The Interplay of Darkness and Light
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 5, 2022
The Odes of Solomon is a first or second century document known to the Holy Father's and quoted by a few. Olivier Clement used it to great effect in THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM. Here is the quote.
"Blessed are the men and women who are planted...in your garden, who grow like trees and flowers grow, who transform their darkness into light. Their roots plunge into darkness; their faces turn toward the light."
The relationship between darkness and light is not black and white. There are many shades of grey. There is always interplay between them. If it were not for the darkness you would not be able to see the light. Light is never absent from darkness for the simple reason that there is no place the Lord is not. He walks with us all along the journey through every valley and every mountain top.
Becoming aware of the shadow inside is essential for spiritual growth. Often the reason we look towards the light is because we have seen or experienced it. Another name for this darkness is suffering. The light of God's love shows the way out of suffering. I often tell people in counseling and confession, "How long do you want to suffer?" And whatever it is you must let go of to be happy, let it go.
There is a quote from our father among the rock stars, David Bowie, that puts a fine point the on the parable of the Pharisee and Publican. "Religion is for people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there." Perhaps this is where religion and spirituality are most likely to diverge. The Publican had been there and wanted out. The Pharisee was in hell, didn't know it, and was content.
The Pharisee for all his obedience to the letter of the Law created for himself a religion without God. A macho religion with himself at the center. How do we know this? We know because of how he mercilessly judged the repentant Publican. "By their fruits you shall know them," is not about piety. Piety is easily faked. It is about love and humility in dealing with others. Not so easy to fake.
Without love, we are nothing. Without humility the narrow gate closes. The Pharisee defended himself with a cloak of false righteousness, hiding his narcissism behind his robes and bombasity. It was as if he were saying to God, "My righteousness makes your mercy (and you) unnecessary. Pay attention to that sinner over there. Nothing to see here. I do not really need you after all!"
So many seem to think that transformation comes through the imposition of external forms like rules, regulations, styles of clothes. That is far too easy, culture-bound, ephemeral, and incapable of producing a true and lasting transformation. It is like painting veneer on a rotting piece of wood, putting new wine into old wine skins and white-washing tombs.
In the Exultet sung at the Paschal Vigil in the Western Rite you hear this paradoxical line, "O, happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Simply put, in the hands of God sin, suffering, and darkness become tools for spiritual healing.
The Publican came to the Temple to pray because he had become aware of the dark shadow at the root of his life. Overwhelmed by it he sought refuge in God. In a sense you could say he was enlightened by his darkness and so began his transformation into light.
Righteousness and holiness are gifts of the Spirit. Meister Eckhart underscores this writing that, "...the Uncreated Light alone is what wakes the soul from the darkness of its slumber." When we are ready, when we start to awaken, it is because God is awakening us and not because of our own efforts.
I want to end with a quote from St. Seraphim of Sarov. It provides a road map to what a true Lenten practice might be.
"You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who that receives. All condemnation is of the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil."
Perhaps Seraphim had the Pharisee in mind when he wrote this.