Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Dark Radiance

Father John J. Lombardi

Do you ever experience darkness and dissonance in your Faith-life? Yes? Well, join the club, it's called the Church. We contemporary Catholics and Christians need "Real Religion" between the extremes of despair, "my trials and tribulations have shaken me to the foundations of my soul and false certitude, "I have God and the spiritual life all figured out."

"Real Religion" entails a number of things including:

  • embracing Jesus' Life, Death and Resurrection
  • reception of Christ in the passing of the Sacraments;
  • receiving help from a community of believers;
  • inspired by the example of the saints-their light-filled and dark trials;
  • and a blending of faith and reason into our daily lives.

Discipleship is not always easy but with the above-described holy ways we can persevere.

I've just completed reading the book, "No One Sees God," by Michael Novak. This excellent tome discusses how atheists and believers have some similarities: an infinite longing for truth and absolutes that cannot be fully attained in this life.

Most people go thru a "dark night of the soul" wherein they are more challenged by life

and cannot figure it out. It is also the case that both believers and atheists can be shaken to their foundations where they cannot perceive God. The darkness or nothingness is not always bad or to be avoided, it can be a gift and natural to the spirit life. A word to the wise: don't' panic!

Novak says human creatures are on a different "frequency" from God-the-Creator and thus "no one sees God" precisely because He is transcendent. Some reasons for this "gap" include sin, human limitations, attachment to finiteness instead of the Infinite or just settling for "second best."

Novak has a special affection for atheists. He sees "the new atheism" thru writers like Christopher Hitchens, "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything"; Sam Harris, "Letter to a Christian Nation," and Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion." Novak believes a necessary conversation with atheists may show some surprising similarities. For instance, both may believe in the fundamental nothingness in life at some time; that most people long for absolute meaning, truth or "presence"; and most people want to live moral and civil lives despite what those authors say so venomously about us believers! In short: Christians and atheists have more in common than they know and rather than be adversaries, there should be dialogue rather than disparagement.

In the book, Novak describes the conversion of Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky who embraced his Jewishness while imprisoned. The point is this: sometimes only in the vise and darkness of suffering do people come to believe or seek truth and God. So, if Sharansky can be converted so can others.

Novak appeals to both atheist and believers by proposing we embrace reason, a gift of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is reason which has given us the treasures of science, art, politics and philosophy.

The teachings of the individual morality of the person may never have been brought to the world without reason.

Yet, reason cannot deliver everything especially the "Transcendent God" who is Infinite and above us all or more unlike than like us. This is why we must blend reason and faith together in our pursuit of God rather than the chaos of agnosticism or atheism.

Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, eloquently writes: "Moses never saw God. All he saw was flame…If God appeared face to face before it, the human mind would shatter like a crystal. Darkness is the normal mode of Jewish and Christian belief. Nor is darkness the same as a doubt. Even if one has not the slightest doubt about the presence of God still one feels the pain and abandonment of not seeing God. Our minds are not proportioned to the divine mind."

Translation: God is with us in the Church and sacraments yet He cannot be encompassed, fully understood or perceived in this life. Novak also says "darkness and the opacity of God" should not be distressing for believers, rather, it is common. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and many other mystics went thru it and persevered.

Think about this: Jesus came to help us persevere in discipleship in good times and bad, in light and dark. He set the example by going to festivals and gatherings, like the Wedding of Cana saying the "Kingdom is already here" and "He who has seen me has seen the Father." These are light-filled experiences, positive and concrete means to find God through discipleship.

The Divine Master used the dark times to teach faithful discipleship as well. The examples of the Agony in the Garden, rejection by those He loved, the torture of the crown of thorns, the carrying of the Cross and then finally, the process of dying.

Remember in His very Dark Night He called out: "Father, why have you abandoned me?" The oxymoron of "dark radiance" describes objective God-events and the dark, challenging "God-gap-events."

Finally, Novak points out we can all learn from both of these experiences. My point? We all have these dark moments more than we care to admit and we need to integrate them into our Faith-lives, not be embarrassed by them. We must always remember to believe and trust in a God called "Emmanuel," which means God is with us. When we have darkness let us remember that He is omnipresent or all around us it is the darkness which helps us invite Jesus into our lives more often. It is also what impels us to be liberated from past attachments.

Christ revealed Himself as The Way, the Truth, the Life (Jn. 14:6) and this means both light and darkness makes up the experience for Christians and true God-seekers. Novak writes: "Accept the experience of nothingness as a gift, search deep into it, live by its living streams."

No one has ever seen God, yet if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is brought to perfection in us" (I Jn. 4:12-15).

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi