In the winter of 2005 we were living in New York, in a house with good bones, but poor insulation. It was bitter cold in the attic that night. I knelt before a candle, under a blanket, and prayed against an urgency which pressed like gusts of wind against my contemplative desires. I agonized for focus, and that desire draped me like the comforter across my shoulders. Then, out of nowhere words spilled across my spiritual vision, so specific and so intense that I rushed down stairs for a pen to capture it. It spoke of revival in the church, a return to the holiness of an undeterred longing in an undivided heart. The words I captured onto paper ended with, “You are the tender of the fire,” amidst a vision of a wall of fire, it’s symbolism not lost on me. God was asking me to stir embers to a blaze, by a journey into prayer, the deeper root of all disciplines.
In Exodus 33, it says that Moses pitched a tent away from the camp, to meet God there. The attic was my tent of meeting, a place I went to after I had read to the kids, and the house was quiet, nothing in front of me. With the day’s events still fresh, the darkness hugging me, the flickering candle fighting a losing battle amidst clutter and cardboard, I would kneel to listen, plead, wrestle and sing. It was my home, my confessor, my sanctity, and my confidant. The harrowing words, ‘luminous darkness,’ coined by John of the Cross, shed some light as I pondered the mystery of the journey of prayer as paradox; that we often ask God for light into the unknown, but end up staring at our darkest wound. Yet, we are ever closest to God when we are nearest our wounds.
I told that to a man I shared a table with this week. Tom was Muslim, and when I asked him what he most enjoyed about his faith he replied, “what could I possibly enjoy?” His grimace was like a toddler’s when you shovel in peas. Tom was looking at religion, the finger that points to the moon, but he had missed the moon—a journey of intimacy with Christ, made possible through the death of God on a cross. I told Tom that only Jesus answers the deepest question of the human heart; ‘can I be forgiven?’ Christ’s final words, “it is finished,” shook the universe like none before, or since. Because it’s true, unexplained burdens, failures, or seeming punitive cause and effects, become Love’s invitation to journey to the deeper root. We know if we enter our tent of meeting, He who has been waiting, will receive us in any condition we find ourselves.
This idea of luminous darkness is a testy paradox. Defined, humility means burrowing under a mountain. Darkness, indecision, fear, hunger, inertia, uncertainty, even anger, are pretty much standard fare on the trek to the deeper root. They are essential before we can be convinced God is fully for us. That’s because the hardest side of prayer is heaven’s silence. God uses silence (i.e. unanswered prayer) to strip our spiritual pride. Left under the mountain, we experience an alchemy that leaves in its place, a dance-in-the-kitchen kind of joy, the brush of our fingers on the place He has never lifted His gripping hand. The mystery of that imprint, the awe in knowing Him, far outlives and far outshines any tangible longing we could ever hope to imagine.
‘Tom, that’s what makes our journey with Christ so enjoyable!’