Archive for May, 2012


Sunday, May 27th, 2012

“… it probably sounds very pretentious when I say the I feel impelled to explain my inner processes to all mankind. Not to some individual in a private conversation but to all mankind, yes, to all of them… It is nonsense of course, sitting at my desk and making a fool of myself because I can’t find the right words, but sometimes I feel as if everything I experience deep down is not just for me, that I have no right to keep it to myself, that I must account for it… As if in this tiny slice of human history I were one of the many receiving sets which have to retransmit messages.”

(Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesom 1941 – 1943, Smelik, K.A.D ed, Eerdmans, Cambridge 2002, p. 393)

Reading Etty this morning this suddenly struck me. Whence this impulse to communicate?  No human experience is without interest. We really are all parts of a greater whole and whatever affects another affects me. Often I think many of us spend our lives avoiding experience. Wary of the highs, fearful of the lows, we settle for an anodyne equanimity. Or, we allow ourselves to drift with the prevailing generality, passively accepting whatever comes our way. Or, we become trapped in an addiction, drink, drugs, sex, or some all-consuming and determining compulsion. For many introspection is difficult. It forces them to look at their experience, which raises questions, awkward, perhaps, and difficult questions one is not always willing to face.

This is why the diaries of someone like Etty Hillesum are so valuable. Like most of us she has her compulsions. Unlike most of us she is not afraid to look at them, however unpleasant or embarrassing, and describe them as objectively as possible. Her gaze is unflinchingly honest and direct. She allows it to lead her in a direction totally at variance with her upbringing and previous inclinations because that seems the right thing to do. To her astonishment one day she, an agnostic, nominal Jew, finds herself kneeling to pray

To know the dark

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Wendell Berry

I don’t know whether this applies to all who hunger for God and take prayer seriously – I know it has applied to many, like Thérese of Lisieux, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton – that, after early mystical experiences, the lights go out and an all-enveloping darkness, or dense fog descends. Whether darkness or fog, the result is the same. Where before there were perspectives, illumination, above all awareness of a union that transcended bodily boundaries, now there is isolation, solitude, alone in the dark. This is hard to take. It is bewildering and disorientating. One is constantly searching for some chink, some glimmer in the darkness, for reassurance. And occasionally, very occasionally, there might be the briefest of glimmers, but never enough to lift the all-pervading gloom.

Discovering Wendell Berry’s poem above made me realise that the constant searching and yearning for light in the darkness is a failure to recognise reality as it presents itself to us. It is a failure to move on, to realise that the time of illuminating experiences was simply the beginning of the journey. It is a failure to realise that the illuminating experiences were not REALITY. An awareness, yes. An awareness of the horizon of this reality and in being aware of the horizon one is aware of a beyond but not of the beyond itself. That has been left behind now and one should not be constantly looking back, wishing that one was not where one is. The darkness is the new reality and it has much, much more to reveal.