"Lord, make me an instrument of peace, where there is hatred let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy."
–St. Francis of Assisi
When I think of spirituality and spiritual transformation, I used to think it was a movement from darkness to light. But I've learned that is not true for me.
Darkness is always present in our world and in our lives. It is as much a part of life as birth or death, and will also be present. I can either learn to live with it or let it devour me.
Pure light can be blinding, it can burn, it's only the two, the mixture of darkness and light, that really helps us to see and understand our world.
Darkness is a powerful teacher for me, and sometimes I see the clearest in the shadows. I know if I can't live with darkness, I can't live with life, I would tire pretty quickly of a world filled only with light, and learn nothing about how to live.
The spiritual author Richard Rohr says that Western civilization has failed to learn how to carry and portray the dark side. We have not, he says, taught people how to live with the mystery of life.
I am astonished in recent months at how how much I am learning from the refugees Ali and I work with now.
They have suffered so much and are filled with hope and promise. I know many people who mourn for their lost dogs and cats much more openly and continuously than the refugee women bemoan their hard fate, their butchered mothers and fathers, their dead children and shattered lives.
I asked one woman who has endured murder, rape, the death of her husband, the slaughter of her family, the loss of everything she has known and loved, and now, the troubling challenges and persecution of life in America in 2018, how she has survived with such grace and courage and determination.
"Where I come from," she said, "we see death and suffering every day, the dark side of things is all around us. Here in this country it always seems to be a shock to everyone when someone dies. In my country, people die all the time. It just a part of life."
What has made America so special, she told me, is that this is not true here.
It seems to many that we are living in a dark time, at least spiritually, and perhaps, politically.
People are angry and afraid.
In the mist of so much distrust and rage, I set out to find a different way to live, a different way to see the darkness. Watching the enraged posts pour like a poisoned stream on Facebook one day, I remember the moment when I thought: this is not going to be me, this is not how I am going to live.
I saw that no argument I ever saw improved the world, or changed one mind, or brought the light, or pushed the darkness away. Quite the opposite, the more argument and fear and anger that I saw, the greater the darkness.
I love the color and the light, I seek it out in my photography, in my life, in my writing. But I have also learned in my life that darkness is the real teacher, and the best teacher. Unlike the flowers, it is in darkness that I grow and open.
Almost every day, someone writes me to say they envy me, they seek what I have, "the perfect life."
I feel badly for these people, how empty their own lives must be.
There is no perfect life, no perfect love, no perfect place, no perfect country, no perfect left, no perfect right. We all live in the darkness and in the light.
The prophets wrote about the "suffering of reality" that will ultimately save souls and the world. A friend who is dying asks how God could let him suffer so much, he was taught that God eases the suffering of the righteous. What have I done, he asks, to suffer like this? So he blames himself, and suffers more.
To me, the idea that there is a God who will grant me a life without suffering is one of the cruelest and most banal of ideas. I don't wish to worship a God like that, what I need is understand suffering and accept it, not to think I will never have to confront it. I'm not ready for a God like that.
It's easy enough to see why so many people seem to be losing heart. Watching the news, I feel confused and powerless and sometimes, angry. The forces against what I perceive as good sometimes seem to be growing stronger by the day – greed, consumerism, racism, militarism, the corporate monster running lose, the fight for individualism.
History suggests otherwise. The good are always exploiting the poor, there is always darkness and conflict and suffering. Nothing we are feeling is new in any way.
It feels like a crisis of morality and meaning, as it always has. Yet, for me, the irony is that I feel just the opposite. For me, this is a time both of darkness and light, as is always true. For me, I am just beginning to find the meaning in my life, and the personal sense of morality I have always been struggling to define.
This was precisely the challenge St. Francis faced hundreds of years ago, in a time much darker than ours. He had to figure out his true self, what it meant to live a life that was generous and meaningful. What he learned was that the antidote to confusion, division and paralysis was a return to simplicity, one step at a time, one person at a time, one good thing at a time, the right-in-front of-you idea of searching for the light and living with the darkness.
His genius was that he saw what was hidden in plain sight. It was so simple it is almost impossible to see.
The deeds you do may be the only sermon some people will ever hear, he wrote. It was in giving that he might receive.
"We have been called to heal wounds," Francis wrote, "to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way."
In the darkness, I always look for the light, It is not about them, or their news or their anger or corruption. Really, they have little to do with what is most important in life. It is not about what it outside of me, but what it inside of me. That is all I can do, but it is a lot, and this very simple idea has led me out of the darkness and towards the light.
I am grateful for them both.