Some Thoughts about the Outer Darkness

Last week, many of us gathered in our church to hear Barbara Brown Taylor talk about darkness, about her experience literally learning to walk in the dark, which is the title of her latest book. She pointed out that while much of our tradition focuses on light as a symbol of God’s presence, there was also some tradition that suggests that one can also find God in the dark, but perhaps only when we are in that place where we have nothing else but God to rely on.

But still, for many of us, the outer darkness, a place beyond regular darkness I guess, is where we do not find God. Many of us experience the absence of God in the outer darkness.

I’ve been in the outer darkness before. And I experienced it as being profoundly disconnected - not only from God but from everyone.  I experienced it as a place where I was numb, a place where everything was dull and I was tired and hopeless. I was bound. I think the absence of hope was probably the worst part of being in that outer darkness all alone.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul asks, “Who will separate us from the love of God?” And he goes on to say that he is convinced that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” But when I hear that I sometimes think, “yeah, but I, I myself, can separate myself from God, even if God will not separate from me.” And sometimes that’s just what I do.

John of the Cross describes the dark night of the soul as the place where we go through the kind of pain that accompanies true growth into spiritual maturity. It can be painful to grow, I know, and you probably do, too. I remember as a little girl the pains in my legs that woke me during the night - my mother described them as “growing pains.” According to the Mayo Clinic, even though this is a real thing, “growing pains” aren’t actually caused by growth. The Mayo Clinic declares that growth actually doesn’t hurt. But I beg to differ. Physical growth may not hurt, but personal and spiritual growth that requires shucking off of our outer shells that leaves us feeling naked and vulnerable most certainly can. Sometimes I think that the way I end up in that outer darkness is that I wish to avoid that growth, and that’s why I feel so numb and alone. 

Most of us who experience the outer darkness didn’t mean to go there. We don’t really want to be there. We just end up there because the world has become too much and we are in pain as we try to cope with it.

Jesus knew something of that outer darkness. That’s where he ended up for a while himself, cast there by those who were offended by his message of love for all people, his habit of breaking down barriers, his teaching that everyone belongs to God and that God is about healing and reconciliation and not about violence. Jesus was abandoned and cast out for a time, too. And he felt forsaken. But he wasn't forsaken.

And so, even though I feel alone and numb when I am bound in that outer darkness, I am not really alone. I am not ever really alone. Because there is no place where God will not go to be with me, nor with you. Not even the outer darkness.


Antonia said…
Thank you for this, Penny. I too have had times in outer darkness (*outer* darkness as opposed to *inner* darkness like the dark night of the soul, where there can still be a felt experience of faith hope & love, though these are all inadequate labels). Important to remember that God is there with us, though we can't feel God's presence. And yes, these are the times we grow. Blessings to you!
Kay G. said…
Mark 1:12...that is what I dreamed of one night when I was in a time of darkness and in my Bible, that verse and chapter is of Jesus in the wilderness and the angels attending to his needs. I took it to heart.
Thanks, Kay - that is lovely!