befriending the beast
My Dear One,
I love Johnny Cash. I have ever since I was a child, listening to a Cash record my dad had, that deep voice booming with both authority and vulnerability in a way that deeply shaped my idea of what it means to be a man. As a teen, between my love of Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, and my love of Batman, the Dark Knight, I think it was inevitable that my favorite color became black. I now wear black, I drive a black car, I love my new black coffee mug.
I think it was, perhaps, this attraction to darkness that helped me become a priest. And I’m not just talking about the black shirt I get to wear but even more it was the attraction to the ability to walk into darkness and shine a light. This is what Jesus, my other great childhood fascination, did. In John 8:12 we hear him say:
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness
but will have the light of life.”
There is a darkness in all the world, in each one of us. But we are not left to walk alone in it. In God's mercy, we are not left to struggle against this darkness on our own, but are given the one who is "the light of the world." These words come from John’s gospel, the gospel which starts this way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The story of Jesus, John says, is the story of light shining into darkness. But for it to shine there, it must first be willing to go there. What good is it to shine a light into a fully lit room? It is not the bright places that most appreciate the candle’s small flame, but the rather dark places is where it makes all the difference.
In the Great Commandment, we are called to love God with all our Soul. Recall that the meaning behind soul in Jesus’ day isn’t our modern thinking of “the ghost inside us that lives on after we die” but rather the soul was understood as our life-breath, including our physical self. In Hebrew the word “soul,” our nephesh, literally means our throat. It is the place where that which sustains life: air, food, and water, enter the body. Our soul, therefore, is our sense of self and loving God with all our soul means offering to God our whole self, both the light and the dark parts of who we are, trusting that God both sees and loves both. And thereby we can open our dark places up to receiving the light.
This is the process of true transformation of the self. It is in stark contrast to the way we usually deal with our dark places. We usually deny they exist. We hide them from others lest we be found unloveable. We hide them from ourselves. We feel ashamed of them before God. We repress them, which of course only gives them more and more power over us.
We treat that darkness like a beast that must be slain or at least locked away in a cave where it cannot be seen. It fits our notions of individual heroism, deeply rooted in our legends and myths. The beast, the dragon, the great foe must be violently overcome. But if any transformation is to be allowed, we must become brave enough to roll away the stone to our dead places inside and allow the light to enter in. We roll the stone away to anoint the death we find there. We walk towards death, Jesus says, as the very path towards light and life.
We cannot slay the beast. We should not seek to lock it away. We must instead learn to draw near to it, show it love, befriend it.
This is more than many of us can do on our own. The Johnny Cash song “The Beast in Me” speaks of our need for God's love, grace and light to deal with that beast. It begins:
The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me
The beast in me
Has had to learn to live with pain
And how to shelter from the rain
And in the twinkling of an eye
Might have to be restrained
God help the beast in me
Any good psychologist will help you see the need to accept, love, bless and then allow the transformation of the darkness within you. This is our work if we are to be truly loving people. A person who seeks to love others without having first learned to love themselves will always inevitably hurt others. As Richard Rohr puts it, “what doesn’t get transformed gets transmitted.” Accepting our own brokenness and sin, rather than denying its existence, is the path to freedom and wholeness.
This week, take some time to acknowledge the battle that is taking place inside of you, the self-righteous you that seeks to kill off the all-too-human you. Embracing our darkness isn’t about celebrating it, it’s about healing it. It’s a loving embrace, wrapped in arms that say: I see you, I know what you have done, I love you anyway. This is The Way of Jesus. It is God’s Way. And as followers of The Way, it must become ours as well.
following The Way,