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Christ dwells in the dark places, as well as the light

by
21 September 2012

We are spirituality mature when we can discern him in the world's pain, says David Bryant

A GHOST ORCHID, the rarest wildflower in Britain, has been found in the depths of a Herefordshire beech wood. The tiny translucent plant had been presumed extinct for 23 years. For botanists, it seems like the discovery of the Holy Grail.

To descry God in the rare, glorious, and beautiful is not difficult. The smile of a child, a moving rendition of Messiaen's L'Ascension, a joyful family reunion after a soldier's return from Afghanistan, or a timeless moment between lovers are all rich sources for revealing the divine presence. So, too, is a pilgrimage to a holy place such as Walsingham or Iona. But the Christian journey makes far more taxing demands than this.

Paul ups the stakes in the letter to the Colossians. He says of Christ, "all things were created by him," and "in him all things hold together." He is claiming that the Christ-presence is infused into every facet of existence, not just in those aspects of it which we find favourable. The challenge is to unearth it. The deprivations, cruelty, violence, prejudice, and sheer sadness that confront us as we view creation make this a daunting, if not impossible, task. But that is being over-hasty.

When I was an inexperienced curate in the early 1950s, my vicar gave me the task of conducting the funeral of a ten-year-old girl. I approached her house in fear and trembling, and was immediately asked whether I would say a prayer over the open coffin.

To my surprise and bewilderment, I found myself being upheld by the unmistakable swirl of prayer filling the room, the pervasive sense of peace, the compassionate love and bravery of the parents, and the serenity of the dead child. The presence of God in that house of sorrow was overwhelming.

Years later came a bleaker scenario: a top-security prison and a young man serving life for murder. Not much room for God in all this, I thought, as I joined the tight-lipped queue of waiting visitors. I was wrong.

The young man told me that he was torn apart with remorse for the crime that he had perpetrated during a bar-room brawl, and longed for divine forgiveness.

There was more. Seeing my clerical collar, his girlfriend waylaid me in the waiting room. She had been loyal throughout his trial and the years of his imprisonment, but was under familial pressure not to marry a killer. What should she do? I asked the obvious question: "Do you love him?" and was greeted with a resounding "Yes".

Some time later, she wrote to tell me that they were happily married. Even in this unpromising setting, there were sparks of the divine to be found in the man's penitence, and the woman's faithful waiting.

There are situations so depraved that they seem to be intrinsically evil, and devoid of any potential for redemption. I think of genocide, torture, brutality to children, and mass killing. Here, there is only one possibility, and that is to lift what we find unbearable up into the presence of God, and to let the light of the Holy One take over. Human love has its limits, but God's love is infinite and all-embracing.

The point at which we reach spiritual maturity and fullness comes when we can discern the redemptive power of Christ within the heart of the world's pain and wickedness. Few achieve such exalted and prayerful heights. As so often, it is the poets who point the way. "But deep in the darkness is God," the German mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke, said. The Welsh priest R. S. Thomas echoed those words: "The darkness is the deepening shadow of your presence."

Perhaps they were both well on the way to discovering the Holy Grail.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

 

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