Thick Skins and Brilliant Light

Darkness can be a terrifying and disorienting thing, where objects seem to blend into a field of nothingness, leaving one feeling powerless. Physical darkness is one thing, but psychological darkness is another. Darkness of the mind is like a storm cloud that covers the field of experience. Such darkness can engulf a person, convincing the mind of its own delusions.  If left unattended, the darkest darkness can rip out the heart and replace it with an inner spirit of violence that can drive a person to the precipice of inhumanity, which is the heartbreak of war.

When I was a child, I had a tremendous fear of darkness. I lived in a house which had a crawlspace and every night, I would imagine that someone in the crawlspace was waiting to abduct me.  What saved me from pure fright was prayer. Before going to sleep my mother would pray with me:  “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray to the Lord my soul to keep.” Saying that prayer over and over, night and night, gave me comfort despite my fear. When I was about ten years old, each of my parents worked a night shift every Friday. Since I was the only child at home, my mother sent me to a neighbor’s house to stay overnight.  It was an old farmhouse with a rickety staircase.  The daughter of the owner took care of me, making sure I got to bed on time. She would tuck me in then disappear with her boyfriend to another floor of the creaky house.  Before closing my eyes, I would recite my night prayer and the soothing words usually lulled me to sleep.

Growing up as the last child at home with working parents, I spent a lot of time alone. However, I grew up in a Catholic culture of saints, devotions and the rosary. So, it is not surprising that my best friends turned out to be Saints Peter and Paul, with whom I spent an inordinate amount of time conversing and planning all sorts of activities. While my parents thought I spent too much time alone (and worried I would become socially awkward) I grew to love the silence of solitude. I was with God and the friends of God and there just never seem to be enough time to spend together.  I came to realize that the inner life is my most natural habitat.

When I began to study Christian spirituality, I was attracted to the desert fathers and mothers who went out into the vast desert to pray and fast. Deserts, like forests, can be fearful places at night because of the overwhelming power of darkness. It was precisely in the darkness and silence of the desert that many women and men found God. They left the world of distractions to dedicate their lives to God.  “Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you,” Saint Paul writes, “but let your behavior change modelled by your new mind” (Rom 12:12).  This saying guided the early ascetics who left jobs and families and traveled into the desert to live poor and chaste lives in pursuit of holiness. The Gospel life was a costly one and the desert ascetics were willing to pay the price of their lives to reach the goal of divinization or Godliness.  Francis of Assisi wrote:  “Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself but give yourself totally to him who has given himself totally to you” (“Letter to the Entire Order”). Holiness is wholeness and requires personal transformation. A person transformed by love is a world transformed by peace.

Teilhard de Chardin spent years in the deserts of China as a paleontologist. I imagine him sitting alone in the evening with a dim light, after a long day sifting through rocks and dirt, reflecting on the power of God and matter. Darkness was an integral part of Teilhard’s life, not only the physical darkness of the desert but more so, the emotional darkness of rejection and misunderstanding. He was prohibited from publishing any of his spiritual writings during his lifetime, due to his position on original sin and other theological matters. Perhaps his greatest darkness was being rejected from his native France because of his theology.  At the age of seventy, he sought asylum with the Jesuit community in Manhatten, New York. Four years after relocating, he suffered a major heart attack and was discovered by two novices who did not know his name. He died alone and unknown, but he lived with an inner fire, and in the brilliant darkness of his faith, I believe Teilhard died in love.

Most of our lives are lived between darkness and light. We are born from the darkness of the womb and struggle as newborns to open our eyes. Time and nourishment help us grow into the light, if we expand in love. But life happens in unexpected ways; time can hurt, and time can heal.  We can grow with thick skins that cover the wounds of the heart, skins that hide the light within. The brilliant Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, quipped:

We have so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things but we don’t know ourselves!  Why, thirty or forty skins or hides as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s covers the soul.  Go into your own ground and learn to know the soul there.

The soul is the playground of God, where God is active and alive. To be part of God’s creative play, however, we must shed the many thick skins we have acquired, unlearning the habits which form our protective layers and reawakening to the primal energies of love. This is the path of the desert life. The desert is the place of profound darkness and deafening silence, but it is also the place of encounter without distraction, as the prophet Hosea (2:14) wrote: “I will gently lure her into the desert and there I will speak to her heart.” Each person has an inner desert, where deep is calling to deep. The desire for life begins in the silence and solitude of the desert where life is hard, as one struggles for life. The human search for happiness and fulfillment cannot be found in the mall of distractions. Happiness is found in the midst of desert darkness, staying put and waiting.  It is in staying still that the darkness eventually disappears and light breaks through; God desires attention. If one listens carefully one can hear the sounds of jubilant life; the desert can become the place of wholeness and holiness. Mary of Egypt, the great hagiographical saint of the desert, spent forty years in solitude; Tenzo Palmin, the inspiring Buddhist monk, spent seven years high up in a mountain cave.  Happiness is losing yourself in order to discover yourself as part of the whole symphony of life.

There is a beautiful line by the prophet Isaiah that captures the human spirit: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has shone” (Is 9:2). Every person is a  “land of deep darkness”; in every heart, “deep is calling to deep” (Ps 42:7). Our busy and frenetic culture blocks the sounds of the inner heart and blinds us to the light.  Deep is calling but deafness prevails. “Most people live lives of quiet desperation,” my mother use to say. They hear only themselves and become preoccupied with their own inner darkness.

To hear the call of the deep requires a healthy darkness. We must choose to step away from the many distractions which pull us in every direction and sit quietly amidst the sounds of silence. If we are attentive to the darkness, we find an inner power which is often submerged and lost in the otherwise busy world we have constructed. When we lean into this darkness, something changes; the dark begins to part, like the sea, and appearing on the horizon of our mind, like the dawn, is a ray of light. This light is God. When we come home to ourselves, by making the long journey within, we see the true light of our true selves because we see God, and in seeing God, we see our true self. The soul is liberated in the freedom of its own truth. This is the birth of the mystic.

In the coming year I want to set a new aim for the Center for Christogenesis, to harness the energies of love through the birth of the mystic. Teilhard emphasized the relationship between mysticism and evolution, recognizing that the more one grows in unified consciousness, the more one lives by the life of the whole. To become a person, a relational being is to live by the life of the whole. Religion is the process of individuation, which requires reconciling the inner self with the higher levels of consciousness. Teilhard spoke of religious experience as having evolutionary significance through centration of the universe.  With the mind centered in the heart, the mystic becomes a doorway through which Christ-Omega enters and transforms the world.

Training the mind to see the light is to harness our energies for the unity of love. It is a difficult journey because we have to encounter and accept the places where the divine light has been snuffed out for one reason or another. As one enters into the desert and orients the soul in love, one can see, in time, a glimmer of light shaping one’s life. This light is the entangled love of God. As we begin to see, we begin to love with a new heart and a new energy for a new world.

To trust in the inner power of God’s infinite love is a matter of faith, a power of trust that cannot be purchased or commercialized. Staying in the darkness requires faith in the hidden light of God. When we let go of all that is dead within us, we can begin to travel lightly on the road of life.  As we let go of the extra baggage which divides the mind and suffocates the heart, the inner darkness yields to the brilliance of light.  One must be prepared to see the divine light, however, because no one who has ever seen God lives, except the one who is God.  And here we are in for a big surprise. For the God we seek is deeply entangled with our lives.  If we open the eyes of the heart to see what we love, and the heart is transformed by what it sees, then we will become what we love.  Love transforms because love unites.  If we love God with all our heart by staying in the darkness of the desert until the light breaks through, then we will become God. This is the birth of Christ, as Francis of Assisi wrote:

We are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to him through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others. (“Letter to the Faithful”)

As we enter into this season of Advent, let us remember that Christ will come again when Christ is born in us.  We are, indeed, the body of Christ in evolution.

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  1. George Marsh on December 12, 2022 at 3:56 pm

    Another beautiful and inspiring essay by Ilia. I hear echoes of Eckhart’s wisdom: We must all be mothers of God, for God is always wanting to be born. I thank God for the gift of Ilia.

  2. Joe Masterleo on December 12, 2022 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful column. “The words “thick” and “brilliant” together are oxymoronic, though fitting. They’re descriptive of the polarities and contradictions that everywhere reconcile in the created order, save for dualistic human thought that resists seeing/thinking in wholes, and so divides things, seeing them as separate. The unredeemed mind, whose fate lies on the horns of unreconciled opposites, like body and soul, life and death, religion and science, matter and spirit, wanders the earth in vain search of what only it, and no other creature divides asunder. Plants don’t do that, neither do animals, or any sub-human species. “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s manger . . . but my people do not know or understand” (Isa1:3). Seems the animals get top billing, per se, and at the manger, — at home with the place assigned to them, and that without resistance or complaint.

  3. mperryman on December 13, 2022 at 8:19 pm

    Thankyou for this article about darkness and the need for silence in the waiting. I witness this journey with my very elderly mother who is trying to be faithful but not sure where or why. It is really all about paying attention to the nudges of the sacred and responding with love.

  4. Leonard Swidler on December 14, 2022 at 5:55 am

    Len Swidler: Every once in a while, a quiet inner and inter joy happens in conversation between me and an other person. Occasionally, it even happens among a group. This latter happened earlier this summer in — surprise! — Iraqi Kurdistan amidst 6 or 8 or us, Christians and Muslims. Suddenly, while sitting in a circle and talking, we were not separately many, but were “many-who-were-one.” The assigned time for the “class” came to an end–but none of wanted to leave. We each sat with a quiet smile on our faces, and just e-x-i-s-t-e-d. . . . Somehow each of us felt that we were one — and One.

  5. William Lowry on December 14, 2022 at 6:08 am

    I wonder, with a clear definition, one could consider “agape” for love?

  6. John Zemblidge on December 14, 2022 at 6:25 am

    Ilia’s examination of darkness and The Light echoes Thomas R. Kelly’s examination of “The Light Within” in his 1941 classic, “A Testament of Devotion:”

    ‘Deep within us all there is an amazing sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-worn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illuminates the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the faces of men and women. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, The Presence in the midst. Here is the slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. He is within us all.’

  7. George Marsh on December 14, 2022 at 11:23 am

    The “slumbering” Christ, in Thomas Kelly’s phrase, reminds me of Jesus snoozing on the boat in the Lake of Galilee. When the storm rises, the disciples in fright wake him. People may turn to God commonly when in serious need, but the gentle Jesus, now the Universal Christ, is “always with” all creatures. As I love an unexpected call or visit, so does Christ, who will respond beyond my imaginings.

  8. Mary Rose Nichols on December 18, 2022 at 9:53 am

    Thank you for this reflection. Please offer a reference for Meister Eckhart with the best translation currently available.

  9. Gail Waring on December 22, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    Quiet Thursday afternoon reading you words an savoring phrases. Gratitude for you. Sent it to a friend in darkness.

  10. 4jjlakaaj on December 30, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    Love this

  11. 4jjlakaaj on December 30, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    So nurturing Ilia, everyone will benefit from this.


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