Franciscan Spirit Blog

Battling the Darkness

Man sitting in a dark tunnel for some reason.

Maybe it’s the multiple crises of pandemic and recession and ecological collapse. Maybe it’s racial tensions and unrest. Maybe it’s shootings by madmen and angry men and policemen. Maybe it’s the cynical, post-truth character of our public discourse and the angry partisanship of our politics. Maybe—almost certainly—it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, though, to paraphrase Dante’s famous opening lines from the Inferno, I find myself “within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”

It’s hard to admit that I feel so hopeless right now. It’s hard to admit it to myself and to my wife and children. It’s definitely hard to admit it publicly to those of you who read this blog. I’d like to help shine a light in a dark time. I’d like to provide encouragement, comfort, inspiration, and clear thinking about a better future for our world. As someone with a public voice within the Church, I feel a duty to do those things. But you can’t shine a light that isn’t glowing in your own heart. “When your eyes are tired,” writes the poet David Whyte, “the world is tired also.” 

Over recent weeks, I started several completely different drafts of this column, all of them trying to paper over or navigate around this central struggle. None of them worked. None of them felt authentic. They all felt like whistling in the dark, being naively optimistic, or fleeing to the realm of platitude or abstract argument. I’ve tried to tell myself that it is always “darkest before the dawn.”

I’ve tried to believe Sikh activist Valarie Kaur’s beautiful expression of hope, that these trying times are “not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb,” with some new thing waiting to be born. But birth is a dangerous and uncertain process, and I know that births sometimes go catastrophically wrong.

Womb or Tomb?

I don’t deny the march of human progress and the birth of new possibilities. I don’t deny the millions of acts of kindness going on this very minute across the globe. When I am in a better frame of mind, I celebrate those acts and I’m moved by them and I root for them. But these days, I find myself wanting to reverse Kaur’s question: What if this is not the darkness of the womb, but the darkness of the tomb? Don’t those old, unfashionable Christian verities—sin and death—still indeed hold sway over us?

If you asked me for a boiled-down version of my faith, it would be this simple: We come from, are held by, and return to love. Sin is not simply “breaking the rules,” but on a much deeper level, it’s turning away from love, as individuals and as a human species. Sin causes untold death and destruction, personally and collectively. And yet, I also believe that love is stronger than death, or rather that love is larger than death: Love can contain death and bring meaning out of it. Love can redeem both sin and death.

I feel that our sins—our turning away from love—have brought darkness upon us and our beautiful world, and that we’re in the tomb right now.

There is so much death, whether from COVID-19, violence against our fellow human beings or other-than-human creatures, or the past-the-point-of-no-return destruction of the earth’s delicate ecosystems.

I want to believe, as I wrote above, that love can redeem sin and death. But I wonder what redemption looks like at this moment in human and earth history. Does it look like the human species turning away from the brink of self-destruction and getting our collective act together? Does it mean we go over the brink, and love catches us—or doesn’t, and some new form of intelligent life rises from the ashes of our extinction? I just don’t know. The economy of salvation is beyond anything I might comprehend.

Ways to Keep Pushing Forward

If you’re feeling anything like I am about these times we are living through, I can share three simple practices that are keeping me going in the midst of this tomblike darkness and doubt. First, we must try to stay connected to others and do whatever small acts of goodness and kindness are ours to do. For better and worse, we’re all in this together.

Second, try to spend significant time outside every day, connecting with nature as teacher and healer and kin. Our screened-in porch has become my home office during COVID-19, and as I’ve been typing this column, I’ve watched one gorgeous hummingbird after another visit the flowers and the feeder just a few feet away from me. Those birds of the air, like the lilies of the field and very much unlike me, don’t trouble themselves for the morrow. They know instinctively how to rest in the arms of love. I hope to learn from such wise ones in these dark times.

Finally, and most importantly, we can wait. Jesus didn’t resurrect himself; he was raised from the dead by love that is stronger than death. Whatever resurrection awaits us, it won’t happen according to our timetables or programs of action. And so, I wait for love to act, and I pray that my heart—that our collective heart—will be open enough to receive love and to do whatever it invites us to do.

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