The Pain that Heals

Chapter 3

The Dark Face of Reality

In analysing the deeper core of human nature it soon becomes apparent that, basically, there are two types of people: those who accept a spiritual world and those to whom anything appertaining to God is incomprehensible. The first group are not always better, finer or more admirable people than the second, but at least they can be assured of a starker, more authentic existence than is possible to those whose world is confined by the limits of the human mind. The rationalistic type of person lives in a closed universe in which nothing beyond the reach of the mind can be permitted to happen. The spiritually aware individual, on the other hand, inhabits an open world in which the apparently solid laws of physical science are being continually challenged and forced awry by external influences of a psychical and spiritual order. The rationally orientated person is scarcely alive to the challenge of reality: the spiritual person's life responds consciously to the universal law of the Spirit of God and is being led progressively into greater truth.

In this respect it is important to define the psychic and spiritual dimensions. The psychic includes all extrasensory communication between the mind, or psyche, of living forms, whether in our world or in the greater dimensions that lie beyond mortal understanding. In itself it is morally neutral, and is as likely to be mischievous as edifying. The spiritual appertains to the Deity, and is infused with the highest moral excellence, summarised by the supreme attribute of love. The spiritual mode is, nevertheless, transmitted psychically by the Holy Spirit to us human beings through the spirit to the soul, from which it is translated by intellectual precepts to the reasoning faculty and fed to the emotions.

It is, of course, possible for the spiritually blind to have the scales lifted from their eyes. Spiritual experience is needed for this to happen, and often this is precipitated by suffering. Even those who are aware of a spiritual world may have their sights limited to the domain of mere psychic illusion, which may provide a seductive means of escaping from the common duties of everyday life. They too have to deepen their understanding of reality by passing beyond the barrier of the ego to true self-awareness. This awareness is closely related to the darkness that complements the light of God. It is usually through the patient and courageous journey into darkness that God's light is revealed. But most of us would prefer to bask in the meretricious light of worldly comfort rather than move towards the source of all light, itself uncreated, that is of God.

This darkness is, in one respect, a cloud of unknowing which has to be entered into and penetrated in the faith of self-forgetfulness before reality can be touched. It requires an abandonment of all previously held opinions as well as the revision of worldly counsel. But it has a much more savage side also. It is a place of pain, of mutilation, which is not voluntarily entered into but into which one is forced by the trial of life itself. When one has put one's hand to the plough, as Jesus tells us, one must move forward. The one who keeps looking back is not fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). The movement forwards is, to be sure, one made voluntarily, by the full use of the freed will. And yet the path seems pre-ordained; it goes through a terrible wilderness.

When Jesus came of spiritual age, He submitted voluntarily to the baptism of John the Baptist. This was a baptism of repentance, of a change of heart. Jesus surely had no need of such a repentance. But in identifying Himself with His sinful compatriots, He affirmed His saving humanity authoritatively. Only then did the Holy Spirit descend fully on Him and the Father's approval was absolute. "Thou art my Son, my Beloved, on thee my favour rests" (Mark 1:11). After that the Spirit sent Him away into the wilderness where He remained for forty days, tempted by Satan. The consecrated One has to come to terms with the darkness of life. The Spirit is His guide and friend, but also the one who leads Him into a deep relationship with the darkness of sin. This confrontation is primarily that of spiritual warfare, but the end is a tried, proved Jesus. Satan is also one of the heavenly court, as the Book of Job affirms; he too is created by God and is a child of God. Without the constant trial that comes from a living confrontation with evil, there can be no growth into the fullness of human life. There can, above all, be no living relationship with God.

In the creation story Adam and Eve live in a world of infantile perfection. They are one with life in all its forms and one also with God the Father. Yet they are unaware of the bliss that is theirs. They are living in the sleep of unawareness. It is only when they are touched by evil, symbolised by the serpent who too was made by God - though he is the craftiest of all God's wild creatures - that they know God fully as a being separate from themselves. This first authentic knowledge of God is both separative in content and dark in character. It is the wrath of God's law, now disregarded, that brings them into a fully creative relationship with God Himself. The way charted for them is bitter and savage, but it does affirm the authenticity and freedom of the human person, and promises, in the far distant future, redemption and restitution. Thus, paradoxically, the primeval sin of Adam and Eve, though it entails heartbreaking suffering, is to their ultimate advantage. The unfallen Adam cannot be credited with any sort of effective will, whereas after the fall the will is born, albeit tragically perverse.

"As in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be brought to life" (I Corinthians 15:22). Indeed, the way of Adam's full recognition of himself as a human being with the perverse will that is a property of natural, unredeemed man is by disregarding God's command. This is the way of inevitable death for the person who functions, without regard for God's sovereignty, at the level of the ego. By this word ego, I am referring to a point of immediate awareness in the psyche that fluctuates minute by minute and is governed by the desire for immediate, continuous gratification. The unredeemed ego has to be slain before it can be resurrected as the servant of the true self, the soul that lies at the heart of the person. The ego is indeed the essential servant of the full person, but is demonic as a master.

Now Christ "did not come to be served but to serve", indeed "to give up His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). The ego whereby He shows Himself to the world in a continuous epiphany, or manifestation, until His death, is the servant of the divine nature within. And from outside it is the servant of mankind. The confrontation with the forces of darkness that commences after His baptism and reaches its fulfilment in the crucifixion, is the means whereby He shows his unitive knowledge of the Father, of an intensity far deeper than was His by right from the moment of His conception. Truly each man has to repeat the life of Christ before he can know God fully. In this respect the statement, "No man comes to the Father except by me" (John 14:6), otherwise so easily seen in exclusive terms, is manifestly true. Only by taking on the full burden of society's wickedness and the psychic darkness that rules the natural world can the aspirant come to a full realisation of that love which is the nature of God the Father and was demonstrated in the atonement wrought by Christ. In the paradox of unbearable suffering we come to the knowledge of God's love, for as we give love to the world, so we open ourselves fully to the source of all love, who is God. In so doing, we also affirm the divine nature in which we were originally formed and of which we begin to partake. In the life of any one of us this sequence of events is more likely merely to be started than completed, since our time here is but a moment in the vast expanse of the drama of creation. Nevertheless, life's essential task is always the same - establishing closer relationships with a widening circle of fellow creatures.

The darkness that surrounds God is the reverse side of His nature as light, for "God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). But the world created by Him is separated from His essence by darkness of such intensity that only mystical prayer can penetrate it. Fortunately He is master of the darkness as well as the light of creation. "If I climb up to heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, again I find thee. If I take my flight to the frontiers of the morning or dwell at the limit of the western sea, even there thy hand will meet me and thy right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely darkness will steal over me, night will close round me', darkness is no darkness for thee, and night is luminous as day; to thee both dark and light are one" (Psalm 139: 8-12). The same thought appears in Isaiah 45: 6-7: "I am the Lord, there is no other; I make the light, I create darkness, author alike of prosperity and trouble. I, the Lord, do all these things." No doubt the darkness and trouble that harass us perpetually are brought about by secondary causes, but these too are in God's power. They will, like Satan, be our constant accuser in the heavenly court of justice until we have played our part in the transfiguration of the world, mediated primarily in the society in which we live. The very radiance of God's light blinds those who even glimpse it from afar in mystical illumination, until they have grown accustomed to it in a life given over to God's service.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance in Holy Scripture of the darkness and the light of God working in concert occurs in the story of Jacob's mysterious combat with the angel of the Lord in the depth of night. As will be recalled, Jacob's previous life was none too edifying. By artifice he had gained ascendancy over his brother Esau, and his dealings with his uncle Laban showed neither of them in a particularly good light. Admittedly Jacob was the less culpable of the two, but he had nevertheless left his uncle secretly, taking both his daughters and their children with him. Through divine intervention coming in the form of a dream, Laban is prevented from harming his nephew. However, Jacob has still to come to terms with his wronged brother Esau, now a powerful local chieftain. During the night Jacob sends his two wives, his eleven sons and his two slave girls across the gorge at the ford of Jabbok. Then he is left alone in the darkness. A man wrestles with him till daybreak. When the man sees that he cannot throw Jacob, he strikes him in the hollow of his thigh so that Jacob's thigh is dislocated while they wrestle. The man says: "Let me go, for day is breaking," but Jacob replies: "I will not let you go unless you bless me." He says to Jacob: "What is your name?" and he replies, "Jacob." The man says: "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you strove with God and with men and prevailed." Jacob says: "Tell me, I pray you, your name." He replies: "Why do you ask my name?" but he gives him his blessing there. Jacob calls the place Peniel, "because," he says, "I have seen God face to face and my life is spared." The sun rose as Jacob passed through Penuel, limping because of his hip (Genesis 32:22-31).

To me this amazing incident speaks of Jacob having to confront the deepest recesses of his own inner nature, at once treacherous and courageous, timid and resourceful. Like Adam, but on a higher level of consciousness, he is asserting his identity as a person in making a positive response to the power of darkness which assails him and threatens his very life. All this occurs, significantly, when he is absolutely alone in the night. The accuser, who has a destructive quality, strikes when, in the dark hours, man's innate dread and awareness of his nothingness comes into terrifyingly clear focus. Jacob then has to face his inevitable destiny without the philosophical hope of immortality that comes to man with the dawning of day's light. But Jacob resisted the threat of the cataclysmic encounter, and would not yield. He maintained, indeed defended, not only his humanity but also his unique identity. The result of this supernatural encounter was reflected even on a bodily level by a hip put out of joint - a lasting testimony to the struggle. Something in him is irrevocably altered and he bears its impress for the remainder of his life, in the same way as the risen Christ bears the stigmata of His crucifixion even when He appears to the disciples in His resurrection body. What was a mark of extreme suffering now assumes the status of a thing of glory.

In the story of Jacob's spiritual conflict with the dark and the light of God's power, we see how his sins have become, as Dame Julian of Norwich puts it, "No longer wounds but worships". In so doing we likewise move beyond the consciousness of the superficial ego to the deeper self within, so that an apparently new ego is born in us, one more closely attuned to the spiritual self. No wonder, as Jesus tells Nicodemus, a man has to be born over again before he can see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). The baptism within always embraces a sequence of inner death followed by a willed resurrection, the will being directed to a nobler end outside the person's own scheme of desires. "Put yourself at the disposal of God, as dead men raised to life; yield your bodies to Him as implements for doing right" (Romans 6:13).

The world of separation from God is the world of darkness. It is a place of growth of the human soul into the knowledge of truth, that man has to work out his own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us, inspiring both the will and the deed for His own chosen purpose (Philippians 2:13). The divine source is never far from the one who travails in spiritual darkness, because He is there within all of us in the spirit that is the apex of the soul. But to most of us this presence is more an act of religious faith than an intensity of personal relationship. This is because the human mind is incarcerated in a prison of self-centredness, and until it breaks free from selfish limitations to a full participation in life, it cannot know God in the intimacy that He brings. To know God within needs an openness and willingness to give of oneself freely and joyously to one's fellows. This is scarcely conceivable until one has moved beyond the delusion of owning any attribute with which one may have been endowed, either by birth or by the world's acclaim. Only when we know that we are nothing and can rejoice in this knowledge can we give of ourselves without reserve to those around us. For in becoming nothing, one is close again to the Father like a little child, without personal power or guile, and one assumes something of divinity. In this state of grace we are at last open both to God and to the world, acting as a mediator between the two.

When tragedy strikes Job, despite his life of genuine charity and piety, he says: "Every terror that haunted me has caught up with me and all that I feared has come upon me" (Job 3:25). It often appears that our deepest fears have a strongly precognitive flavour - they seem to be inner warnings of a situation in store for us later on in our lives. But if we are strong in faith, we can call on a power beyond ourselves to sustain us as we approach this crisis period of our life. Jesus, in the Lord's Prayer, teaches us to ask God that we may not be brought to the test (Matthew 6:13). This is generally regarded as the most obscure part of the prayer. One possible meaning is that we should ask to be protected from the temptation of endangering our lives by precipitate and largely self-inflating actions aimed essentially at coveting a hero's death and martyrdom. In such a situation the unredeemed ego would be the master, glorifying itself in the fate it had itself fashioned.

In the real tests of life, over which we seldom have appreciable control, we grow into the knowledge of God in the dark obscurity of ignorance. He comes to us as an illumination that lights up every aspect of the personality, as He did Job's when rational argument was finally stilled in speculative futility. It is then, when all earthly hope is shattered, that the true salvation of inner healing is accomplished. In a very real way God has given man dominion over the earth, and men's darkness rules over living creatures, yet God does not interfere directly. His law will determine the fate of the world, whether it prevails or is destroyed. But until a living relationship is established between God and man, all human endeavours are consummated in destruction and chaos, the end being that primeval nothingness out of which creation was called forth. This living relationship between God and man is effected by prayer, which is the supreme human act.

The darkness that is the environment in which the sentient creature lives his life on earth (and presumably throughout the created universe) is to be seen, not so much as a part of the divine nature but as a property of the unhealed, untransformed world. The statement of St John already quoted that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all is true in terms of the nature of God, as many of the world's greatest mystics have attested. But in the world of separation, the world of growth in which we become perfect servants of God, the negative polarity of divine power, often called God's wrath, is essential for moving the creature on, lest he feels that he has arrived at a final state in which all problems are solved and in which perpetual rest can be enjoyed. Such a state would be a real hell, for there would be no knowledge of God as spirit and no growth of man into a spiritual being; in a way it would be even more terrible than the more conventional pictures of hell as a place of agony of frustration and self-accusation that are encountered in several of Christ's parables.

As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: "All these persons died in faith. They were not yet in possession of the things promised, but they had seen them far ahead and hailed them, and confessed themselves no more than strangers or passing travellers on earth. Those who use such language show plainly that they are looking for a country of their own. If their hearts had been in the country they had left, they could have found opportunity to return. Instead, we find them longing for a better country - I mean, the heavenly one. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has a city ready for them" (Hebrews 11:13-16). Admittedly this and subsequent passages refer to the prophets before Jesus, and we who come after have been acquainted with the supreme advent and the work of redemption He achieved by the power of love. But Jesus did not complete the healing work; indeed He is with us in travail until we, and also the whole created universe, partake fully of the divine nature in which we were created. This participation in divinity can never be applied from above; it has to be sought diligently from the heart of creation, whose spokesman in our world is the human conscience working in close communion with God. True love does not force itself on the beloved except by granting it complete freedom to be itself, and so have the right as well as the ability to make its own unimpeded choice. Dame Julian of Norwich speaks of the courtesy of our Lord. He respects the identity of each person with tender solicitude and leaves the decision to them. The way is open in Christ, who gives up His life as a ransom for many. But we have to follow the way, not shrinking from draining the cup that He once drained. But whereas He was alone in His agony, we are not abandoned since He is with us to the end of time. But it is only when the cup of darkness (which follows the Eucharistic cup of blessing) has been drained that we know Him more fully. In becoming nothing in the world's estimation, we become one with Him who was also discredited in the eyes of many, including those who were numbered among His disciples.

Needless to say this is not the path that natural man would traverse. He would prefer instant rest and comfort in an unfulfilled, indeed unformed, state. But the law of life is toil and travail. Until this burden has been borne with courage and faith, there can be no growth into the stature of full humanity, a humanity shown to us definitively in the person of Christ.


Jesus said that while daylight lasts we must carry on the work of Him who sent Him; night comes when no one can work. While He is in the world He is the light of the world. But His presence is even more powerful when material light is dimmed.

Chapter 4
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