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Previous Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 11: The Dark Night
“I Am Who I Am,” said the hooded, faceless spirit.
Adam narrowed his eyes, “What?”
The spirit looked back and forth between Adam and Eve. “I am your Creator. I Am.”
Adam, breathless, stumbled back, and Eve cowered in the sand, tears streaming down her face. Recovering, Adam mumbled, “Have you come to destroy us?”
“Yes, if only to recreate you. But that time is not now. For now, I have come to save you—save you from yourselves.” The spirit waved its hand. “Follow me.”
Adam helped Eve to stand, and, after exchanging worried glances, they followed after the hooded figure. As they walked, a thick mist descended around them. It was as if they entered into a cloud. The spirit led them to the dead Tree of Knowledge and stood before the trunk. Adam and Eve maintained a cautious distance. Then, in one bold impulse, Adam asked, “Why do you not reveal your face?”
The spirit did not turn; it only faced the Tree, but it answered, “Recall your experience of eating the fruit of this Tree. Remember how agonizing it was. Could you even comprehend what you saw? My face is a far greater mystery. The sight would do more than kill you.” It took a deep breath but still did not turn to them. “Now, tell me, what happened? Why did you eat from the forbidden tree?”
Adam and Eve looked at each other for a response. Adam then replied, “It was the serpent. The serpent convinced us to do it.”
“Have you not learned: the serpent was always a part of you. You would do better to accuse yourself.”
Adam angrily shook his head. “Be it that the serpent is a piece of our souls or be it that the serpent was a beast of its own, you made it so!”
Eve grabbed Adam’s arm and nervously gasped, “Adam.”
The spirit finally looked at them. “Do not fear. Speak your mind, Adam.”
Adam fumed. “You made us. You made us this way. You created for us our joy. But by the same hand you have created for us our doom! Whatever the serpent may be, you made it so! Is this what you wanted? Did all your labors lead to this? It is as if you wanted us to experience pain, suffering, loss, loneliness. It is as if you made us for this very destiny. Well…put a curse on the day we were born; put a curse on the night when we were conceived! Turn that day into darkness. Never again remember that day; never again let light shine on it. Make it a day of gloom and thick darkness; cover it with clouds, and blot out the sun. Blot that night out of the year, and never let it be counted again; make it a barren, joyless night…. Keep the morning star from shining; give that night no hope of dawn. Curse that night for letting us be born, for exposing us to trouble and grief!”*
The spirit was silent. Then it gently asked, “Do you understand the futility of fighting me?”
“I will fight you anyway,” Adam growled.
“That is fine. But let me ask you some questions. Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?… Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!”**
Adam was speechless—at least for the moment. Meanwhile, Eve sobbed, and at last she said, “I thought we were doing a good thing. I thought that we would become closer to you.”
“Despite my rule?” The Creator stepped forward and placed a soft hand on Eve’s cheek. “Too often, I foresee, pride is mistaken for holiness. I say, you are gods,*** but you are not the God.” It dropped its hand and sighed. “The knowledge born of the tree was meant for the wise. It was not meant for you at such a premature state.”
Adam shook his head. “You know, all of this could have been prevented. Why did you even put the tree here in the first place? If there was no tree, then there would have been nothing to be tempted by, and all our peace and joy and harmony would still be here—not this chaos! Why have you done these things? Why did you let this all happen? Why didn’t you do something? Why did you create the tree?” he yelled.
The spirit sternly replied, “I am the tree!”
Adam and Eve were taken aback. That was not what they expected to hear.
The spirit continued, “Was I not present in the garden with you? Was I not at the center of it all? I forbid you from eating of the tree because you were not at all ready to know all this about me! Yet you sought to know what you could not possibly understand. Your ‘harmony,’ your garden, it is the place I made for you—a place to hold dear, to remember—but it never was going to last forever. I always planned on making greater things, and I would have wanted you to journey and to create with me…when you were ready to. We were going to create harmony together. Alas, in order for me to truly create you in my own image, I needed to take a risk. You needed to be free. Ironically, your seized your freedom by eating of the tree, and…were it not for that, you may have not started the path to truly resembling me.”
It was clear that Adam and Eve were bewildered.
“Stay your voices awhile. I will explain.”
* Job 3:2-7, 9-10
** Job 38:2-11, 16-21
*** Psalm 82:6
Analysis: An Honest Encounter with God
Being embraced by a cloud of mystery—of darkness—the soul feels lost. Yet, it is in this seemingly dismal place, with all other thoughts of God gone, that one might actually realize the truth of God’s omnipresence. When theologians declare that God is everywhere, this includes the darkest places—the abyss itself even. In seeking healing—in seeking God—one need only peer into the darkness, focusing only on the darkness, until the absence of all things becomes all things. To quote the anonymously penned The Cloud of Unknowing, “When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God, and stop you both from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection. Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness.”
The purgative aspects of the darkness (which will be discussed more in depth at a later time) strip or, better yet, burn away everything that is not required in an intimate relationship with God. We grow up in our spiritual lives acknowledging the objectivity of God’s immanence but yet we still act and feel as if there is some grand distance between humanity and God. Even our religious rituals with their emphasis on formal reverence can prevent us from recognizing the real relationship that exists. All this must be torn away. We have clothed ourselves with identity and personal worth, but, in the presence of God, in that dark cloud, we are disrobed and made to be naked and unable to hide—as vulnerable as we were at our beginnings. If we are to be healed, our wounds must be exposed, our flesh made bare. Even our former beliefs about God may be a hindrance from drawing closer: “Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him. Indeed, hate to think of anything but God himself, so that nothing occupies your mind or will but only God.” We cannot cling to those things that bring us comfort. We cannot cling to ideas of ourselves. We cannot cling to our pasts, as if they somehow make us more valuable. There is only taking that “leap of faith,” jumping from the edge into the dark abyss and trusting that you will certainly meet God there.
This is a painful process, and we resist it. For if faith in God is to trust God wholly, then anything in life that we would trust more than that mysterious unknown separates from God and is thus sin, fragmenting the relationship we have. Perhaps we are not ready. Perhaps we are not ready to let go. It is important to bring that before God too. For if we are presenting ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable, to God (Romans 12:1), we ourselves should know what it is that we are giving up. Thus, it is important to be real, to be raw. If there is sorrow, cry it out. If there is fear, scream it. If there is anger, hold nothing back from God. I have had many conversations with various people about their trepidation in expressing anger at God. In truth, why should you not be as honest as possible? Do you think that the creator of all things cannot handle some vulgar language? Do you think that the creator cannot handle some insults? God wants a whole person to be presented—that includes all the baggage.
However, it is also important to realize that as much as we may challenge and even fight God, God will always win. But by throwing ourselves against him with all of our energies, we are revealing all, and we will be humbled along the way. Consider the story of Jacob fighting the stranger (Genesis 32:24-30). Or consider God’s reply to Job as seen in the story above. Unfortunately for us, despite what protests we put forward, God’s answer will resemble what he said to Job. Honestly though, who are we to combat God? Indeed, where were we when God created the universe? Nonetheless, it is still healthy, in that dark place where it is only you and God, to place all on the table. This is the most important relationship of your life; your health is at stake; speak your true mind to God.
In my own experience of fighting God, I ended up finding myself exhausted, unable to speak. In such a state, the only thing left that I could do was listen. And this is ultimately where God wants us to be. For most people, in order to encounter God, they must be still and silent. It is true that a number of people have encountered God in a theophany, in a sudden life-changing experience. But as much as the rest of us would like to experience such a thing, for it would seem far more real, we must learn to see God in the silence, in the darkness, in the ordinary: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
In our lives, stillness and silence is often a hard thing to achieve. It has gotten to the point in our society where such a thing is unnatural. There have been several occasions while I was sitting in one spot for an extended period of time peacefully observing the trees around me that I have been told my behavior was strange. It was actually a disturbing thing to hear. Must we always be in motion? Can we not pause to be enraptured by the beauty around us? Stillness and silence is disconcerting for people because it truly is uncommon. In fact, in an effort to learn stillness, it may be beneficial to focus one’s attention on a specific idea (similar to the koan in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism). I would recommend the Jesuit Prayer of Examen presented by Ignatius of Loyola. The Prayer of Examen follows three steps. First, focus on everything in the last twenty-four hours that you are grateful for. Second, focus on everything in the last twenty-four hours that reminds you or makes you aware of God’s presence. Third, focus on confession—confessing your mistakes in the last twenty-four hours. Oddly enough, in my own experience, I found that the first two stages increasingly occupied so much of my time that that third stage felt less important. This is not to say that being aware of one’s own mistakes is unimportant. Yet, in our guilt, we may be in the habit of paying attention to everything that keeps us from being near to God. However, in the Prayer of Examen, by focusing on gratitude and God’s presence, one is actually bringing him/herself closer to a realization of God. This can even be done is a single moment. With such a practice, God may be perceived in ordinary life, even in places that might not seem conducive to a spiritual experience.
Now, to be honest, as much as a meditation method like the Prayer of Examen may give one a more optimistic view of life or momentarily distract one from the pains of life, it does not do away with the pains of life. So, what are we to do about them? What can we do about them? In truth, the most that we can control is our own perceptions and reactions—and even those may require some intense training to rein in. Much of life, however, is outside of our control, and it appears that chaos is the true ruler of the universe. But what better way to face the flux than stillness, for in that madness, God still reigns, and in the dedicated practice of being still, facing the abyss, one cultivates faith. One begins by just being in the chaos, focusing only one one’s steadfastness despite the confusion and suffering, persevering with hope. This is followed, in time, by an acceptance of chaos: coming to the understanding that the universe will do as the universe does, and accepting means reconciling with that reality, however much one may not like it, persevering with devotion. But faith can be taken further to an embrace of chaos. To embrace chaos is to find beauty in the flux, in the change, to be freely creative and adaptable, to find joy and even humor in the random, to persevere with praise (Acts 16:22-25). There is so much more that I can and will say about this as the series moves forward. For now, remember to let go of your desire to be in total control of the world around you and be still, silent, and aware of God in the cloud.