Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Arlington Diocese in Virginia told young adults last month to tell God “exactly what you need, in great faith.” He urged emulation of the blind Bartimaeus by asking God to eliminate personal darkness/blindness as we received the Eucharist.
We all should follow Burbidge’s advice. But upon reflection of the bishop’s words, I think people often confuse awareness of sinful darkness with the depth of said darkness.
In other words: the more we know God, the more we know the depth of our sins. I propose that this doesn’t make the darkness itself worse. Rather, we are just more aware of its harm.
For an analogy: physical darkness doesn’t change when we go outdoors in the evening. We just discover that it’s nighttime. Likewise, awareness of personal blindness/darkness helps us understand its impact on our lives and those around us. Satan would love for that shame to keep us down. Instead, it is merely our past which should bring shame that inspires us to improve.
Here are three examples of what I’m talking about.
Marriage has shown me my self-centeredness. When we turn the clocks back, I struggle to maintain a positive attitude due to the physical darkness. I was proud to be more cognizant than normal in 2017, but as I wrote at Catholic Match, it wasn’t close to enough:
Last year, I noticed the change right away. I made sure to keep it as much to myself as I could, and regularly told my wife that the change had nothing to do with her.
In my mind, this took a modest flaw and turned it into a minor one. In her mind, she thought she was doing something wrong because my irritation and frustration spoke volumes more than the words I spoke. Thankfully, when we mentioned this to our priest, he had a great suggestion that has led to much improvement.
Emotionally and experientially, I saw more darkness in myself and how that darkness affected someone else. However, that darkness clearly already existed. Just because I became aware of it through marriage doesn’t mean there weren’t consequences which I hadn’t seen.
The same is true of babies’ crying. I used to only hear it during Sunday Mass. With an infant in my own house, I am more aware than ever how much it affects me. I see my frustration and impatience.
I also see the light in how my wife a) handles the baby with grace, and b) is endlessly patient with me as I grow as a parent. She also lovingly and firmly stands between me and Satan’s efforts to trick me into self-flagellation. She encourages me towards self-growth.
Bishop Burbidge spoke of darkness and needs in each of us. However, some blindness is more than just personal. In a disturbing irony, darkness of skin — which has no moral nature — led to the darkness of slavery, the U.S. Civil War, a century of Jim Crow laws, and other injustices which still haunt America today. Hundreds of years of society’s blindness have slowly become light.
Yet change often required shaming those who maintained their blindness. Slavery was an issue which many believed was ordered by God. Some chose to only acknowledge some injustices. Many who opposed slavery still saw blacks as inherently inferior to whites.
Harriet Jacobs’ Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl brings up the darkness of whites on many occasions. The book’s target market was primarily white women in the North. Jacobs wanted to inform them of the horrors which slaves faced. Jacobs also noted that there were others who were at least partially ignorant of the full darkness of slavery, such as pastors and visiting Northerners. She also cites examples of how many “Christian” slave owners were often more concerned with their home or food than with the plight of slaves.
John Brown’s Trial likewise shows the unfairness of slavery. Virginia politicians, Southern slave advocates, and many others Brown to get a fair trial for his attack on Harper’s Ferry. They wanted to prove that their justice system was, indeed, just.
Many historians and legal experts conclude that Brown was railroaded. However, injustices he faced pale next to the treatment which black slaves received. The crime of trying to be free was met with no trials. Just beatings, starvation, and/or death. Jacobs was legally struck by her master for disagreeing with him. She “escaped” by spending seven years in a cubbyhole, watching her children grow without her.
Slaves and their descendants also needed to know the full darkness of slavery. They were told that God wanted them to be enslaved. They were told that whites were superior beings who could rape them at any moment. And they were taught that their children belonged not to themselves but rather to their masters.
For many black Americans, the society-wide blindness of slavery still reverberates today.
The Catholic Church’s Darkness
Many say the Catholic Church is under darkness because of clergy abuse and cover-ups. They use a different word – such as “scandal” or “crisis” – but the message is the same.
I use this example because it is both widespread and — as a Catholic — it affects me personally.
The darkness of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal first surfaced 16 years ago. It was shown in 2018 to be deeper than previously thought. For many, this became a scandal once the abuses and cover-ups were widely known. However, the real darkness of the Church’s homosexuality culture and sex abuse cover-ups have existed for decades — and were often brushed under the rug.
The fact is that the Church is no darker than it was 16 or 35 years ago on this issue. Many of us see or feel that the darkness is worse, but it isn’t. We simply know about it, just as we see dark skies at night when we walk out of lighted buildings. Our emotions – whether sadness, anger, justification, or fear – color the fact that the darkness hasn’t gotten better or worse. It’s just continued.
Many Catholics seek to stop the darkness. We want the Church’s leadership to finally crack down on abuse, cover-ups, and a homosexual sub-culture so that a brighter future can come to light. We want victims to be healed.
Turning the darkness into light
Whether in ourselves, our nation, or our church, darkness can only be addressed when it’s known. The good news is that God assures us that all that is in the dark comes to light. The bad news is that this can take a long time. I know this’ll be the case with my patience — and it might take me until Purgatory to complete that work, if I ever do.
It took an entire war to end slavery and another century for the Civil Rights Act. Only God knows how much work it will take to end the Church’s culture of hiding and abetting abusers.
But as long as we follow Burbidge’s advice and ask God to guide us from blindness and darkness, we know that we’ll always be doing our best inside of ourselves, our families, our churches, and our wider societies. We’ll always be able to say that we tried to be God’s Voice in the wilderness.