Darkness is on my mind lately. I’m looking at a collage I made recently in art therapy and wondering about what it means to look into the dark corners of the self at this point in history, at the edge of the future in a culture pushed to its most fantastic and absurd limits. When have we been so utterly self-focused and yet almost equally bereft of self-knowledge? When have we been this distracted, and subtracted from understanding?
In general, I write to understand, and read to expand the picture of reality I am constructing. Sometimes I forget that I don’t understand, and so I write as if the picture in my head were actually reality. Finger pointing at the moon, getting in the way. Thumb blurring the camera lens.
So it is with faith, when I start thinking that the path I’m currently on is the path. The one I’ve been looking for, the one that leads straight to nirvana. I’ve found the way-this is it! On a recent walk, a friend described this as thinking you just need “a new program.” In that moment I saw how I have taken a hopscotch approach toward God, hopping from program to program in pursuit of the “right” one. She kindly pointed out that I could also look at this as well-rounded spiritual seeking. Possibly. And I’m reminded of a candle in another friend’s window, with a quotation from Amma: when you take one step towards God, God takes one hundred steps toward you. So perhaps it doesn’t matter how you walk, so much as that you keep walking.
Still, there’s a cost to hopscotch seeking, a risk involved in switching programs when the one you’ve chosen starts to get hard. It has to do with the illusion that you’re in control, that understanding is a place you can reach by effort alone.The illusion of control blinds you to the common reality underneath all paths and all faiths. Perhaps that reality is pure mystery, one small part of which is the human condition.
Why should it be otherwise? Why should we be otherwise than we are?
The writer Tim Farrington says that humans are “resistant by nature.” In a wonderful interview in The Sun (how come these interviews always get to me?), he focuses on the role of darkness in the interweaving of faith and writing, or any creative work.
I’m about to enter the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University, whose focus is precisely that: faith and writing. How do you carry both? How do you balance them? For me, writing and faith have always felt connected, though writing is so much simpler to define. Part of their connection has to do with entering what is unknown and a little scary.
In the interview, Farrington looks at the common denominator of a ‘dark cloud’ or ‘dark night of the soul,’ experienced by spiritual seekers from all traditions. The interviewer wonders if this is the same as what we now call depression, and seek to medicate. There are important distinctions, Farrington replies, emphasizing that medication can be extremely important for many people, including himself. But he also questions the automatic medicating of what is often a profound and necessary part of the human experience. Engaging with darkness, with unknowing, is part of both the spiritual and creative journey (and for many, it’s difficult to separate the one from the other.) And this engagement requires balance. He writes:
“I don’t have to be somewhat depressed to write; I have to be somewhat surrendered to write- and there is an important difference… What’s clear to me now is that depression is largely the ego’s reaction to surrender, because surrender itself is not only painless but blissful.”
This is such a wonderful way to put it. When I’m riding high, thinking I’ve got it all figured out, I’m inevitably heading for a big fall. It’s when I’m picking myself up again that I seem to have the best chance of opening my heart, and being receptive to deeper truths. There is a softening out toward others, and simultaneously a solidifying of my own boundaries and limitations. As a seeker, I can’t learn anything when I’m clinging to some kind of lie. As a writer, that clinging blocks me from receiving information, and therefore from having something to say.
There’s a character missing in what could otherwise be summarized (see Portia Nelson’s Autobiography in Five Short Chapters) as learning from mistakes and working toward self-knowledge.
Faith says this moment– between falling down and getting back up, when you’re deep inside the cloud of unknowing– is the crack in our shells through which grace enters. Faith says you do not walk this path, or any path, alone.
Perhaps the contemporary writer most associated with faith and with darkness is Flannery O’Connor. I’ve shied away from her brutal short stories for years, ever since A Good Man is Hard to Find practically killed me as a college freshman. O’Connor was a southern Catholic and wrote what she called “slightly odd” fiction in the 1950s. I finished reading a collection of her “spiritual writings” as a prelude to her complete short stories. It felt a little like cheating to read these cut-and-pasted bits of her letters, essays, and short stories, with sections on “The Church and the Novelist,” “A Reason to Write,” and “The Cost of Faith.” I learned a lot about her, but maybe in too concentrated a dose, out of context. Like drinking orange juice is a different experience than eating an orange.
I just had a conversation with someone about ‘new criticism,’ which as I understand it, holds that an artist’s work should stand on its own, without the benefit of biographical information or artist’s statement. New criticism would say I should let her short stories work on me.
At any rate, I appreciated the short-cut experience for what it was. The ‘Catholicness’ of her faith was foreign to me, but elements rang true. Her letters are wonderfully blunt, funny, and honest. She suffered from lupus, and her life was cut short when she was at the height of her talents. During her most productive years, she only had the energy to write for two hours a day. But they were the same two hours, and they were every day, which she said is crucial for a writer. On the cloud of unknowing, she said:
“Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation…
“I don’t think of conversion as being once and for all and that’s that. I think once the process is begun and continues that you are continually turning toward God and away from your own egocentricity and that you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it. I measure God by everything that I am not.”
I’ve been turning that last phrase over and over in my mind.
I’m also reading and rereading poetry by Denise Levertov and Carolyn Forché. Two poems in particular have stuck with me. One is Levertov’s “Feet,” a journey in six parts, in which the original mermaid of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale walks the earth in her human feet, “…and gives up her voice in payment. She does this/ knowing each gliding, graceful step she will take/ will bring her the pain of walking on knives./ She does this for love, and the dream/ of human joys and a deathless soul.”
Levertov describes her mother reading this poem aloud to her as a child, and weeping unexpectedly, “her voice for a moment baffled.” You’ll have to read the rest of the poem to let its full beauty sink in. Levertov is utterly amazing to me.
The other poem is Forché’s “Prayer,” below, which needs no explanation.
Begin again among the poorest, moments off, in another time and place.
Belongings gathered in the last hour, visible invisible.
Tin spoon, teacup, tremble of tray, carpet hanging from sorrow’s balcony.
Say goodbye to everything. With a wave of your hand, gesture to all you have known.
Begin with bread torn from bread, beans given to the hungriest, a carcass of flies.
Take the polished stillness from a locked church, prayer notes left between stones.
Answer them and hoist in your net voices from the troubled hours.
Sleep only when the least among them sleeps, and then only until the birds.
Make the flatbed truck your time and place. Make the least daily wage your value.
Language will rise then like language from the mouth of a still river. No one’s mouth.
Bring night to your imaginings. Bring the darkest passage of your holy book.
Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings. Ed. Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books 2003.
‘Til Morning Comes. Interview with Tim Farrington, The Sun, March 2010. *Thanks Lara!*
Levertov, Denise. This Great Unknowing. 1992.
Forché, Carolyn. Blue Hour. 2003.