Have you ever been a place that is so dark that you couldn’t even see the hand in front of your face, though you knew it was there, right at the end of your arm? If you’ve ever been spelunking and dropped your flashlight or had your torch go out, or camped out beyond the reach of man-made light, you might have experienced a darkness this dark. Or maybe you’ve been on a tour of one of the great caverns, and during one part of the tour, your tour guide turned off the light, just to show you how black such darkness can be.
Life can feel just as dark as this darkness that includes no light at all. This sort of darkness is experienced by the bereaved, the depressed, the ill, and the traumatized. It is also experienced by those working at becoming conscious, by those who undertake what depth psychologists and mythologists call the Hero’s Journey or the Quest, by many in analysis, and by those devoutly seeking union with God. Saint John of the Cross called it “the dark night of the soul.” Medieval alchemists considered this plunge into darkness the beginning stage of the magnum opus, the great work that would produce alchemical gold—the essence of the object so purified.
I recently visited the chapel at my church, where new stained glass windows have been installed by Emil Frei Stained Glass. Each narrow window depicts a prophet or saint gesturing to one another as if in spiritual conversation. These new windows of deeply colored, mouth-blown German glass have transformed the space. The jewel-like faceted glass spills a rich and splendid light throughout the chapel, as if one is inside a Faberge egg.
I was alone in the chapel on this hot, late August afternoon. Intense light poured in from the west. Dust motes lazily floated along the sunbeams. As if the stillness and heat and profound light were not sumptuous enough, an organist outside in the sanctuary began playing Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. Spellbound, I sank like a smooth stone into cold, dark water and settled in the silt.
I had settled in front of one of the westernmost windows before a white-haired prophet whose partially-unrolled scroll read, “AM I HERE.” I looked again and realized that it actually said, “HERE I AM.” The spell broken, I chuckled to myself.
“Here I am”— of course. This was what the prophet Samuel had replied when God called to him in the night (1 Samuel 3:4). It was Jacob’s response (Genesis 46:2) to God’s night vision, and it was Moses’ response (Exodus 3:4) when God beckoned from the burning bush. Abraham, too, replied, “Here I am!” when the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven (Genesis 22:11). Twice, Christ Himself announced, “Here I am”—first, in obedience to the will of God the Father (Hebrews 10:9), and second, in promising his presence to all who open the door at his voice (Revelation 3:20).
Here I Am. This is what the scroll in this prophet’s hand said, but I had read, “Am I here?” I’d read that scroll as a question because this is where I was in my life that day. I was in a place of questioning my “here-ness,” my “am-ness.” My suffering over the past decade has finally brought me to the darkest place of my life. As my priest commented later during our regular spiritual formation meeting, it isn’t a happy place, but it’s a good place.
The Wilderness of Depression
This dark void is a good place because it’s a necessary place. In this great pilgrimage of life, we land in darkness before long, and sometimes it’s a darkness so great we can’t see the hands in front of our faces. We wonder if we even have hands, or feet. We can no longer do anything effectual—can’t dig our way out, can’t run away. We lose our way, cannot forge ahead, can’t see the way back home. There is no home.
“Am I here?”
“Am I here?”
And so one meaning of the experience of depression is that our wholeness, or individuation, the Self, can no longer wait while we follow egotistic ways or even seek for legitimate ego fulfillment, and so the Self brings us, drives us, into the wilderness of depression […] and communication between earth and heaven is even then about to be revealed to us, if only we will attend to the vision.Esther Harding, The Value and Meaning of Depression
To attend to the vision sometimes means to answer, “Here I am” when one is called. Other times, it requires us to ask, “Am I here?” and yet other times, it is to sit still and know, “I am here.”
I am here. How about you?
Harding, M. Esther (1970).”The Value and Meaning of Depression.” Bulletin for the APC of New York. Analytical Psychology Club of New York, Inc.
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