Plague of Darkness

It has been man’s tendency since the fall to worship created things instead of the Creator. There are different kinds of light and by replacing God’s light of truth with the apparent created light, we voluntarily plunge ourselves into an imperceptible darkness. The author of The Book of Wisdom explains that we come to mistakenly believe that those things upon which the created light cannot shine, such as our secret sins, remain “unobserved behind a dark curtain of forgetfulness.” Though these hidden transgressions may be darkened and forgotten to us, they remain ever in the plain sight of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas makes the point that when our first parents were created, they were imbued with preternatural and rightly ordered senses and faculties. Their intellects were infused with God’s light rendering their memories, judgments, perceptions, and understandings significantly more perspicacious than the best minds of this fallen race.  The three wounds from the fall are a darkened intellect, an enfeebled will, and an inclination to do evil. Our darkened minds were put on full display by the ninth plague visited upon the idolatrous Egyptians in the Exodus story. A deeper examination of this plague has the potential to shed light on the bright darkness that plagues our thinking in the modern age.

The Chosen People had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, living under an increasingly oppressive bondage. God sent Moses and his brother Aaron to Pharaoh to deliver them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. They were empowered with many signs and wonders that failed to impress the god-king due in part to his hardened heart. In Exodus chapter 7, we see how God unleashed the ten plagues on Egypt as a lesson for the entire world and to all the ages that He was, is and always will be the one true God and that idolatry and disobedience earn the wages of death.

In Exodus 10:22, Moses follows the instruction of the Lord when he “stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days.” Pitch blackness left the Egyptians paralyzed by fear in the long night of terror. In the Exodus account, Moses leaves the details of the blackout to our imaginations other than to say that “they did not see one another, nor did any rise from his place for three days.” Try to imagine what we might experience if we were plunged into the blackest darkness for three straight days. We too might well be paralyzed by the fear of what we encounter in the dark abyss. Can we conceive of the massive confusion, fear, desolation and despair that might grip nearly every living soul confronted by such a plague of darkness?

We can learn the details of what the Egyptians experienced during the ninth plague from the author of the Book of Wisdom in Chapter 17. The episode of the three dark days in Egypt is similar in message to Jonah’s three days of darkness in the belly of the whale and Mary and Joseph’s three days of searching for Jesus when they found him in the temple. These events foreshadowed Christ’s three days in the tomb when Mary and the Apostles suffered that darkness of soul in the Absence of our Lord and Savior before His resurrection.

In Wisdom 17:2, the Egyptian rulers are rightfully characterized as lawless men who “supposed that they held the holy nation in their power,” when really “they themselves lay as captives of darkness and prisoners of long night, shut in under their roofs, exiles from eternal providence.” Modern governments operating by enlightenment ideologies are perfectly characterized by Wisdom’s description of the Egyptians, there is truly “nothing new under the sun.” This is also an apt description of all of us who believe that we can order our lives by our own contrivances.

The author shifts from relating the ill effects on the Egyptian rulers to the individual Egyptian response to the imposed darkness in Wisdom 17:3 by describing how we might react. We read that they “were scattered, terribly alarmed, and appalled by specters. For not even the inner chamber that held them protected them from fear, but terrifying sounds rang out around them, and dismal phantoms with gloomy faces appeared.” Imagine what horrors may come in that hour to those of us deprived of the false comfort of created light.

One harrowing aspect of the plague of darkness demanding careful scrutiny is that the Egyptians were forced to confront ultimate reality concerning the state of their souls instead of the apparent reality that bombards the five senses. In Wisdom 17:4 the role of manmade light, similar to the technology that dominates the imagination of this age, is addressed as useless in ultimate considerations. In the darkness, the Egyptians found that “no power of fire was able to give light, nor did the brilliant flames of the stars avail to illumine that hateful night. Nothing was shining through to them except a dreadful, self-kindled fire, and in terror they deemed the things which they saw to be worse than that unseen appearance.” Call to mind the “self-kindled fire” we would be forced to ignite in order to assess the dreadfulness of our predicament in the odious dark night. We might catch our first glimpse of a neglected soul habituated in vice as our eyes became accustomed to the light of truth enkindled by awful necessity.

One of the key lessons we are to take away from the Exodus story and particularly from the ninth plague is that we are each called to our own Exodus from intellectual darkness, the very fetters that bind us to our sins. There is no recovery from the intellectual eclipse either by our own lights, the light of human consensus or the created light, but relief can only be obtained by the cooperation with the abundant graces God provides His faithful by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas tells us that “faith is the first purification of the intellect.” It is only by the light of Faith that we can begin to truly understand ourselves. Our healing can only begin by the infusion of the virtue Faith, a priceless gift whose possession must become our constant prayer.

Our second line of defense is the cultivation of the intellectual virtues. Using the sciences and philosophies guided by the light of faith to understand our true but fallen human nature is essential. The darkness of created light addles our minds if we confuse it for the true light of God. If we try to develop our intellects without first having the gift of Faith, we will surely end in great error. By the example of the three days of darkness and the gruesome depiction in Wisdom Chapter 17, we can get an idea of the horrors that may lurk in our minds and souls when the artificial light is removed. We can learn by the lesson of the ninth plague that it is by the apparent darkness in the absence of created light that we can begin to see by the light of God.

Finally, we must cultivate the moral virtues, ordered to the objective standard of Christ. There is only one class of people that would not be terrified by three days of darkness. It is the class united by their emphatic “yes” to the way of the cross, they are the saints that walk among us, not by created light, but by the light of God. The three days of darkness would be for them a fast of sorts, a trial they might well joyfully embrace, because that dark night would be the hour in which they look upon the face of God.

It is in the silence that we begin to hear the voice of God. Just so, in the dark night, we begin to clearly see the real state of our souls, not as we are used to seeing them, but as God would see them; for what is wisdom after all but to see through the eyes of God? Let us, at least in our prayers, live through the ninth plague of darkness so that we may begin to see and understand reality, not by our own light, nor the created light, but by the light of God he readily shines upon those who serve him faithfully. Let us call upon the light of God to end the plague of darkness by way of Faith informing our intellectual and moral development. Let the divine light guide us as we commence our journey out of the bondage and darkness of Egypt and towards the true light of the Promised Land.

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Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is the executive director of the 7 Institutes at the Veritatis Splendor HQ project. He is a senior fellow at The American Principles Project and a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society. He is on the Teacher Advisory Council at Sophia Institute Press for teachers where he has written Catholic curriculum for the past 8 years, he also serves on the advisory council for Aquinas Learning. Steven is a writer and speaker on education, culture, and the Faith.

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