One of the struggles I have as I strive to pay attention to my heart, is that (at the same time) I perceive in my heart very sad things and joyful, hopeful things. It’s as if two realities, or two reflections of the world around me are manifest within me. When I first started to notice this reality within myself I found the concept of “bright sadness” helpful. I first ran across this phrase, bright sadness, in the introduction of Alexander Schmemann’s little book, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. In that context, bright sadness refers to the feeling one has at the beginning of Great Lent: on the one hand, sadness as we contemplate our sin and brokenness, which will be the theme of our prayers for the next forty days; but on the other hand, we also feel a kind of joy, a joy at the anticipation of Pascha, but not just anticipation, a joy as I begin to meet the Resurrected Lord even as I intentionally descend into the shadows of my own brokenness and misery. Christ is there, I find out, even in my shadows, even in the lowest pits of my sinful confusion and brokenness, Christ is there.
And perhaps we experience this bright sadness more intensely, or maybe just more easily, as Great Lent begins and as we are helped liturgically, guided by the hymns of the Church, to contemplate the brokenness and shadow in ourselves that we always know is there, but that we also always try very hard to ignore. And as we discover each Lent, looking steadfastly into our shadow, into our sin and brokenness, we discover that even there, even in the darkest recesses of our heart, even here there is nothing to fear for Christ has descended even into this hell.
Some of us, however, may go through periods of our life when times a painful awareness of our brokenness are not a feature just of a particular liturgical season, but are perhaps overwhelming, even sometimes debilitating experiences that seem to stay with us much of the time, a kind of Great Lent with no Pascha. When this happens, it is as though I cannot—or perhaps I refuse to—see Christ in my hell, it’s as though I am too ashamed of what I am, of what I see and what I know God sees so very clearly in me, I am so ashamed that I only look down at the mud on my feet and do not lift up my eyes to see my God, Master and Friend with a towel around his waist stooping to wash my feet. Maybe we are somewhat like Peter. We can’t imagine that our sinless Master would stoop that low, we can’t accept that we actually need our God to stoop so low, so low as to wash even our feet, to be with us in our shadow and sin. We wanted to offer God something more, something better; but as it turns out instead of being better than others, we realize that we are indeed the chief of sinners, the worst of the worst.
Have you ever noticed in the lives of the saints or in books about saints, that whenever they talk about themselves, which is not often, but whenever they do, they only have bad things to say about themselves. They only see their own shadow, they only see their own sin, and in their own eyes, each holy man or woman sees himself or herself as the chief of sinners? I’ve noticed it. I’ve noticed that part of our Transfiguration, or becoming more like Christ, part of that process is learning to hold within ourselves both the painful awareness of the depths of our own sin, our complicity in the pain, suffering and brokenness of the whole world, the utter darkness stubbornly lodged not far from the centre of our hearts, coming to know and see this about ourselves is part of our metamorphosis, part of our change in Christ from mere human beings to sons and daughters of the Light. This seeing of our darkness is part of the process. However, this seeing of our darkness is accompanied by an awareness of God’s nearness, a thankful doxology or joyful exulting in the gifts God graciously pours out—despite our sin, despite our failure. God draws near with the blessings and gifts of His presence and pours them out on us and around us even as we are deeply aware of how unworthy we are of even the slightest and smallest heavenly gift.
Joy and sadness, light and darkness, exaltation and lamentation, despair and hope, looking down and looking up—all of these can exist in our hearts at the same moment. Archimandrite Aimilianos seems to speak of this experience, this experience that I have sometimes likened to holding joy in one hand while also holding sadness in the other. Archimandrite Aimilianos says the following:
Now, at this stage, you begin to sense that God rejoices over you…. Such a joy is a foretaste, an awareness that God is near, that He is coming. It is also a feeling of gratitude, because before you receive God’s gift [the joys of heaven] you see Him emptying His pockets to give them to you.Together with the joy that the soul feels, there comes a second feeling, which is always bound up with it: a feeling of pain. This is the pain of a soul which is so rich and yet so poor. It is the pain of a soul which, in the face of God’s mercy, understands its own hardness, its tragic failure, the dreadful state that it’s in. It understands how small and petty it is, and begins to feel pain. This pain is caused primarily by the soul’s consciousness of its distance from God….The soul is in pain because of its fall and exile. When we reach this point, when our soul begins to feel this pain, we come to the second, extremely critical stage in our communion with God. It’s what the Church Fathers call the “highest intellection.” What does it mean? It’s as if you were standing on some great height, from which you could fall into an abyss, but from where you can also see all there is to see. You’re conscious of having been seized and raised up to a place where you can look into the abyss of your transgressions and understand the depth of your fall.
But there is a problem when we begin to ascend the heights—or at least I can say that I experience this problem. The problem is that I am so used to looking down, I am so used to looking into the abyss, looking at my sin, that I fail to look up. It is as though I am afraid to stop looking at my sin, it’s as though I can’t trust God to hold me as I seem to stand on the edge of that abyss, I can’t seem to trust so that I might relax, breathe deeply a bit and look up and look out at the gracious acts of God happening around me, at the presence of God even in the midst of the brokenness of the world. Or to use a metaphor that I have used often before, to take my eyes off the dung in the dung pile and to look at the flowers growing up all around the dung pile. Yes, my life is a dung pile; but it is a dung pile experiencing God’s grace. Yes the world is a mess, yet still in this messy, messy world, beauty pokes through, kindness happens, gentleness and self-sacrifice out of love appear suddenly as if out of nowhere. God is here. God is present. God has descended even into the dung pile of our world, even into the hell hiding in my heart.
I wonder if this isn’t what St. Silouan was referring to when he said his famous aphorism: “keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Or if it isn’t what his disciple, Elder Sophrony meant when he spoke of going to the edge of the abyss, looking in, and then taking two steps back and having tea. I wonder if maybe these are ways of talking about the same spiritual experience. When God draws near to us and raises us up so that we can see the sin we have been wallowing in, the sin and brokenness and hell that we were swimming in all along, but that only now we ourselves are beginning to perceive the depth and breadth of, when God lifts us up, then perhaps we are at first shocked and ashamed at how much more broken and sinful we are than we had ever suspected. Perhaps we might even have the thought that God may not love us, may not want to be near us, now that we see how rotten we really are. But the truth is, God has seen it all along. God knew how broken we were long before we began to have an inkling of it. God knew and loved. And now, God has lifted us up a little so that we ourselves can see, or begin to see, the depth and breadth of our sin, not to lead us into despair, but to show us the greatness of His love, the immensity of His goodness.
A real long time ago, when I began to climb rocks, it took quite a while before I learned to trust the equipment: the ropes and the anchors. In the beginning, I could never take my eyes off of my hands, off of the rock itself and the next hand hold, the next place to grab onto. The higher I was, the harder it was to enjoy the scenery. But once I learned to trust the equipment, once I wasn’t so afraid of falling, then I could look around a bit. I could see for miles across the valley down below me. I could see the top of eagles as they soared below me. And maybe this is somewhat like our spiritual experience when God lifts us up and we see in frightening ways the depth and breadth of our sin. But instead of equipment, it is God Himself holding us up and instead of focusing our attention on holding onto the rock, we continue to focus our attention on our own sin and brokenness instead of looking about, instead of relaxing a bit knowing that God is holding us up, relaxing a bit and looking about at what God is doing, looking about to see God’s wonders to see God’s nearness, to see the glories that can only be seen from this new and higher perspective.
It is frightening to be held up by God. It is frightening to look into the abyss of our own darkness and sin. It is frightening and it is glorious. Or at least it can be glorious, once you learn to relax in God’s embrace, once you learn to trust the One who has held you from the your mother’s womb, the One whose love never fails. Once you learn to trust, then it can be glorious, then you can see not only your sin, but also the amazing and glorious works of God despite your sin.