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Walk in the dark

31 October 2014

David Bryant urges courage, not despair

THE feast of All Saints can lead to a flood of self-deprecation. The saints come over as towering spiritual and moral victors, way above our league; we look on their heroic deeds and falter. St Catherine endured being broken on a wheel, and Peter, so legend has it, was crucified upside down so as not to emulate Christ. St Teresa of Ávila reached the supreme heights of mystical experience through spiritual marriage with God.

All this makes us feel like parents competing in a school sports-day race, and finding ourselves pitted against Olympic gold-medallists. As the hymn wryly notes: "We feebly struggle, they in glory shine."

St John of the Cross puts forward a startling and paradoxical analysis of the path to sainthood - one that can reformulate and re-energise our take on the spiritual life. "If a man wishes to be sure of the road he travels on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark."

This brings potential sainthood firmly down to the level of the church pew. Everyone experiences darkness at some point in life. "The still, sad music of humanity," as Wordsworth describes it in his poem "Tintern Abbey".

This may be spiritual. A crisis of faith, or an experience that leads us to negativity, can knock the stuffing out of us. Perhaps the liturgy has become a meaningless formula, and the standards demanded by scripture seem unattainable. Our view of God diminishes, so that he becomes no more than a patriarchal Freudian figment of the imagination.

More devastatingly, he may disappear from our horizons altogether. Prayer seems pointless and even counterproductive in this wilderness. In the words of the theologian Karl Rahner, you get down on your knees and "shout into the impotent, unbounded darkness of your dead heart's wasteland" - and nobody answers.

The wellspring of darkness often emerges from life's rough and tumble. Anger may rankle, and the winter blues can throw us into the pit. Illness can be frightening, and bereavement creates a terrible yearning and emptiness. World events on a local or international level may hurl us out of kilter, so that we feel appalled at the depth of depravity to which humankind (of which we are a part) can sink.

I remember being tossed into the deep end as a green curate, when the vicar asked me to take the funeral of a ten-year-old girl. As was the custom in the West Country at that time, she lay in an open coffin, golden-haired, pale-faced, profoundly beautiful. Almost tongue-tied at this pathetic glimpse of reality, I could do no more than stumble out the words of Lord's Prayer. It shook my immature theological complacency and assured spirituality.

For St John of the Cross, the path to sanctity lies in striding out into the darkness, unseeing, not comprehending, clinging on to a tattered faith - or even no faith at all. It entails battling against the emptiness; having "the courage to be", in the face of lurking despair and nihilistic thinking. It demands that we hold fast against the nothingness.

Being a saint is not just being broken on a wheel, or experiencing spiritual ecstasy. It is keeping on going, hoping against hope that a glimmer of light will appear. The poet R. S. Thomas put this succinctly, after reflecting on Michaelangelo's portrait of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, stretching out his hand to his maker.

I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo's
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating

Stick in there, hold fast, and, God willing, that will happen.

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

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