Blue Christmas 2020

The twilight turns from amethyst 

To deep and deeper blue, 

The lamp fills with a pale green glow 

The trees of the avenue. 

The old piano plays an air, 

Sedate and slow and gay; 

She bends upon the yellow keys, 

Her head inclines this way. 

Shy thought and grave wide eyes and hands 

That wander as they list — – 

The twilight turns to darker blue 

With lights of amethyst. 

‘The Twilight’

James Joyce

Today is Blue Christmas, the feast day for all those who do not feel able to, or cannot, feast.  In this year when all peoples of the world have had to alter their daily ways of being, there has been so much loss and grief, so much debt and unemployment, so much isolation and depression, so much abuse, so many whose wounds have not been tended.  Today is the feast day for me to remember them; to join with them in my largely house-bound, bed-bound, depression-bound state; to pray with and for them as much as myself.  

Joy is so hard to find when I mistake it for happiness.  But as I watch the fading light on this the shortest, darkest day of my year, I continue to choose joy as a way of being.  And the easiest way to re-orientate myself to joy is to pause, then name the things for which I am deeply grateful.  Joy comes when I count my blessings, because there are so many, an abundance of signs of care, signs of God-with-me in this, here and now.

As I watch the fading light, sitting still in the light that is not yet dark and the dark that has not yet let go of light, I feel I am in a hinterland, in a ’thin place’.  This is a place of silence before the Almighty, where I am invited to allow the Spirit to breath through me more freely.  In this in-between place of grief and gratitude, of poverty and praise, I pray Macrina Wiederkehr’s ‘twilight’ prayer from her Litany of the Hours:

Make of me a twilight: wake of colour, trail of glory.  In the evening of life transform me into a song of gratitude.  I want to be an evening star for those who have lost their way.  I want to be beauty at the end of each day.  On my pilgrimage through the day, write mystery stories with my life.  Out of my faithful attendance to the hours pour forth the incense of your praise.

  • Transform me into a song of gratitude.

(Seven Sacred Pauses (177-179))

On this threshold of becoming, immersed in the colours of the day turning to night, I listen to Martyn Joseph sing ‘Turn me Tender’:

It’s happened again, the colourless sky

Has dimmed me again and I’ve run out of why

Hank Williams is grieving, I’m scanning the Psalms

When Jesus was here they stilletoed his palms

And the pledge and the vow is ‘you find if you seek’

But what if you try and find nothing but bleak

So turn me tender again

Fold me into you

Turn me tender again

And mould me to new

Faith lost its promise

And bruised me deep blue

Turn me tender again

Through union with you

Let me lay with you now like that very first time

I’ve had rooms full of dollars but I’m down to a dime

Though there’s wonder and awe in the mane of a lion

There’s nowhere to go and I’m chapters from Zion

Yet you’re still my cryptic and cherishing prayer

With serenity kisses that soothe and repair

And laments have a purpose and laments have a cost

A requiem playing gathers the lost

It sometimes tastes sour, the sweetness of hope

When the blizzards are raging on this lover’s slope

Yet I don’t want to freeze inside or out

For it’s you that dissolves the cold walls of doubt

Turn Me Tender’

Music and Lyrics: Martyn Joseph / Stewart Henderson

dimmed hope. iPhone image.

Sunday 4

Joy is hidden in compassion.  The word compassion literally means ‘to suffer with’.  It seems quite unlikely that suffering with another person would bring joy.  Yet being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty … such experiences can bring us deep joy.  Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family.  Often this is a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness, but it leads us to the centre of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey (43) 

Finding a quiet joy as the Presence reflects back the glory of my own colours today is not the final destination of a JoyPilgrim.  All the great spiritual leaders of all faiths, past and present, agree that Joy is truly found in community, in the deep compassion of ‘being with’ those we find ourselves next to, known and unknown to us, physically or virtually.  Today, I will need all my courage: today I seek to see and salute the colours of others.  As the poet John O’Donohue writes,

Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace … Nowhere is there such intimate and frightening access to the mysterious.  Friendship is the sweet grace that liberates us to approach, recognise and inhabit this adventure.

(cited in Brian Draper, Spiritual Intelligence (121)

In the Book of Joy Douglas Abrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama set out over the course of a week together to explore where Joy might be found for every person on the planet.  The Dalai Lama insists that we are all ‘same person, same human being’ so he invites us: ‘come and stand next to me and let’s laugh at me together, then we can laugh at you together’ (221).  He explains that the Buddhist principle of mudita means to cultivate a ‘sympathetic joy’, which asks ‘how are we?’ rather than ‘how am I?’; it is a mutual act of compassion fully recognising our human interdependence (140).  Archbishop Tutu explains the corresponding South-African concept of Ubuntu:

It says: A person is a person through other persons.  

Ubuntu says when I have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit that I share it with you … you realize in a very real sense that we’re meant for a very profound complementarity.   It is the nature of things.  You don’t have to be a believer in anything.  I mean I could not speak as I am speaking without having learned it from other human beings.  I could not walk as a human being.  I could not think as a human being, except through learning it from other human beings.  I learned to be a human being from other human beings.  We belong in this delicate network.  It is actually quite profound.

Unfortunately, in our world we tend to be blind to our connection until times of great disaster.  We find we start caring about people in Timbuktu, whom we’ve never met, and we’re probably never going to meet this side of death.  And yet we pour out our hearts.  We give resources to help them because we realize we are bound up together.  We are bound up and can be human only together. (60)

I can only fully be me, if I let you fully be you.  Whether we recognise it, admit it, practise it, we are all interconnected.  How I am with an-other will affect how that person is with a lover, a friend, a stranger, a culture in their turn.  It seems that Joy is to be found in sameness not specialness.  My ego longs to find its’ own significance, but as long as I confuse my significance, my purpose, with importance, or success, or outcomes, I will find I am separated from others, from myself, and ultimately, from the Beloved Who Waits.  Just as God is with me in all, so I in my turn need to ‘be with’ all.

One river gives

Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green.  You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

‘When Giving is All We Have’

Alberto Rios

you gave me pink.  Canon 7D. f10.1/250. ISO 3200.

day 21

Your green all dissipated and dissolved, you part company with freshness and sap, suddenly alone and falling.  Down and down, lower you swoop, till the ground greets you.  Different colours are yours now, burnished golds and reds, as though the sunset of your days has painted itself on your canvas.  The light shines through your fragility and you glow like flame.  Everything falls apart in the end, and we all change from green to gold, fresh to old, full of life to full of wisdom.  Breaking into your constituent parts, your molecules will mulch into the mud soon enough, not in grieving but in sighing contentedly into the soil, a good end, gone on to become something more.

‘Day 124: fallen leaf’, Keren Dibbens-Wyatt, Garden of God’s Heart (124)

An encounter with Joy is an encounter with light and darkness; Joy is an encounter with colour.  And so, as I begin to approach the darkest day of the year in my northern climate, I wonder, what season of colour might I be in?  What colour is my Joy today?

I need to open myself to the present moment, to see where the Presence wants to lead me today.  In his book Spiritual Intelligence Brian Draper cites author Mike Riddell:

Neither past nor future provide legitimate respite from the challenge and beauty of the moment.  When we learn to become fully present in every instant, we discover that there are opportunities and choices immediately before us which will determine both our past and our future.  

Here on the sharp blade of the moment lie opportunities to create and to love … In the capsule of experience which is given to us each instant, we determine who we are and what is significant to us.  The whole of our lives is presented to us in the moment, and each moment is an intersection with eternity in which we decide our destiny and are offered the grace of becoming.  All else is an illusion. (136)

Brian Draper goes to ask the following questions:

Where are you willing to let the path lead you?  To a place where few other paths seem to lead? To a place that has remained unmapped in your lifetime?  To a place where you can find your treasure and share the joy with others?  To a place of active surrender?  To a place utterly incomparable with anywhere you could have imagined finding yourself?  The journey continues. (136)

Can I have joy today in whatever colour season I find myself in?  

Can I delight in its’ hues and subtle tones as light plays over me?  

Can I be truly grateful for the opportunities God lays before me as the gift of the ‘grace of becoming’?  

Can I see where my treasure sparks dark in the light, trying to catch my attention to the places within I want to hurry past or hastily bury?

Can I, in this very instant, pause long enough to welcome an ‘intersection with eternity’?

nothing gold can stay

whisper my Celtic ancestors over my shoulder

thus ends the season of light

before the year grows one night older

show welcome to the kingdom

of darkness which gleams bright

in the thin times it need not always be right

to begin with the luminous

instead bring in the riches of the numinous

and let us give of our wisdom

be intrigued to examine where the veil

of greys parts into gold

and be not afraid of the coming cold

new life begins in the dark

and you will uncover how to mark

abundant growth from the gale

that might tear your tree down

might uproot its’ crown

yet you will endure such shaking

if you enter into the mysteries of making

and let us grace you the courage to be bolder

let us prepare you for the come what may.

‘nothing gold can stay’

Kate Kennington Steer

an intersection with eternity.  iPhone image.

day 20

In the film Dead Poets Society, Robin William’s character, Mr Keating, provides an aspirational figure for the boys he teaches …  In an iconic moment, Keating climbs on his desk, to the bemusement of his pupils, and begins to speak:

‘Why do I stand up here? Anybody … ? […]  I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see, the world looks very different from up here.  You don’t believe me?  Come see for yourself.  Come on.  Come on!’

The boys begin to stand on his desk.  Keating jumps down.  ‘Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way.  Even though it may seem silly  or wrong, you must try! … Thoreau said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Don’t be resigned to that.  Break out!’

(cited in Brian Draper, Spiritual Intelligence)

Deliberately choosing joy is an experience of sudden – or gradual – awakening.  For the Mages it was a cataclysmic happening that took over their minds, bodies and spirits; but it came at the end of months – perhaps years – of journeying, of seeking, of doubting.  For me, it is an infinitesimal shimmer spotted out of the corner of my eye, the thinnest of threads of hope dangling from the cliff faces of my void.  It will grow.  It will thicken. It will lengthen.  I will be bound up in it, caught, safety-roped into the very heart of the Beloved.  For poet Rabindranath Tagore, one encounter with Joy was found through contemplation of the natural landscape and the character of light:

The sun was just rising through the leafy tops of those trees.  As I continued to gaze, all of a sudden a covering seemed to fall away from my eyes, and I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance, with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side.  This radiance pierced in a moment through the folds of sadness and despondency which had accumulated over my heart and flooded it with this universal light.

(from John Pridmore, Playing with Icons (128))

I have known few experiences of being pierced with radiance, but I can remember two moments in particular, when, with my camera in hand, I was just sitting in my wheelchair, alone, waiting, watching light play on water.  These were times of illness and sadness overtaken by a welling-up of quiet joy – an experience of fullness and wellbeing, of wholeness, that defies description.  In those moments I felt a sense of purpose, long dormant, being reborn in me.  In those moments I was able to answer the Great Questioner with a humble ‘Yes’.

Russ Harris, author of The Reality Slap counsels that ‘in the midst of great pain we find great passion’ (141), and identifies the importance presence, purpose and privilege play in the healing of deep emotional trauma:

As we pay attention, with openness and curiosity, we get present.  Then we infuse this relationship with purpose: we connect with our eyes; we care about them; and we reflect on how they contribute to our lives, and, in turn, we contribute our gratitude.  And as we truly appreciate what eyesight gives us – as we treasure the very miracle of vision itself – then in that moment, we get a sense of privilege. (183-4)

Curiosity.  Compassion. Gratitude.  Connection.  These are the signposts that point this JoyPilgrim the right way.

What would it mean to live

in a city whose people were changing

each other’s despair into hope? – 

You yourself must change it. –

what would it feel like to know

your country was changing? –

You yourself must change it. – 

Though your life felt arduous

new and unmapped and strange

what would it mean to stand on the first

page of the end of despair?

from ‘dreams before waking’ (1983)

Adrienne Rich

‘the first page of the end of despair?’ iPhone image.

day 19

Other incarnations, of course,

consonant with the environment

he finds himself in, animating the cells, 

sharpening the antennae,

becoming as they are

that they, in the transparency

of their shadows, in the filament

of their calculations, may,

in their own way, learn to confront

the intellect with its issue.

And his coming testified

to not by one star

arrested temporarily

over a Judaic manger

but by constellations innumerable

as dew upon surfaces

he has passed over time

and again, taking to himself

the first-born of the imagination

but without the age-old requirement of blood.

from ‘Incarnation’, Counterpoint (1990)

R.S. Thomas

Joan Chittister tells me (quoted at length below) that ‘we are about the project of finding life’.  I am all ‘about’ the project of pointing to moments of pause and revelation where the Presence Who is All might be found.  I am also ‘about’ the project of co-creating a more compassionate world in which others might flourish into their God-given potential, and find their own God-given purpose.  I am ‘about’ this project because God animated God’s own cells to be present in all things and in all people and in all places.  

Mark Longhurst cites Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman, “In the beginning was creativity, and the creativity was with God, and the creativity was God” (Kaufman, In the Beginning … Creativity), then he goes on to observe:

There’s something inherently creative about God, and about the universe, and God and the universe are not separate… If God is creativity, or if creativity is somehow inherent to God, and if this creative God has incarnated divine self in human, material life through Jesus in some way, then human and material life is divine. All of life is sacred. If God is manifest in our material, human reality, then that means that God is manifest and revealed in all of the arts. And not just the Christian arts. And not just the so-called beautiful or classic works of art, either.  In Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, God is revealed through all of human experience, which means that God is not only present in the typically beautiful or pretty things… All of the arts, and ultimately all of reality, is an invitation to encounter God’s presence in the death, life, fear, joy, ugliness, and beauty of our own lives and world.


Today I am being given the invitation to encounter God as Joy in every hue of every colour, seen and unseen, in light or in dark.  However bleak I am feeling, this invitation remains, because as Chittister (quoted at length below) reminds me:

There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate.  It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it.

No matter what my circumstances, or where I might be on the rollercoaster of my own emotional life, I am held safe to behold Emmanuel, God with us, in everything that comes before my heart today, in my here and in my now.

The sense of being stranded in the midst of life . . . is enough to drain a person’s very personality until there is little left to recognize. Where did the joy go all of a sudden? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away.

There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.

There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. . . . Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment, spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. And it is that light that shines in darkness.

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition. Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again…

It takes great humility to admit we have suffered through this kind of darkness, because it often sounds like a loss of faith to those who have not endured it. But when everything we thought we knew has turned to “nada,” in the language of John of the Cross, we actually become more loving and compassionate human beings, for we no longer rely on our own light but upon the Light of the world living within us.

Sister Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (19-20)

creating from ‘nada’. Canon 7D. f3.5. 1/100. ISO 100.

day 18

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the divine was beheld in light but now He is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness; an escape from darkness comes about when one participates in the light. But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly that God cannot be contemplated. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible and there it sees God.  This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Therefore John the sublime who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says “no one has ever seen God,” thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by humans but also by every intelligent creature.  When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says,‘Moses approached the dark cloud where God was’.

Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses

When my shaky legs feel unpractised at walking in the dark seeking light  and vice versa, the temptation always is to turn on a light, or to impose a colour that I cannot see in my environment that is more suited to my mood.  I was wondering at this tendency when I came across the announcement that New York artist Leo Villareal will be creating the design for London’s £20m Illuminated River project, which will see the bridges of the Thames lit up at night. His design involves a “rhythm of light”, reacting to the movement of pedestrians and the tides, in a colour scheme of blues, purples, whites and golds.  As interesting as this concept is, and as much as I like the reflections of colours in dark waters, it made me pause.

Perhaps this River Thames project is designed to bring forward from the water colours that are present within it but normally lie unseen?  My socio-cultural-political-religious upbringing has not encouraged me to see dark as anything but dark, and when pushed to name a colour, like so many others, I lazily name it is as black.

An exhibition at the Natural History Museum set out to deliberately question the interface between art and science when it comes to seeing our natural world.  The ‘Colour and Vision’ exhibition set out to ask: ‘Does colour in nature always have a purpose? How do our individual experiences of colour vary? How is technology transforming our interactions with colour?’  Fascinatingly, one of the artists featured in the research was Neil Harbisson who was born with a condition called achromatism – a permanent colourblindness so he has no colour vision at all – everything he sees, he sees in greyscale. Working with doctors he has created an antenna that is permanently implanted into his skull. It allows him to hear colours even beyond the human visual spectrum. 

Is this an imposition of colour onto darkness or is this a revelations of the colours of darkness? I’m not sure.  But the question keeps prodding me to confront the binary between light and dark, within and without me, between joy and fear, inside and outside me, in a very deliberate way. As theologian Karl Barth reminds me, “God’s beauty embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we might call ugly as well as what we might call the beautiful.”  Such a shift of perspective is vital medicine for the eyes of a JoyPilgrim.

There in the lucky dark

none to observe me,

darkness far and wide;

no sign for me to mark,

no other light my guide except for my heart—the fire, the fire inside!

St John of the Cross

firelight. iPhone image.

day 17

In the dark,
Found light
Brighter than many ever see.
Within herself,
Found loveliness,
Through the soul’s own mastery.
And now the world receives
From her dower:
The message of the strength
Of inner power.


Langston Hughes

In a meditation on the ‘night hour’, Macrina Wiederkehr includes Helen Keller’s description of her faith, in the midst of permanent silence and darkness, being a ’spiritual strong searchlight’:

Observers in the full enjoyment of their bodily senses pity me, but it is because they do not see the golden chamber in my life where I dwell delighted; for, dark as my path may seem to them, I carry a magic light in my heart.  Faith, the spiritual strong searchlight, illuminates the way, and although sinister doubts lurk in the shadow, I walk unafraid toward the enchanted wood where the foliage is always green, where joy abides, where nightingales nest and sing, and where life and death are one in the Presence of the Lord.

(Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses (162))

Keller’s deafness and blindness were no bar to her life as an activist.  As an author and teacher, she made a crucial contribution to the way people with these so-called disabilities were educated.  Again, as Barbara Holmes did yesterday, Keller’s witness challenges me to scrutinise the casual assumptions and judgements that a binary view of Light and Dark brings.  How can I have compassion for someone else, if I have already marked them as deaf, blind, dumb, and ‘other’ to me?  

It appears that learning to walk in the Way of the God who is as dark as light, and as light as dark, is about learning to look for the joy embedded in the spirit of the one who is before me. Learning to walk through the potential muddle and mess of a both/and spirituality, means learning to navigate by compassion, including compassion for myself.  I long to walk unafraid into God’s Presence within, and I can only do so if I begin to recognise where light masks and dark reveals all that I would rather not look at, all that I would very much like God to ignore in me too.  But learning to walk into Joy is about my wholeness.  I bring all of me to the place where Joy abides.

What I know of You is meager.

What I love of You is intense.

What spills from me because of You is beyond measure.

You bait me with Your nothing that is everything to me.

You lead me on with promises that I must depend on You to fulfil.

You teach me with sorrow, joy, peace, and anger, with anything I can muster.

You are extravagant with Your love.

You drown me with devotion and understanding.

You leave me breathless, thoughtless.

Master, Teacher, Friend, Lover, Parent, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer …

I try to encompass all your names but they slip from my grasp.

When I hold nothing, I hold You.

When I hold You, I hold everything.

‘Incorrigible Exuberance Shared’

Lee Self

walk into joy. iPhone image.

day 16

[Art is] contemplative because [it] ignites memories of the awe and wonder that we tend to discard after childhood. . . . When we decide to live in our heads only, we become isolated from the God who is closer than our next breath. To subject everything to rational analysis reduces the awe to ashes. The restoration of wonder is the beginning of the inward journey toward a God who people of faith aver is always waiting in the seeker’s heart. For some, the call to worship comes as joy spurts from jazz riffs, wonder thunders from tappers’ feet, as we ponder Lamar’s prophetic insolence and Beyoncé’s black girl magic. Each artistic moment is just slightly beyond our horizon of understanding. Perhaps we are confounded so that we might always have much to contemplate. 

Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (198)

As Annie Dillard says, ‘I cannot cause light. The most I can do is to put myself in the path of its beam.’  This JoyPilgrimage seems to be suggesting that I need to learn once more how to walk in the darklight of God, restoring my childlike sense of wonder with every step.  God wants to break the simplistic binaries of my thinking.  The effects of light are easiest to see when there is also deep shadow alongside.  I was brought up in a Church that emphasised the Light over the Dark, where what was dark was to be feared, avoided, excluded from my thinking and my faith.  Living in a very prosperous area of England the congregation who heard such exhortations to follow the Light at all costs, was largely made up of White middle-class members.  Such thinking gave me a very bad preparation for the real world.  I found I could not impose light on my own circumstances.  I found the God given the name of Light was not who I thought God to be.  As Mark Longhurst remarks, 

God speaks from within, and through, the dark mystery, and the mystery arranges itself: light and dark, together. … But light supremacy, to use a term by theologian Catherine Keller, can easily turn into white supremacy. Instead of a loving God creating a very good world, in a system of white supremacy, darkness is no longer beautiful, and the white master-god speaks his command to “Let there be” something and expects absolute obedience.


My pursuit of Light in everything can all too easily lead me into a dangerous binary: Light = Good; Not-Light, Other-than-Light = Bad.  And all Good Christian girls get taught that what is Bad is to be feared.  I rush to impose Light wherever I can, shouting “let there be” as I attempt to control my psyche and my world to fit the constructs of what I have been told is Good; what I have been told is God. Such skewed thinking reflects a skewed theology of what it is to be human.  Such impatient, fear-filled activity, risks cementing over the rich treasure of what “already is” in places where I cannot bear to look.  Barbara Holmes offers me a different view:

We are told that Jesus hung out with publicans, tax collectors, and sinners. Perhaps during these sessions of music, laughter, and food fellowship, there were also . . . moments when the love of God and mutual care and concern became the focus of their time together. Contemplation is not confined to designated and institutional sacred spaces. God breaks into nightclubs and Billie Holiday’s sultry torch songs; God tap dances with Bill Robinson and Savion Glover. And when Coltrane blew his horn, the angels paused to consider.

Some sacred spaces bear none of the expected characteristics. The fact that we prefer stained glass windows, pomp and circumstance . . . has nothing to do with the sacred. It may seem as if the mysteries of divine-human reunion erupt in our lives when, in fact, the otherness of spiritual abiding is integral to human interiority. On occasion, we turn our attention to this abiding presence and are startled. But it was always there.

. . . Art can amplify the sacred and challenge the status quo. The arts help us to hear above the cacophony and pause in the midst of our multitasking. The arts engage a sacred frequency that is perforated with pauses. Artists learned . . . that there were things too full for human tongues, too alive for articulation. You can dance and rhyme and sing it, you almost reach it in the high notes, but joy unspeakable is experience and sojourn, it is the ineffable within our reach.

Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (183-185)

God breaks into nightclubs, God is expressed in things too full for human tongues indeed.  Joy unspeakable, overwhelming Joy, breaks out of the darkest places in my spirit, just as much as it bursts forth from the lightest places in my world.  And in both places I can behold the abiding Presence.

Creator of the Dawning Sun

draw me with your eternal energy.

Filter your transforming glow

through every inner fibre of mine

until I am transparent with

the power of your enlightening beauty.

Joyce Rupp

abiding presence. Canon 7D. f40. 1/6. ISO 100.

Sunday 3

We must recover the truth that was obscured by the Serpent: rather than being like God in his unlimited divinity, we are to be like God in our limited humanity.  We are capable of bearing his image as we were intended only when we embrace our limits.  Image-bearing means becoming fully human, not becoming divine.  It means reflecting as a limited being the perfections of a limitless God.  Our limits teach us the fear of the Lord. 

Jen Wilkin, None Like Him (25)

I do not want to admit I am a limited human being.  Certainly, my behaviour too frequently shows how much I do not want to embrace my limits.  In fact, I often find my perfectionist self ranting at my vulnerable self, piling on expectations of not being ‘good enough’, of not doing it ‘right’.  In this way, I can very quickly self-sabotage my creative self, gassing her, stifling my Artist Child, plunging her over the cliff edge into the formless void.  

This tohu vabohu is the shadowy place of overwhelm: where I see nothing, envision nothing, care about nothing.

And yet … Rilke’s words remind me that God is in this place too:

  … Do you hear them?

Hear them you surely must, because they cry …

Whom to call,

if not the one darkest of all,

more night than night?  The only one so fearless

that he will watch without a lamp; a depth

so deep no light falls far enough to mar it …

from ‘I am the very me, scared’ Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours/ Book of Pilgrimage 

(trans. Susan Ranson)

So if I do want to live a fear-filled life, if I want to be overwhelmed by Joy, and not by grief and loss and pain and disappointment: can I reintroduce colour into my murkiness?  I ask myself: what is the colour of grief?  What is the colour of overwhelm?

I think of the midnight blueblack night skies the Mages spent so long studying.  Last year, whilst in hospital, this colour became a symbol for the self-trust I recognised was so lacking in me.  This year, the colours of night reflected back over a desert, seem to suggest an inky indigo which is without end.  Not a void, but an eternal teeming space, full of mystery and wonder.  If I look in this direction, Joy might found in such darkness.

The dark lintels, the blue and foreign stones

of the great round rippled by stone implements

the midsummer night light rising from beneath

the horizon—where I said “a cleft of light”

I meant this. And this is not Stonehenge

simply nor any place but the mind

casting back to where her solitude,

shared, could be chosen without loneliness,

not easily nor without pains to stake out

the circle, the heavy shadows, the great light.

I choose to be the figure in that light,

half-blotted by darkness, something moving

across that space, the color of stone

greeting the moon, yet more than stone:

a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.

’21 love poems: XXI’

Adrienne Rich

half blotted by darkness. iPhone image.

day 14

If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer

So often when I feel utterly joyless, and completely weighed down by the weight of my own pain and the weight of the suffering that exists in all places amongst all peoples, I feel I am plunging off a cliff into a formless void.  I am in a terrifying freefall, unbound, unmoored from all that keeps me anchored in safe places.  In this void, there is no colour.  I am surrounded by dark clouds, fog and mist, that even tastes thick and claggy.  I do not know where to focus.  Often it is some time before I remember I can focus, that I need not be completely overcome and undone by the nothingness that surrounds me.  On bad health days my ‘brain fog’ feels as if it is obscuring all of me, and it leaves huge fears in its wake that I am disappearing, that I will never be able to see things clearly again.  Joy is a long way off when I am feeling trapped in these places.

I am trying to find different ways of thinking about this void, this pit, this place of overwhelm.  In a fascinating article entitled ‘Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There be Light *and* Darkness’, Mark Longhurst offered me this interpretation of Genesis 1:

This first “Let there be light” is, then, the creation of a spacious domain called light that is still waiting to be populated with lights themselves. Light at this point in the text is an artist’s blank canvas named light, still waiting to be painted upon with color.

Peer a bit further into the verses, and light and darkness become more mixed. Darkness becomes more mysterious and powerful. Less fearsome. When God created the heavens and earth, the earth first was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.

Something is there in darkness, in other words, before God first says the word to let there be light.

But formless void, whatever it is, does not sound very inviting…

The Hebrew helps us capture a lighter sensibility of dark: formless void is otherwise known as tohu vabohu. The strange phrase is sometimes translated as topsy-turvy nothingness, or by one scholar named William Brown, a hodgepodge. … Come to think of it, unformed hodgepodge sounds just about right, in spite of the Genesis writer’s long outdated cosmology. The soupy mass a trillionth of a second after the big bang does seem to be a hodgepodge, what Neil Degrasse Tyson describes as “a seething soup of quarks, leptons, and their antimatter siblings, along with bosons.” …

God speaks from within, and through, the dark mystery, and the mystery arranges itself: light and dark, together. …

God says, “Let there be light” from a pregnant, dark space. …

Even in the realm of cosmology, light is not supreme. Dark matter makes up 85% of gravitational force in the universe—and nobody yet knows what it is. How’s that for a tohu vobuhu? Light itself exists on an electromagnetic spectrum—there is light we can see, and light we cannot see…. “Let there be light,” then, becomes more than divine fiat. It becomes an emergent process of light being born out of darkness, and the two co-existing as separate, but also intimately together. As the Psalmist says, far ahead of his time, “darkness is as light to you, O God.”…

This, too, I think, is the truth of our lives. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Spiritual transformation does not happen only on the light level. We have to do the inner work of facing the shadow, or repressed realities, of who we are, both the beautiful and the bad. Some of our most painful experiences in life—whether death, divorce, or disease—often turn out to create a capacity in us for greater love. What we think is light shows up in what we think is darkness—and vice versa.


I trust that something is being formed in the hodgepodge of my lostness, in the tohu vabohu, even when I feel at my most isolated from others, my God and myself.  God is both light and dark, and even when chromophobia temporarily dominates my seeing, I trust that God’s colour mixing is forming a unique palette within me that as yet I cannot see, but that will one day – perhaps today – will flourish into a way of being, a way of giving, a way of loving with more depth and vibrancy.

Such trust keeps me being a JoyPilgrim. 

Redemption is, at root, the healing of the rift which runs through the world, the rift we experience as alienation from ourselves and others and from the ground of our being.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, Music of Silence (100)

tohu vabohu. iPhone image.