These winter days, in the “ordinary time” from Christmas to Lent, can be tough. Grief and hopelessness can become heavier. Our sense of worthlessness and failure may rise up and accuse us, haunting our sleeping and waking. Strains show in our relationships. Is there any meaning to it?
Still, we must function. How can these dark places in and around us get the attention they crave?
We might be surprised.
Some years ago I helped minister to inmates of the Don Jail, a notorious men’s facility which has since been torn down. We went in monthly and held a service in the chapel. One Friday afternoon, when we arrived to set up, an older inmate in an orange jumpsuit was already sitting there; I’ll call him James. James chatted with us and helped set up. Others were led in, and we sat in a semicircle for a prayer service.
During the reflections James wanted to tell his story, for the sake of the young man at the other end of the semi-circle who’d just spent his first night in prison; I’ll call him John. James explained that he too had landed in prison when very young, for a few nights — and in the 30 years since, he’d been in and out of jail, for this and that. He’d tried to change, and sometimes managed it for a while, even turned to the Bible. But, he said, when you go out the prison door, nobody is standing there with a Bible but plenty of people are standing there offering other things. Still, he’d been doing better, reconciled with his wife, made peace with his father, and started earning legitimate money. Then trouble came. He ended up in a fight, the other man lost, and James ran away. He was finally captured, charged with murder. He landed face-down on the floor of his cell, and stayed there unmoving three nights and three days. Not sleeping, eating, not moving, face on the floor. Nothing was left.
It was his land of deep darkness and the shadow of death. He’d tried to get himself out, and landed back in, deeper than ever. Listening to his story, we entered with him into that lightless place of misery, lost hope, and shame.
We all have places of desolation. We taste what we would be if God were to truly abandon us: the utter separateness and isolation which human existence sometimes seems to be.
These “ordinary” days can be hard testing ground. People around us may seem fine, engrossed in their own worlds, functioning. But many dwell in deep darkness, carrying their desolation inside, expecting nobody to come there.
Into this desolation, Jesus walks. Not by accident, but deliberately. We run away from ourselves, but Jesus comes toward us. Jesus chooses the land of desolation: “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).
But more than this, Jesus is the land of desolation, the radical separateness of human existence. In Jesus, God claims it for us. God comes to the desolate place, not with guns a-blazing intent on destroying even the darkness, but rather coming to meet the darkness, as gently as the early-morning sun appearing over the night-shadowed hills. God is infinitely gentle.
How can we know, unless we dare to go to those dark places?
In the chapel of the Don Jail, James recalled the three nights and days he spent alone on the floor of his cell. On the third day, he said, when there was nothing at all, there was God. The light came into his darkness; the hardness of his heart was softened. His efforts to change had led to despair but into his despair came hope. When there was nothing, there was God. Nothing changed, externally, but everything changed. Most of all, James changed. And so the day we met him, still incarcerated but for a lesser charge than murder, he sat in the prison chapel in his orange jumpsuit for a prayer service of reconciliation. He met us with peace. He took responsibility for his life rather than blaming others. He thought of somebody else’s good instead of his own, telling his story for the sake of young John at the other end of the semicircle spending his first nights in jail.
How shall we enter the shadowed places?
These “ordinary” days may surprise us with the opportunities they give to visit the dark places. Do we dare to become them as Jesus did? If, like James, we’ve already been there — and discovered for ourselves that, when there’s nothing, there is God — then we carry the light in a new way.
It’s our chance to learn to be as gentle as God whose light we bear.
But we needn’t go alone. We are accompanied. “The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. On those who lived in the land of deep darkness, light has dawned” (Is 9:2; cf Matthew 4:16).
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org