, feel it, name it. Grief can often feel nothing like a “befriending”–more like all-out battle or, on the other hand, absolute defeat. We don’t enter (or get thrust into) the dark spaces/times in our lives and automatically see the potential for light on the other side. Walking in the dark usually involves a good deal of flailing and all efforts to get out of there as fast as we can. Sometimes we can escape the dark by all sorts of theological acrobatics or simply by denial or avoidance. But the dark creeps up on us and I’m coming to learn, little by little, that the dark comes not with a desire to spoil my life, but with an invitation to enter and trust something larger than me, something larger even than the darkness itself. I don’t know exactly when it began to shift for me – from battle to trust, from struggle to a more friendly acceptance (all journeys I’m still navigating).

My son came home from his first day of kindergarten with a handful of dried kidney beans, eager to plant them. There is something so satisfying about beans because they sprout relatively quickly and you can mark their progression close to hourly, certainly daily. Throughout this chapter of infertility I’ve clung to the image of a sprouting seed. Maybe to counteract the laden word “barren” that has often rung out in my ears so very loudly month by month over these past years. Before a sprout is a sprout, its seed starts in the dark. Seeds need the quiet, secret place of dark earth. They sit in the dark, for however long is determined by a force beyond themselves and, eventually, they break open, they sprout and slowly reach for the daylight, setting down deep roots and becoming something they weren’t before. It’s not a process to be controlled, just tended and paid attention to because often the movement is much more subtle than that of the fast-sprouting kidney bean—the slow, transforming power of becoming friends with the dark.

A couple of weeks ago I was to and from church meetings in Kansas and I had 10+ hours to myself on the road (both directions! What a gift!) and this created holy space for me. It wasn’t until about Oklahoma City on the way north that I suddenly just burst into tears, a release that was probably long in coming. Life doesn’t always allow us the room to feel what we feel, to really look our emotions in the face and let them flow in and through us. Time alone in the car will do this for me, every time. And so I tried to pay attention. I was feeling a lot of things: grief that wells up, often when least expected (hadn’t I dealt with that already?); uncertainty about my own vocational future and direction (nothing like going to a church conference to raise my questions/angst about maybe pastoring again); my little baby about to start kindergarten and where has the time gone and boy do I miss aspects of the past years that are gone AND how incredibly deeply don’t I love this growing-up-kid right now; big decisions that we are facing as a family and wishing I could just rush the answers, etc. And so I had a good cry and listened to comforting, rooting music and some really great podcasts (y’all should listen to “The Moth” if you aren’t already – I’m convinced there’s nothing more powerful than ordinary people sharing their stories. It’s super inspiring).

And that was that. I enjoyed the church conference and headed toward home. Somewhere in Oklahoma (what’s with Oklahoma?) I was struck by a thought that I wanted to capture and so I quickly turned on my voice memo app and talked. This is not usually my way of processing things, but I just talked. This is a piece of what I said:

“Finding myself with tears just under the surface these days and I feel like, in some ways, that’s my new normal. I’ve always felt things pretty deeply, but it feels like it doesn’t take much to spark this sense of tears and I don’t know where all it comes from—I know it has something to do with the journey I’ve had with infertility and processing that and processing identity since leaving my role as pastor. And I’ve just been thinking on this trip particularly about how maybe sometimes it takes the breaking open of our hearts to find that vulnerable space in us to sense a way forward. It’s not a rock-bottom as such although it can feel that way, it can feel pretty devastating to be broken open, but I guess I want to come to believe and trust that the breaking open itself has potential for new life and new direction and new beauty that maybe would have been unimaginable before that breaking open even happened.”

I think, in the end, this is something of what it means to befriend the darkness, to come to the point of being able to sit in the silence with some level of expectation, not because we know what is opening before us, not because we’re not hurting, but because we trust that something will open, even from within the mess and struggle we’re facing. When our hearts get broken open for whatever reason (and there are lots of reasons, lots of “little deaths” in our lives – the losses and struggles, the grief and uncertainty) there is always the possibility of the brokenness becoming our teacher, deepening our empathy, opening new doors.

Today I was walking and listening to Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer’s new podcast. August’s episode (check it out here: https://www.newcomerpalmer.com/podcasts/) is about hope and I was surprised to hear them talk exactly about this image of hearts breaking and they made the distinction that when we take risks toward love and hope in our lives, when we encounter the many struggles that will come, our hearts will get broken. But this can look different ways. It can be a shattering where there’s no sense of anything left but broken shards or it can be a breaking open where our hearts feel deep pain, but we come from that experience with deepening love, with hope that takes action (even if it’s just one small step each day). Trusting that our darkest times might (not overnight, but eventually) make way to something new.

And so I’m trying, each day (sometimes with greater or lesser success) to orient my life to the image of that little sprout, or that broken open heart. Like a heart broken open (not shattered to bits), I want my life to remain invitational, with growing empathy and vulnerability, willing to risk love and hope again and again because my heart is supple and it knows that, in its softness, it is strong. It knows that it will likely be broken again—but that the breaking is not its demise, but rather its power to birth something new.

Befriending the darkness, for me right now, is mostly about trust—trusting that, in the words of Brian Wren below, darkness will be “the cradle of the dawning.” May it be so also for you.

Joyful is the dark, holy, hidden God,

rolling cloud of night beyond all naming,

majesty in darkness, energy of love,

Word-in-flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Joyful is the dark, spirit of the deep,

winging wildly o’er the world’s creation,

silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright,

swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Joyful is the dark, shadowed, stable floor;

angels flicker, God on earth confessing,

as with exultation Mary, giving birth,

hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb,

waiting for the wonder of the morning.

Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom;

darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark depth of love divine,

roaring, looming thundercloud of glory,

holy, haunting beauty, living, loving God.

Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Text: Brian Wren, 1986

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