Sermon at Evensong on the Third Sunday before Lent 2019

Seeing in the dark

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence

Sunday, 17th February 2019 at 3.00 PM

The Feast of Candlemas, which the Church observed at the beginning of February, celebrates one of the most symbolically “full” moments of Jesus’ life. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple, offer the sacrifices prescribed in the Mosaic Law, before old Simeon guided by the Holy Spirit acclaims Jesus as the Light to lighten the gentiles, and the hope in which he may now die. He tells Mary that her child would be the focus of hope and division, and that she would share the sorrow of his passion in a unique and intimate way.  In the liturgical tradition, we see this great feast of light and darkness as a hinge between Christmastide and Lent – the moment when our focus turns from the crib to the cross. The atmosphere is a heady one, with the fulfilment of prophecy, and the partial unveiling of futures yet to be fully disclosed, whilst the infant Jesus is proclaimed as the light to reveal God’s truth to the gentiles, and the glory of Israel.

The richness of the Candlemas story is such that even as Christ is proclaimed as light, moments later he is described as destined for the falling and rising of many, and to be a sign that will be opposed. In the midst of this great theophany – a revelation of God’s glory and Christ’s mission – his Mother is told that a sword will pierce her own soul. Although the Candlemas Feast shimmers with light, and heralds a new page of salvation history, it also prophecies the rejection of Jesus and the scandal of the cross. There is darkness in this scene; even as Simeon proclaims that he has seen salvation, he declares that there will be others who won’t see, who will fall, who will reject the sign of God-With-Us, which will in its turn reveal the inner thoughts of many.

At Evensong on Sundays this month, I am considering how this extraordinary Candlemas scene prompts questions about our ability to “see” God. Today, I will focus on seeing in the darkness.

The metaphor of darkness in the spiritual life is a particularly rich one. It can of course be used to express despair, a loss of hope, distance from God, or indeed the presence of evil. We speak of the darkness of pain, or grief; of being unable to “see” the way ahead. Such experiences are common to the human condition, and there are moments in each of our lives when the simple solidarity of another is perhaps the only chink of light. But when considering whether or not we can “see God” in the darkness, scripture and the tradition offer us a whole new set of resources. In musical terms, we might say that the key of this metaphor of “seeing” and the image of darkness are both transposed.

Psalm 139 is a much-loved piece of scripture, and offers us particular insights. The psalmist speaks of the futility of the human attempt to flee from God, and exclaims, “If I say, Peradventure the darkness shall cover me;  then shall my night be turned to day. Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike.”

In these verses, the psalmist experiences the night as if it were being turned into day – but for God, immutable, never subject to the natural world or its cycles and changes, the night is as clear as the day. This is a key point. The darkness itself shines. It’s not that it’s somehow not dark, or that the light comes and chases the darkness away. No, the night itself shines with its promise of the infinite beauty of God. This is the poet Henry Vaughan’s “deep and dazzling darkness”[1], a territory where God’s own freedom and otherness embraces us as we enter it, because here God is simply God.

The Ninth century theologian, John Scotus Eriugena was an Irishman steeped in Plato and pseudo-Dionysius. Unusually for a western thinker of his day, he was schooled in the Greek language and philosophy. Although much of his work was condemned, he was extremely influential on the mystical tradition, and is clearly shaped by St Augustine. Eriugena taught that the ineffable divine goodness which is beyond every intellect and surpasses all things, has passed into the created world:  “Every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is a divine apparition. For every order of nature… the more secretly it is understood, the closer it is seen to approach the divine brilliance. Hence the inaccessible brilliance of the Celestial Powers is often called by theology, ‘darkness.’”[2]

Eriugena is a complicated philosophical writer. But he was articulating a point of seeming contradiction developed by many later mystical writers: that is how no human sense, feeling or thought can fully comprehend or capture the mystery of God. Even theology, then, is darkness, as ultimate truth is only unveiled in absolute creaturely contemplation. As he explains elsewhere in the same book, we can know that the Divine is, but not what it is. God is God as God even transcends being.

This is all part of a theological tradition known as the via negativa, which is to say that strictly speaking, and in theological terms, it easier to say what God is not, rather than what God is. Obviously there are contradictions and difficulties here, not least because for Christians Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. We know God to be as Jesus is. So, at least in part, this tradition of a negative theology is a critique of the nature and provisionality of language. But it is also an important reminder of our creaturely reality, and of the overwhelming otherness of the Triune God. God is our lover, our friend, but he is not our “mate”. In practical terms, this tradition of negative, or apophatic, theology, helps to clear our minds of all sorts of accumulated and unhelpful images of God.  It also teaches us a fundamental truth, which is both liberating and terrifying: the God we see revealed so fully and beautifully in Jesus is also inexhaustible, other, and beyond our grasp. As the German mystic Johannes Tauler put it, “As soon as we enter our house to search for God there, God in his turn searches for us, and the house is turned upside down.”[3]

In order to see in the dark, we need to learn how not to be afraid of it. Early twenty-first century Western culture is full of the quick fix, spirituality-lite, and feel-good pop philosophy. We are somewhat dislocated as a culture from the deep wells of Christian teaching and prayer. Thus, allowing a mature prayer life to develop, which can cope with periods of dryness, whilst also being genuinely open to the adventure of life in Christ, takes real individual commitment and courage. So much competes for our attention in this fast, noisy, nosey world of ours that this may seem an overwhelming task.

Walter Hilton was an English Augustinian canon based at the Thurgarton Priory towards the close of the fourteenth century. Hilton was one of several English mystics to emerge at this time, writing in the vernacular, and shaped by the turbulence of the late middle ages. Weak governance, revolt and the horrors of the Black Death were but three features of another exceptionally anxious age. Hilton’s writing is passionate and brimming with insight. One of his key instructions for prayer is the simple and focussed repetition of the Name of Jesus. But to grow in contemplation, we must pass through the false light of this world, into a fruitful darkness. He writes,

“This night is nothing but a separation and withdrawal of the soul from earthly things, by great desire and yearning, to love, see and feel Jesus and the things of the spirit… This is a good night and a luminous darkness, for it is a shutting out of the false love of this world, and it is a drawing near to the true day.”[4]

Such a spiritual journey demands real trust, and a letting go of our relentless desire to control our own destinies. We may not “see” God in any kind of predictable or schematic way, but if we wish to be more than “tourists in the land of God” we must encourage our own defences to relax a bit, and allow our inner life to change. Sometimes this may feel confusing and vulnerable. Rowan Williams has likened being held closely to the breast of God as like the experience of kissing someone you love: in one sense, you can’t really see anything. But on the other hand, you have the most perfect view of your partner.

It is hard to relax about not being able to see ahead, and surely all of us struggle with doubt, and fear of one kind or another. St Cyril of Alexandria spoke of the sword which Simeon prophesied would pierce Mary’s heart as the sword of doubt as she saw her son upon the Cross. But the darkness we have been speaking of is an ally to the activity of faith – we cannot know and believe something simultaneously, and it is to belief that we are called, so that ultimately, we might know “even as we have been known.”

In the words of the Prophet Hosea from tonight’s first lesson, “it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness” upon us. It is safe for us to search for God, in the darkness of doubt, fear and pain, and in that fruitful darkness of quiet contemplation, because the eternal God has come close to us in Christ, emptied himself for us, and entered the heart of the darkness for us, so that we might be filled with his light.

[1] Henry Vaughan The Night

[2] Periphyseon, quoted in Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 58

[3] Sermon 37: Quae mulier habens dragmas decem, in Johannes Tauler Sermons trans. M. Shrady, New York, 1985, p. 124

[4] As quoted in God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety, p. 92