This summer my brother spent some time in Montana and planned on returning to Massachusetts by train. Being a train lover, I met him in Montana, and we rode the Empire Builder three nights back home. As we passed through rural Minnesota, I saw painted on the side of a light bulb store the phrase, “Without darkness, there is no light.” It struck me as ostensibly religious-sounding. I’m not sure if the owners of the store were trying to make a spiritual allusion, but that phrase stuck with me.
The Bible is filled with light and dark imagery:
- “If your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be bright all over, as when a lamp shines on you with its brightness.” (Luke 11:36)
- “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
- “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2)
Like the Spiritual Exercises’s journey from the darkness of sin to the light of God’s infinite love, darkness becomes a necessary place for the Christian. The dark emptiness of desolation leads to the bright joy of consolation. Do we notice the importance of contrasts in the spiritual life?
Jesus employed ideas that seemed in stark contrast to the law. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44) Such sayings were meant to shake up the people. St. Paul said that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. Similarly, where there is a void like hatred, sin, and darkness, we can more easily see the light God wishes to shine on us. This is not to say we ought to seek out darkness but rather that sometimes we must walk through the darkness in order to find the light. We must have a First Week experience, to use Ignatian language, before we can truly see the light of God’s infinite love.
St. John of the Cross’s poem, “On a Dark Night,” captures the invisible force of the darkness leading us to the illuminating joy of God the lover:
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
God is always calling us to the light, transforming what feels like bleak emptiness into a joy-filled abiding with God, a divine light that the darkness cannot overcome.