In the dark – the night of Christian faith
I didn’t expect, at age 70, to have to contend again with the dark. Not the dark of my childhood, when I feared a dressing gown draped over the door was an alien axe-wielding murderer, but the darkness of not knowing the God of my Christian faith.
Each time the darkness comes, I find it is easy to forget all I have been taught. Each time the darkness comes, I feel shame; shame as if the relationship with God I thought I had was sham; shame as if the faith I have taught I no longer experience; shame at the thought of having to profess publicly that I was wrong.
Along with the shame comes fear. At age 70, my thoughts turn healthily to my coming death and whatever follows. What if there is no “life after death”? What if there is no “beatific vision”? What if there is nothing? What value then do I have?
So it is good to be reminded by French Franciscan Thaddée Matura, in his essay An Ardent Absence, that darkness in Christian life is the norm, that grand encounters with God are infrequent and fleeting. Matura recalls us to the teaching that God is a fiery furnace, and if we were to encounter him as he is, we would immediately be burnt to nothing. It is his grace that we do not see him face-to-face in this lifetime.
Father Matura also reminds us that despite the darkness, we can continue to follow the paths to God to which we are committed. We are to prepare for the beatific vision, for the great meeting that will raise us to God’s presence.
The darkness is hard. As we pass through it, we do not know what we are doing. We experience both fear and boredom. We may encounter the ‘plague that destroys at noonday’ (Psalm 91), the acedie of the desert fathers and mothers, as we question the whole of Christian life; we wonder if this darkness is the normal, then why? Why?
But I hang on to those fleeting moments of revelation, those traces, hints of reality. A realisation grew through 1969, the year of the Leighton Ford crusade, that friendship with Christ is the heart of Christian living. I remind myself of the dove I saw [in my mind] flying up and expanding its wings over the congregation after we had received communion one Sunday in 1974 in St Mark’s, Fitzroy. I revisit my tears when, meditating in the hard seats in the chapel in Perth’s Wollaston College, I felt enveloped by love. I feel my heart jump when the icon of St Francis behind the chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane appeared to move and gaze back at me.
And I can simply be affirmed by Thaddée Matura, as I am by St John of the Cross, by St Francis, by St Richard of Victor, by a lengthy list of Christian teachers, that we make our way through this world blind, in darkness, and our joy is real — but anticipatory.
George Appleton, the prayerful Archbishop of Perth during the 1960s, once wrote, ‘I go on in cold faith only because you push me.’ That push from an-Other keeps me going.