I am as dark but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem.– Song of Songs 1:5
When the “uninhabitable hollows of grief” first pierced my heart after Sarah’s birth nearly eight years ago, well-intentioned friends chirped, “Look at the bright side!” Other variations in the subsequent weeks included:
“Remember how blessed you are.”
“Be grateful for what you have.”
“There is so much in life to appreciate.”
“Don’t get down on yourself.”
“Try to be more positive.”
“I’m sure there’s something you can find that makes you happy.”
Each of these platitudes contains an element of truth, as almost all cliches do. The issue wasn’t the reality of joy and blessings and gratitude, at least not for me. The issue was rather that I knew I couldn’t deny or repress or ignore what I was experiencing in the depths of my soul – the chasm of loneliness, the wrestling of the dark, unknown figure, the black and empty void where I searched without resolution for answers and light and hope.
In some way, I expected informed, practicing Christians to know and say better while I was suffering an invisible and — at the time, unidentifiable — cross. Instead, they quoted scripture about Jesus being the Light of the World (see John 8: 12) or “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 5).
If we return to the beginning of creation in the book of Genesis, we learn that “God created the light, and He saw that it was good” (1: 4). Peppered throughout the Old Testament, references to light as a metaphor for God and goodness and holiness occurs 143 times (in the New American Standard Bible). In contrast, darkness is viewed as symbolic of evil, sin, and death.
God created light and darkness – day and night – simultaneously. In Isaiah, we read, “I form the light and create the darkness…” (45: 7a). And the romantic, esoteric poetry of Song of Songs tells the reader, “I am as dark but lovely” (1: 5).
How can darkness be lovely? Because God created it. In some ways, God hides Himself from His beloved. He wants to pursue us, but He also wants to be pursued. This wooing is not often clear to us, and the Cross as a redemptive gift is likewise not always perceived as good, holy, and beautiful.
For many modern Christians, a type of sunny spirituality forms around the perception that light alone signifies goodness, while darkness is always a shadow of evil. Rooted in the prosperity gospel, sunny spirituality promises us to keep our chin up, smile, look at the bright side, and focus on happiness. In recent years, fellow writer and editor David Mills named this “the happy Catholic narrative.”
What happens, though, is that we forget the Cross. Even “good” Catholics do. I have. Suffering is ugly, and we forget that Jesus redeemed all of our brokenness, loss, pain, sorrow, and wounds. This does not translate into ease or comfort. Rather, the deeper our journey of faith, the more likely we will encounter trials impossible to overcome by any human standard.
Jesus doesn’t always remove or heal our pain, and when He doesn’t, it’s not difficult to assume that His silence or our prolonged sadness indicates punishment — enter “the happy Catholic narrative,” or sunny spirituality. We forget that God created darkness and light, and the night is lovely, too. When God invites us to grow closer to Him, He often veils Himself in this dark mystery, a clandestine response to our continual longing and seeking.
Of course, the interminable search for connection with God is painful in itself and often impossible to unravel when grief is new and raw, because we are often met with jarring silence. “I am dark but lovely” in some way demonstrates the beauty often hidden in our suffering and the pursuit of God when life ceases to make sense.
It seems, too, that when the soul understands, or at least accepts, its cross, God becomes more mysterious. When we live for the “happy Catholic narrative,” we carry a superficial experience of who God is. But when we plumb the depths of faith by plunging into the hard feelings associated with our grief, we find He is more vast that our limited comprehension can grasp. We realize we cannot fully contain Him, only love Him.
The danger in hearing or spreading any form of sunny spirituality is that we deny the questions that make God bigger than we are, even bigger than our pain. Suffering cannot be ignored by tactics of spiritual bypassing. When we enter into the cavernous spaces where the hard feelings exist, we move into a place where God waits for us. And that is the beginning of true healing.