Saturday, December 23, 2017

"O God, Enlighten My Darkness"

"In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace"
(Luke 1:78-79).

As Christmas Day approaches, I look back over this brief Advent season—and on this whole year which has felt like a long "Advent," a period of often obscure expectation, sometimes desperate hope, and large changes in life that have already begun as time moves relentlessly forward.

There is a prayer that very often comes forth in my mind and even quietly on my lips. It comes spontaneously and a bit strangely from a deep place my heart:

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

This is not the "mystical darkness" of John of the Cross (see my post for December 14). It's a darkness of my peculiar complexity as a believer and a broken human being who hangs on to Jesus by what sometimes seems to be the thinnest of threads.

I'm being drawn, slowly, out of the darkness...but also—and I don't exactly know why—I'm passing through the darkness.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

What is "my darkness"? It's a mess of features all interwoven in a concrete experience.

I am a sinner who is being wrenched and pried away from the petty sins that I am not willing to give up. That's part of the darkness. It's especially painful because I am so stubborn. But there are more dimensions to this darkness.

Somewhere along the line, without my even noticing it, my youth vanished; I stopped being "the kid with such a promising future," and I found myself looking at the dark wall of all the "promise" that will never be fulfilled, all the accomplishments that will never happen because I was thwarted, or the opportunities didn't arise, or I was just too lazy and I wasted too much time. (Yes, I know there is still much that I can accomplish, God willing, and I remain focused on that.)

So there is the darkness of late-midlife crisis. I can't pretend it's not real. It's a dense, poignant experience that is part of being human.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

Then there are the fluctuations of chronic illness, the periodic exhaustion, and the quirky, mostly bearable but probably irreversible damage it has inflicted on my system. Closely related to this is my "Beautiful Mind" riding on its wild neurological roller-coaster, intersecting with an expansive, vast, vigorous, intuitive, penetrating, burdened, broken, sometimes borderline-delusional, often obsessive-compulsive, always hypersensitive, and incurably self-conscious psyche—my psychological profile, my inherited and acquired equipment that I bring into play as a human being interacting with the world.

So is that all? Is that the darkness?—my being a sinful, sick, crazy old genius of a man? With God's grace mixed into all of it, wrestling with me, changing me, drawing me to himself?

No. There is something else. If this sounds like a virtue, then I have failed to describe it. By nature I am sensitive, sentimental, and melodramatic. Those emotions bounce around along with the rest of the mess, but that isn't the "something else" I'm trying to express.

It's not something I do. It's something I suffer and I don't understand why except to say that there is something vocational about it.

I find myself called to compassion. It is a gentle but persistent pain that almost "can't help" resonating with the suffering (especially the interior suffering) of others. It is beyond my human capacities and yet sometimes I think it's the deepest reality of myself. It usually overwhelms me, but I know that it is a path that I desire to follow.

Compassion. And I'm not thinking about martyrdom or doing great deeds for anybody. It's something utterly unremarkable and ordinary—I feel stupid even trying to articulate its importance. But it's part of the darkness.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

I find myself inescapably aware of the suffering of other people, especially the people "around me," with whom I interact—all the "regular people" with their many quiet, forgotten sufferings—the people that are part of my life.

These people have been entrusted to me. There are the obvious ones: my parents, my wife, my children, my brother. The ongoing, changing drama of our lives "weighs" on me, but it's not an oppressive weight. It is, however, dark in that we're moving into existential territory in which we don't have a map. This is a human reality, of course. Life changes. The dynamics of family relationships change.

All of this is hard, my dear ones, but I'm with you all the way.

Others who have been "entrusted to me" are in the Christian community that accompanies the daily life of our family. Then there are still others who are spatially distant from me, but we are drawn together by a common path of life and commitment and suffering, by a vocation to solidarity. I think God also has some who are unknown to me, but who are linked to me in the mysterious workings of his grace.

Certainly, God hears the prayer of my "morning offering" and he uses me in ways I don't know.

All of this is part of the "darkness"—the most important part, the hardest part (in some ways), but also it's the most tactile place where I grip the thin thread of the Mystery of God and hold on tight. The "darkness" of compassion—of "suffering-with" other persons—is "brighter" than any light I can find purely within myself.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

And thank you, Lord Jesus, for all the people—near and far, known and hidden—to whom you have entrusted me. Those who "suffer-with" me are gems of light in my life. Thank you!

I hold you all in my heart this Christmas. We are all having hard times, in different ways. Let's remember that we are together and let's celebrate and endure sorrows together, with our hearts united. We cannot create this unity by our own power.

Rather, this unity is a gift. It is accomplished and renewed by the One whose birth we are about to celebrate.

The dawn from on high is breaking upon us! Joy is glowing just over the horizon. Soon we will say, "Rejoice! Jesus Christ our Savior is born!"