Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”
When I first started writing in this space it was an attempt to try and deal with some of the great anxiety I was feeling and experiencing over turning 40. Anxiety is something I have wrestled with my whole life. When I was in counseling around that same time 5 or so years ago it became apparent that in most cases this anxiety arises from places of fear, fear that reaches all the way back to the chronic nightmares that plagued me as a child. Even as a young mind I was struck by a mutli-faceted and confusing world that seemed to be equal parts aware and invisible, clear and hidden. At times the fear seemed to flow from the hidden spaces, that which I could not control, with that which I could see helping to shed light on those fears. At other times fear arose from that which I could see, requiring me to imagine the unseen and the unknown in order to make sense of my fears.
This is where I first fell in love with the art of story. It is only in storytelling that we can make sense of a world that is equal parts seen and unseen, and story does this by evoking the power of the imagination. Delve into modern research and you will find a renewed interest in the imagination emerging within the sciences, psychology and the field of education. This is becuase imagination is not only helpful, it is necessary for understanding the world and our place in it. For far too long modern Western society has been built on a philosophy, and therefore a psychology of rationalism and reason as the highest virtues. This is not dissimilar to the idea that growing up means to set aside our childish ways. There is something counterintuitive to this way of thinking though when it comes to our understanding of the human experience. To think this way actually increases anxiety and distances us from our ability to understand the world as it truly is.
I’m currently reading a book called Atlantic by by Simon Winchester. He tells the story of the Atlantic ocean by imagining it as a living entity and shaping it through Shakespeares famous monologue that evokes the 7 ages or stages of man. Here he depends on the art of storytelling and the act of the imagination to help us understand the Atlantic as more than simply a body of water, but as a body of water with a very real context. He takes what we see and what we know, this picture of standing on the shoreline looking out over this vast and mysterious expanse, and helps us to imagine the unseen- the people, places, history, questions, changes that inform this body of water in terms of this movement from life to death. And it is in understanding this movement that we can then shift our perspective to questions of the eternal, as in why does this body of water, which will one day represent an anomaly as being the longest surviving body of water in earth’s history, matter in the bigger picture?
I’m also reading a book right now called Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin Smith. It’s a hard hitting and incredibly compelling, perspective changing examination of reason’s limitations and the West’s problematic dependency on it. Much in the same way, Smith is arguing for a return to the imagination, a renewed ability to imagine truth and reality as something that must be revealed not obtained. True rationality then comes from a position of humility, a willingness to engage both what we see and that which we cannot see and to allow this to inform our sense of reason and rationality. Rationalism, or truth in the Western sense of the term, tends to be about three things- progress, control and reason. What the West has long neglected in the process is storytelling, imagination, and myth. And if Smith is right, this has actually led to a a more irrational society.
So why do I bring this up? Becuase I have found myself once again caught in a place of crippling anxiety. A year long journey with some health struggles that reaches back to February, 2020 and which carried through the stresses of the pandemic without much in the way of answers. In the past month things got worse, allowing my anxiety to have an even greater hold on my life. As my wife lamented at one point in recent days, “I want my husband back.” I can see that person, but in this space of fear laden anxiety over the unseen, the unknown, that person feels inevitably lost in the fog and enslaved to the very real darkness of my imagination.
For those who don’t know what an anxiety disorder is and what it can do to someone like me who suffers from it, it is an all consuming struggle. It means running through a thousand different narratives in your mind every minute of the day. It means being unable to function and be present in every day, ordinary activities. Rationality becomes the enemy because, in most cases we feel and know we cannot truly trust it. It feels better to remain imbalanced and given to irrationality than to risk the truth catching us off guard. Anxiety is an obsession that is forever caught somewhere between what we see and what we cannot see, with both of these realities equally clouded and uncertain. It robs us of our ability to live, and yet at the same time demands that in order for us to live we must learn to accept that our struggle with anxiety does not make us less than another. At the same time, more often than not social situations tend to make this anxiety that much worse, which only compounds this problem as a viscious cycle.
So what does one do with anxiety when it wreaks havoc on our lives and our ability to live? There’s no easy answer to this question, and it likely looks different for everyone. For me, one thing that has helped is prayer. There is a reason I think why a fascinaton with prayer has followed my struggle with anxiety very, very closely. I am not good at prayer. For someone with social anxiety prayer in public, or praying together is even worse. And yet typically once a year I found myself coming across a book, sometimes by searching for it and sometimes by it simply falling across my path and reminding me its time to reengage the topic, that teaches me and reteaches me about the art of prayer. Recently it was lyrics of this song that awakened this within me. It’s by Hulvey and it’s called “Reasons”:
You can’t keep going at a rate like this, running for your life when you’re meant to live. Gotta keep on breathing. There’s too many reasons. I spent late nights, I was scared to die, I ain’t wanna see the grave. I was playing games with my heartbeat instead of slowing down just to pray. You’ve been reachin’ for the hand you thought you’d never grab, but Jesus brings the hope you thought you’d never have (have, have). Tired of livin’ in a nightmare, Lord, I just wanna hear you, runnin’ ’round the same circle don’t make me feel brand new. You gotta know it ain’t over ’cause you got a hand to hold. Let His peace come rushin’ through your soul. Too many reasons for you just to let go. There’s hopeHulvey (Reasons)
In light of these lyrics, I’m beginning a book by Sarah Bessey called “A Rhythm of Prayer”, a book that was born out of a time of great struggle in her own life and the feeling the she couldn’t pray becuase she didn’t know how.
In knowing that she was not good at prayer, it opened her up to knowing all of the ways in which prayer can happen and all of the ways prayer breaks into our lives, our questions and our struggles in unexpected ways. Perhaps most imporantly, prayer is a way of reigniting our imagination for what we can see and what we cannot see, and not surprisingly invites us into a larger story. It gives us the words, images and pictures we need to make sense of our experiences.
Last Friday morning in a moment of great anxiety over an upcoming appointment that day, I found myself in a place of prayer as I was out in the open space of the rural Manitoba countryside waiting for my first pick up (I am a school bus driver). One thing that I love about my job is that it puts me in tune with the changing seasons. It makes me aware of the timing of the sunrise and the length of the days. The other day I found myself driving in the pitch dark in one direction, only to come around the next mile in the opposite direction to encounter the sunrise bursting on the scene, a sunrise that was not there the previous week at that same time.
One of the things that I also become aware of driving a school bus is the forever changing position and size of the moon in the sky. Sitting in that same position, facing the same direction at the same time every morning as I wait for that first pick up, sometimes the moon is directly in front of me. At other times its to my left, my right or even behind me. And somtimes it looms massive in the sky long into the morning, while at other times appearing like a small orb and disappearing quickly with the earliest notes of the sunrise. Why is this? The answer to that question is the movement of the earth and the moon. While the movement of the earth, which spins giving us that 24 hour cycle of night and day, makes it appear like the sun and the moon are moving in the sky from one side to the other (rising and setting), the moon is actually moving in orbit around the earth at the same time. This illusion and this reality combined gives us a sense of night and day while also making tracking down the moon on any given morning or evening something of an adventure, a dance of the imagination. For the ancients, this would even tell a story.
On this particular morning as I was struggling with my anxiety the moon, which the previous day had been right in front me, was gone. I could not see it until I turned my head to the left and noted this perfectly halved slice hanging high in the sky which, had I not looked upwards I would never have noticed.
What struck me in this moment was this notion of seeing half the moon while the other half was hidden from my sight. To know that the moon was whole in this moment required me to use my imagination, to image what I could now only see in part. This brought to mind the famous verse by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12 where he writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (NIV).
What Paul has in mind here is an important part of a larger train of thought that runs through his letters, that being the nature of revelation or knowledge of God, ourselves and this world (or Creation). “Then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” evokes a sense of revelation, that art of revealing truth that the West has lost in its love affair with the enlightenment. Here we come as well to that grand theology that sees humanity as image bearers, in that what Christianity imagines in Christ is the truth of God fully revealed “in the flesh”, and thus, as God’s image bearers, the truth of our identity as sons and daughters of God is likewase made known as we imitate Christ and become a light to the world. As theologian N.T. Wright often suggests, to participate in the Kingdom of God is to then image or imagine Christ to the world and to invite all the people’s of the earth to consider and see their true identity. This working metaphor of “reflection” invokes this idea then of Truth reflecting itself into our reality in a revelatory and revealing sense, but in a way that can get clouded and abstracted by our experience in this world. This is the journey of faith then, is to be constantly growing in our persepctive of God, ourselves and this world so that the full revelation of Christ, often seen dimly and often clouded by our better judgements, can be made known.
What’s intersting is to consider the history of mirrors as a context through which to Paul’s understands words, especially as they flow through his constantly developing train of thought. Consider this from the following article on the history of mirrors https://www.furniturelibrary.com/mirror-glass-darkly/
Early glass mirrors were made of glass tiles cut from blown glass forms—thus always slightly curved, and always slightly colored, as the chemistry of clear glass manufacture remained unknown. These glass tiles were then affixed over still-hot, carefully sized, cast lead forms, with a thin layer of polished metal sheeting between the two. It was a belabored and imprecise process, resulting in mirrors of dim reflection.
As attributed to Paul the apostle, “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
Around 500 AD, man began to create somewhat clearer and more reflective glass mirrors using silver-mercury amalgams. Examples of such have been found in China dated as early as c.500AD. But another thousand years would pass before silvery-mercury amalgam processes became more efficient—and less deadly, mercury being one of the most toxic elements on planet Earth.
Enlightment in the Age of Reason, science, culture, philosophy—and mirror-making, did not arrive in an instant. But sometime around the 12th century, mirror-makers began to measurably improve their craft. A guild of mirror makers—the first recorded, was formed in the city of Nuremberg in 1373, soon followed by a guild in the city of Venice.
Historians and theologians have long equated these words from Paul with these famous bronze mirrors in Corinth, in which this notion of imaging was a developing idea in a rationalistic sense. Fast foward in time and we find the foundation for the enlightenment intertwined with this notion of a mirror which can accurately reflect the truth in a fully reasoned way. We move from revelation to self revelation, the notion of recieved knowledge to precieved and earned knowledge. And yet in truth, mirrors remain deceptive entitities which can easily manipulate our perspective based on light and angle. Just like the perfectly split moon that hung in the sky that Friday morning, our experience shapes our understanding of reality in particular ways. Which is precisely why imagination and story remains so integral to revelation.
As I sat there considering the moon and imagining its wholeness, I said a prayer. I then turned to my devotion for the morning in N.T. Wright’s Lent For Everyone: The Gospel of Mark. The morning’s reflection was on Mark 6:45-56, with the focus of thte relfection on 6:45-42. This is the passage following the feeding of the masses with the loaves and fishes where the disciples find themelves in a boat in the middle of the sea while Jesus remained alone on the shore praying. The disciples were having to “work hard at rowing” just to stay moving and afloat in the midst of this great wind that came “against them”, and it says that in seeing this, Jesus “came to them… walking on the sea”. We gain a description of the disciples struggling with their experience of this great wind which had left them incapacitated and unable to move foward, and when Jesus arrives they “were scared stiff” becuase they thought he was a ghost, an allusion, an appartion. Jesus’ words to them arrive as a simple yet powerful admonition- “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
There’s a final note ascribed to this passage that suggests that the correlation to this moment, or the revelatory potential of this moment is the preceding passage with the story of the loaves and the fishes. They “were overwhelmed” because “they hadn’t understood about the loaves.” Their hearts were “hardened”- clouded, obscured, hidden, abstracted, because of their perspective, their experience.
To which we come to these words, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” It’s not some fractured moon somehow cut off from the sky, it’s the moon in its fullness. It’s not an apparition, it’s Jesus. God fully revealed in human form. The Word made flesh. It’s no mistake that Paul’s words to Corinth are framed against a lengthy discourse on love as the highest ideal, the greatest truth. However complicated our experiences are, however much they osbscure the truth of our reality, however much they leave us stuck with a clouded view of the fuller picture, we can know the truth of love stands taller. This is the tension we carry in faith.
In reflecting on this passage, Wright offers the following words of insight on this tension by imagining this story from the perspective of Thomas in the boat:
Perhaps this is how it’s always going to be, for anyone who wants to follow Jesus, now or at any time. Perhaps what he wants from us is not that we should be able to explain it all but that we should just be clear we’re going to go on following him. I may not be the sharpest tool in the box (my father always used to say that, because he was a carpenter too, like Jesus’ father), but I reckon I’m in this for the long haul. I may not always understand it first time off, but I’ll still show up. Or my name’s not Thomas Didymus …N.T. Wright
Wright finishes this reflection with a prayer for the day, a prayer that immediately washed over me in this moment as I sat in my anxious state underneath this half moon at once hidden and at once revealed. My appointment, ironically enough, would come with more unanswered questions and uncertainty. But it also arrived with something tangible, a revelation of Truth emerging from notes in my bloodwork that invited my participation in the here and now, even if a waiting game continues in terms of understanding the bigger picture, the full story. These are things that I can, and am even charged to tackle over the coming six months, the alloted time between now and my next appointment, things which can continue this journey of exploration and the search for Truth. The anxiety remains, but the opportunity to refame my perspective emerges, and an opportunty to hear the simple words “it’s me, don’t be afriad” over and over again as I continue to trust that this is true even when I can’t quite see it. I simply need to turn my head to the left, look up and allow myself to imagine, to reengage my story. This is what it means to image God in our lives. And as I do, I trust that what I only see dimly now will be revealed as whole, and I trust in this knowing that the fullness of God revealed has in fact already arrived in our midst in the person and minsitry of Jesus, the Word made flesh, love embodied.