This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. Matt and I were friends in seminary. He’s crazy and fun, and deeply spiritual and wise. For more information about this series, click here.
I grew up afraid of the dark. I don’t know when it started but I vividly remember the hall light wars I had with my sisters. They would turn off the hall light and as soon as they went back to bed I would sneak out and turn it on every time until they finally gave up. Darkness terrified me and that terror controlled me.
When my son was 4 he was gripped by his own fear of the darkness. When he expressed this to my step-mother she instructed him to “charge the darkness.” She explained that this meant rushing into the room with bravery to turn the light on. She wanted to help him face his fears and learn that he was bigger than the darkness.
That phrase deeply resonated with me because my entire journey in life, my spiritual discipline, feels like it has been one of charging the darkness. It’s taken me a long time to realize that not everyone started off life so aware of what lurks in the shadows of the human condition. I know that everyone who reads this has a different concept of darkness. That is the way darkness works. It hides what we are afraid of and our fears become as big as our imaginations. The fortunate among us have only had to imagine the worst.
Those who haven’t had to imagine can become consumed by the dark that has been thrust upon them. It is impossible to ignore or to purge from your soul. No matter how saintly you strive to be, no amount of devotions, good deeds, or prayers exorcises it. You can try to stay ahead of the shadow and run towards the light; the light of other’s acceptance, the light of purpose and usefulness, some reactive experience, or some other external light. Yet, no matter how tall you stand in other’s eyes you know the truth. You have not escaped it and your fraud only thickens the dark.
When it comes to the darkness that we face there really is only one thing we can do, and this is our spiritual discipline, to charge the dark.
The difficulty in this is that our torches of faith only take us so far. The darkest places are the places that extinguish faith and expose our need to believe as our primary motivation to believe. When you face emptiness of our need, of our own vacuum, you are alone and it is just you and those places inside that consume so much energy in avoiding. The dark reveals that your faith has been nothing more than thoughts and, perhaps, that your faith has been nothing more than fear disguised.
To charge the dark you must accept it. In accepting it you accept yourself, not as who you want to be, but as you are, a being with light and shadows. In plunging into my own darkness I came to a place where I accepted it and would embrace it. I was tired of running, tired of pleasing, tired of fraud, and tired of feeding the self-loathing. I charged the dark ready to accept that ultimately, I was alone with my own emptiness.
However, that’s not what I found. In those depths I found what I had sought externally for so long. The presence of another. A light in the core of my being. The Word enfleshed. I’d never had such a strong experience of “the other”, the sacred, in my life and haven’t had one since. That experience, however, has stayed with me, reverberating and transforming.
A parenthetical phrase in Ephesians 4 explains this about Christ,
(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)”
Even in the lowest, darkest, parts of our existence Christ has descended and has filled all places. The light of the world fills all darkness. However, Christ has not taken away the dark. Our faith proclaims that this will happen, but not yet. Sometimes the way we believe is uncomfortable with the presence of darkness and so we create cultures of shame about the shadows in our lives. We judge those who do not profess anything but light and faith. We can also minimize the dark and attempt to excuse it or even equate it with light.
There is a song from the Avett Brothers titled, “Head full of doubt/Road full of Promise” with the stanza:
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it.
The darkness upon us has been flooded with light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The dark is acknowledged in this verse from John 1 but it is not obliterated. We have a light that shines within the darkness. Not only that, but as Psalm 139 proclaims, “the darkness is as light to God.” This is our confidence, and this is why we can even think of being able to “charge the dark!”
Our practice of charging the dark is not based on our faith that there is a light there that we can turn on. We don’t charge the dark carrying our own torches of faith. We venture forward without certainty into the void that lies beyond reason because we hope in one that has filled that space.
Charging the dark is a spiritual practice because it is the practice of trusting a light we do not always see and finding light where we thought none could be.
We charge the dark when we choose to be honest and authentic rather than living behind a front, when we risk being vulnerable, when we speak truth to lies, and when we turn and face what frightens us rather than letting it drive us. The more we understand our own inner landscape, and the more we find God present there, the more we help others face their own with faith and courage.
Throughout any average day we have countless opportunities to charge the dark. The good news is that we are not alone. We accompany one another in this effort with love and unity, Christ’s Body in a darkness that is flooded with light.
Rev. Matt Gough is the Associate Pastor for youth and their families, young adults, and outreach and evangelism at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in the heart of Silicon Valley. He was born and raised in Berkeley, CA, is an open source tech geek (Android all the way!), a camping and skiing enthusiast, and is entirely responsible for his son’s total obsession with the wonderful world of Star Wars™ and Legos™. One of his greatest hopes is that he and the Rev. Andy Kort will someday compete as a team on the reality show, The Amazing Race™. He and his wife, Christine, have two boys, Alex (5) and Drew (2) and a neurotic dog named Sally. Matt blogs at mattgough.com