Knowing in the Dark – Reaching & (W)Resting

Mary Magdala Community

“Knowing in the Dark – Reaching & (W)Resting” ©

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

Homily Thoughts on 4th Sunday of Advent, 2015

Monday is Winter Solstice which means, for us in this space of the western hemisphere, Monday is the shortest day of the year and Monday night is the longest night of the year. We are plunged into darkness at 4:00 in the afternoon; and dawn – or what passes for first light – comes almost 15 hours later.

Surely, we are all clear on the fact that the reason we Christians celebrate Christmas at this time of year has everything to do with Winter Solstice. In the view of early church leaders something had to be done to counter all those pagans and their winter festival. Light penetrating darkness serves just as handily, as it turns out, for the coming of the Christ Child as it does for nature religions. Seems like we all have good reason to celebrate the passing of darkness.

The combination of this darkness and it being the end of the year puts me in a retrospective mood. I look back to the Lectures I attended in March given by Sarah Coakley at Princeton Theological Seminary. She titled them “Knowing in the Dark.” They seem particularly appropriate now – admittedly, her darkness is of the metaphorical kind and not necessarily referring to the nighttime darkness which currently is our lot, although it could.

Sarah’s point is that whatever the dark may be the light of knowledge penetrates it, even when that knowledge comes from mystical insight and prayer. Any person who prays knows the dark of which she speaks. It is the dark of loneliness, of abandonment while reaching for God. It is the dark of no response after all that reaching. It is the dark of the void that nothing but Providence can fill. It is the dark that must settle in before the coming of the light.

Sarah’s evidence of light’s emergence through the dark is the time she spent as a chaplain for one semester at Boston City Jail. Her focus of that admittedly limited time was to gather a group of inmates who were willing to commit to regularly scheduled sessions of meditative prayer. One requirement she had in forming the group was that at points during the semester the inmates would share what this prayer meant and did for them.

Her interest was to see if the individuals who participated experienced a change in perspective, attitude, and action. This was Boston City Jail, remember, a place where violence and the threat of violence is built into the fabric of life.

Jumping ahead, the inmates who had this experience reported positive changes. They found themselves to be less edgy and more comfortable “in their own skin.” The experience permitted them to explore their lives at a self-conscious level they had not known existed. Doing this practice in a group gave them a new social structure to relate to – completely unlike anything else that passed for daily prison life.

More than one inmate reported that arriving to the point of closing one’s eyes while sitting in a group of people made up of really horrible criminals – and admitting to being one of those horrible criminals – this act of trust was transformative.

On this evidence it is possible to explore this knowing in the dark. I once heard Phil Berrigan tell a somewhat similar story of his own prison experience. He was denied the ability to conduct any priestly ministry at the federal prison, for example preside at Mass, administer the Sacrament of Penance, etc. What he was permitted to do, along with one of his co-defendants was to have a prayer group. He reported experiences similar to Sarah’s group at the jail. Inmates at prayer reported what can only be interpreted to be self-conscious and transformative insights which in turn had impact on their actions toward fellow inmates.

Here are two ways to understand what benefits may come from knowing in the dark. First is reaching. If you have no physical sight you use the “sight” of reaching and groping, of handling and measuring. This first kind of knowing is basic and physical. It gets the job done by making comparisons, as in “This feels like a fish,” or “This is like another experience I had in my life.”

Reaching into the dark in this way provides some reassurance that we can know even without full sight. It compares with a statement the theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote in his sermon, “Spiritual Presence,” (The Eternal Now), He wrote, “Prayer is the spiritual longing of the finite being to return to its origin.” These days we would likely phrase this idea in more personal terms. But it can still be deciphered. We know what longing is like. We know what a point of origin is like, it’s like going home. We experience the light of knowledge in this darkness because we reach out with comparisons to what we already know.

Then there is the knowing in darkness that happens not by reaching but by resting. This type of coming to knowledge can be very dangerous.   This knowledge comes by way of both resting and wresting.  We can rest at prayer and experience nothing. We can attempt to rest but really can’t because the dark is full of movement and commotion, full of violence and evil. Yet, as Sarah claims it is in the resting that includes struggles and purges that deeper rest happens.

This is not some elitist mysticism. It is the soul resting at prayer – and having no other word for piercing and overcoming the darkness than light. In this light we come to that awareness that is deeper even than going home. This is the knowledge of union, of knowing that the home we see runs through past to future and is now. This is comfort after struggle.

This knowledge, as the philosophers view it, is remembering what we have forgotten. In a way this is like learning to tell time (back before digital clocks did the work for us). Once we know how to tell time and it becomes automatic, it’s as if we always knew it. Sort of like riding a bike. It’s as if we have remembered something we had forgotten.  This kind of knowledge we often call second-nature – the automatic things we do that come after first learning how to do those things.

Sarah Coakley’s inmates, as well as we ourselves, start on a journey that moves beyond self-consciousness, beyond trust, beyond transformation.

This journey is marked by light that, after all is said and done, is always with us.

This light is Emmanuel, God with us.


A Prayer – Promise by Jim Ryan

Our promise, God beyond all names,

is to do the good,

is to love the neighbor,

is to thank the giver,

A promise freely and confidently made.

Your promise is Emmanuel, God with us,

is goodness itself,

is love itself,

is thanksgiving itself,

A promise of justice without measure,

of mercy without cost,

of peace without might.

Come, Jesus Emmanuel!     Amen.




From the Glenstal Book of Prayer

Glory be to God who has shown us the light!

Lead us from darkness to light.

Lead us from sadness to joy.

Lead us from death to immortality.

Glory be to God who has shown us the light!


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