The Darkness Shines in the Light

The author smiling, wearing a light-colored shirt with dark-colored stripes and a bee on the upper left chest

The author

White privilege is marked by blindness to the ways our language hurts and harms others. The process of learning to see is, like the story in John’s gospel of Jesus’ healing a blind man by caking his eyes with mud made of spit and dirt, both messy and profound.

In January, I attended a gathering in Chicago called The Mystic Soul Conference. An outgrowth of the Mystic Soul project, the event combined spirituality, hospitality, community, and justice. The entire gathering centered people of color (POC), which meant that I, as a white woman, was invited to de-center myself. What this meant was explicit: I was not to be the first to speak up in group discussion; I would sign up for care sessions (massage, spiritual direction, body work) only after people of color had done so. White people were not presenters, or organizers, or leaders. The non-POCs present were there to listen, to follow, and to exhale into the work of justice that restored us to our rightful place as co-laborers instead of blind guides.

One of the most powerful lessons from the conference for me occurred in a session called “Dark and Divine: Healing the Light vs. Dark Dichotomy in Spiritual Speech.” Artist and educator Amina Ross led our group of POC and non-POC folk through exercises to explore the concept of darkness. A curator of an ongoing art exhibit in Chicago – featuring artists who use darkness as a medium – Ross invited us to do the same.

I learned that my understanding of darkness has been shallow, one-dimensional, paltry, and feeble. I’ve allowed the simplistic correlation of light = good, and darkness = bad, to rule the way I understand light and dark, both in life and in metaphor. I didn’t even know that I had forfeited so much truth and beauty in my thin imaging, but as I was invited to poke around and become curious about darkness (the world’s and my own), I realized that I had never spent much time asking questions or imagining other possibilities. When we shared our reflections at the end of the workshop, I was surprised by both the depth of other peoples’ answers – clearly, they had spent time considering the ways that darkness was simultaneously a gift and a liability in their own lives – and by the shallowness of my own.

I am ashamed to admit that I have lived, unconsciously but persistently, with the idea that darkness = evil for a long, long time, expressing that idea as anti-black racism in both overt and subtle ways. If light = good, and dark = bad, what does that mean for the ways I see and interact with sisters and brothers who live with darkness as a visible part of their identity? Read more

Called from the Shadows

This past summer, I explored Rome for an afternoon during a layover, and I prioritized visiting the San Luigi dei Francesi church where three paintings by Caravaggio hang. I became fascinated by one of Caravaggio’s paintings there in particular: “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” It depicts Matthew 9:9, which says, “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”

For the last decade, I’ve frequently drawn upon the tradition of Lectio Divina but less so upon Visuo Divina, the practice of prayerfully considering an image or visual representation in order to experience the divine. I am therefore grateful that God shook me out of the haziness of my playing tourist on a humid August day. In the midst of my fatigue and my feelings of being overwhelmed (so little time in Rome; so much to see!), the Holy Spirit invited me to stop and consider the truth of this painting by Caravaggio.

On the right side of the painting, Jesus gestures towards Matthew. Bathed in light, Matthew points to himself, expressing surprise. I, too, was surprised. Read more

Shards of Hope

Permission March 2014“Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know? That you’ve pulled a fast one over on God? I don’t know a lot about you, but I know this: our God, who created you, who somehow manages to be three persons and also one at the same time, sees you, knows you, loves you, and highly regards you. As you are.”  

Pastor Ray (Name Changed)

Those may have been the most grace-filled words ever spoken to me. Could it be possible that exactly as I am, broken as I feel, I am made in the image of God? Could it be possible that God doesn’t just know about my brokenness, but knows my multifaceted experience, and still loves and highly regards me?

Or should I say, us? That, after all, more accurately reflects my experience and my internal dialogue. What I call “me” is really a collection of many pieces of myself who live within me. These ‘others’ have their own memories, experiences, belief systems, and ways of making meaning. They even have their own names. Sometimes, we all get along. More often, our conflicting worldviews and belief systems collide within us, challenging us to find an integrated way of living. The official name for this is Dissociative Identity Disorder. (You can read more about that here.)

In spite of the multiplicity of voices that make up my experience, this oft feared, misunderstood mental health challenge leaves me feeling alone. I’m learning to feel comfortable talking about the peripheral issues: depression, anxiety, being an incest survivor, etc. Still, I fear talking about this one. I am afraid to tell anyone about my diagnosis. I am afraid to tell people how challenging it is to live and to minister this way. I am afraid of what people will think and say. Will my bishop decide it’s too risky for me to serve a congregation? Will my congregation react with fear or horror or morbid curiosity? Will my friends think I’m crazy? If they really know me, will they stop loving me?

Fear and silence shroud my whole life. The cloistered secrecy that pervaded my childhood made my disorder possible (and necessary). As an adult, I push back against these walls. I stretch to characterize my life with confidence, honesty, and integrity. And yet, still I am afraid. Still I have a secret. The deepest, most painful secret possible: who I really am.

Carrying this secret exhausts me, which is why I sought out Pastor Ray that day. Tired of feeling afraid for my job, tired of feeling alone in the world, tired of feeling overwhelmed and suicidal, I sought out someone I believed might bring me good news. I told my secret. I explained what I believe: God didn’t mean for my life to be this way. God didn’t create me with the intention that I would have ‘others’ inside of me. I am this way because of what happened to me. Fundamentally, I believe that I am different in my soul than God originally intended. Then, I explained what I fear: God couldn’t possibly know about these ‘others’ and love me. Their very existence must mean that we’re meant to be alone. Ultimately, I fear that because I am not who God created me to be, I should not even be alive.

I sat quietly trembling in Pastor Ray’s office, waiting for his response. He didn’t recoil, didn’t appear horrified, didn’t ask questions. He just said that. “Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know?…” Something broke loose inside of me. I began to breathe again. Streams of colored light began to play deep within my soul, as though someone had turned on the light behind a stained glass window.

This should not have been surprising. After all, I don’t believe in a God who created a world where evil ‘got in’ and can never be redeemed. I believe that our creation & garden stories bear witness to a God who does not cause sin and brokenness, or ignore it, or punish it. Rather, I believe these stories speak of a God who constantly invites us to take part in God’s redemptive work. God gently holds our brokenness with an invitation to work together to create unfathomable beauty. Just as a stained glass window transforms broken shards of glass into a single beautiful piece of art, so God works with us and our brokenness to create ever more complex, beautiful artwork. Brokenness doesn’t ruin the art, it is the art.

What really surprised me that day was that the light shone from within me. Somehow, God’s light was already present behind my broken soul. Somehow, in spite of my fear, I had never really been alone. Somehow, pulling together the painful gashes that separate pieces of my soul, God could still create beauty from my brokenness. Somehow, God could still bring me hope.

I know that many people live with mental illness. Many people live exhausted from keeping secrets in fear. Many people believe that something about them makes them fundamentally unlovable, unknowable, and disdainful to God. So often, I feel that I must be the only person (or at least, the only clergyperson) in the world who struggles in these ways. I also know that isn’t actually true, even when I feel most abandoned and alone. Every person’s life experience is unique, and anyone can feel completely alone even if they’re not. That is, even though they’re not. So I know, even when I feel most alone, I am not. I cling to the hope that even God lives as three-in-one. And God’s light shines, even when I can’t see it.

I still don’t have the courage to share my story openly. I still wonder what would happen if my bishop or my congregation learned about my diagnosis. I still think carefully about which friends might be safe to tell and how they might respond. I even still wonder, sometimes, if God’s promises hold true for me. At the same time, I ask God to nurture the brightness within me. I seek places where it can be seen. And I let it shine through my broken pieces with hope.

Feeling isolated and alone comes easy in life. Society still teaches us to keep secrets, especially about mental health challenges. Yet God’s grace shines brightest in community. God’s grace comes when we know we are seen and known and loved and highly regarded. God’s grace remains present at all times. But so often, it takes someone who sees and knows us to shine light into our deepest secrets. It takes someone else to bring grace to our most broken places. It takes someone else to open us to hope.

Hope gives me permission to live. It gives me permission to be vulnerable. It gives me permission to play. It gives me permission to be me, and it gives me permission to be ‘others’ — Janie or Daniel or little one or Sara or Ana or 12 or anyone who needs time to be. It gives me permission to shine. After all, it isn’t me the light graces — it’s us. And after all, it isn’t my light that is shining — it’s God’s. Even in me. Even in us.

The author serves as a full-time solo pastor of a congregation somewhere in the world that gives her time to see her therapist on a regular basis. You may contact the editor of this article at theoneswelove (dot) ycw (at) gmail (dot) com.

Photo provided by the author.