Faith on the brink

cloud-of-unknowingEspecially since November I’ve returned regularly to one of my favorite hymns, one that was unfortunately dropped in the 1989 hymnal. Unfortunately, because it’s perfect for times like these when the faith of so many of us is strained and tested. Here are two of its stanzas:

O for a faith that will not shrink,
Though pressed by every foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
Of any earthly woe!

A faith that shines more bright and clear
When tempests rage without;
That when in danger knows no fear,
In darkness feels no doubt.

I long for such a faith, pray for it often (I know many of you do, too), and not only because of the administration occupying the White House. I’m becoming aware that many of my hopes in life will never be realized. It’s part of what comes with learning the shortness of life (Psalm 90:12). Am I learning to surrender my illusions, to cooperate with a healthy disillusionment?

More frequently I return to advice I read half a lifetime ago, from an anonymous fourteenth-century English monk, author of the classic The Cloud of Unknowing. He described the experience of lifting the heart to God and being met with only darkness – a “cloud of unknowing” is the term he used. Surely anyone of deep faith knows the experience at some time, and now seems as likely a time as any, when the way ahead appears particularly murky and thick. The monk’s advice was to keep piercing the cloud of unknowing with “darts of longing love.” And so I do.

What I think keeps me from sinking into disappointment and despair is that in the process of firing off those darts my attention has been shifting – and often this requires great effort – from the object of my longing to the longing itself. Here’s what Rebecca Solnit wrote in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms. If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up.”

Well, not merely a sensation on its own terms, perhaps, but the whole point of the longing, as Rumi wrote of the man who gave up praying because he thought his prayers were never answered. “This longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection” (Coleman Barks’s translation). Or as that English monk might have advised me, I must give up the illusion that I’ll ever in this life disperse the cloud of unknowing and content myself instead with letting fly the darts of longing love.

As much as ever, I’m beset by distractions in my meditation, plagued by doubts and fears in my living, still longing for a faith that when in danger knows no fear, in darkness feels no doubt. I’m also learning to trust a hidden wholeness that embraces even my fear and doubt.

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