Why Must Holy Places Be Dark Places?

In the course of reading a book (review forthcoming), I came across a few intriguing and interrelated quotes that I would like to talk about. In his last, and least-well known work, Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis asked the question “Why must holy places be dark places?” The answer to that question is not necessarily straightforward. Of course, some people would deny that holy places are dark places at all. For “normal” people involved in various religious beliefs (including secular humanism), the purpose of their faith, be it in God or humanity or government or themselves, is to keep dark places and dark situations as far away as possible [1]. Some people, on the opposite extreme, are so drawn to darkness that they can forget light exists in the first place, because of of the lack of balance in their own perspective. For most of us, though, we see both darkness and light in our life, and so we concede the fact that darkness exists in our experience, and try to understand what it means.

As an astute observer of life, C.S. Lewis himself pondered his experiences with holiness and saw dark places as being the occasions for God to work His will. In life, we often see our need for God greatest in times of darkness, as that is our hour of greatest need. Yet this is not the only reason, or even the most notable reason, why dark places can be so holy. The workings of God are deeply mysterious, and a large part of the divine providence that takes place in this world occurs in great darkness. Since there is so much darkness to be found in this world, there are a lot of places where God can turn what is dark into what is light, what is evil into ultimate good, all through His mysterious and poignant alchemy of grace. In many cases, our longing for restoration and justice [2] springs out of the darkness that we see and abhor, longing to see a better way with our own eyes and in our own life, which often spurs us on towards the massive efforts that are necessary to improve our lives, our institutions, and our world, with our justice tempered by mercy and love.

The tempering of our stern sense of justice with mercy and understanding and love is necessary because evil is not merely an external matter. After all, as Aleksander Solzhenisyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Because none of us, save Jesus Christ, are entirely free of evil, our fight against evil commits us to wrestling with our own sinful nature, such as it exists. If we choose to minimize or deny our own evil, we give other people the same sort of warrant to do the same in their lives. If we admit our evil, we often feel constraint about speaking out against the evil around us [3]. And yet an honest confession of our own struggles as well as a sincere desire for the betterment of ourselves and our world is the only way we can preserve our longing for justice while also pointing out the need that everyone, ourselves included, has for gracious and merciful treatment at the hands of God and other people. That both mercy and justice are difficult to find in our own lives and in this world does not negate our responsibility to uphold both.

And that is why holy places must be dark places. If we are all at least somewhat dark ourselves, and if we all suffer evil (sometimes horrible evil) in the course of our lives because of our own actions and the actions of others, for us to reach holiness and salvation we must begin that quest in darkness and we must overcome the evil through darkness. This does not mean that we should remain in darkness, or that we should seek out darkness deliberately, except insofar as we are driven by our own experiences and our own zeal to shine a light in dark places and to help those who remain in darkness. At least the recognition that holy places are often dark places is a reminder that none of us is too broken or too troubled for God to work with. On the contrary, God seems to delight especially in working with the outcasts and downtrodden of this world, in showing how God’s grace can lead to these people becoming noble and wise through the influence of God’s Holy Spirit. May we all see the darkness that we face turned into light, not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/the-two-types-of-religious-experience/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/book-review-restoration-of-the-heart/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/a-still-small-voice/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/negev-bloom/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/book-review-prototype/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/a-festival-of-reconciliation/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/as-she-lay-dying/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/that-hypocrite-smokes-two-packs-a-day/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/you-oughta-know/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/book-review-the-21-toughest-questions-your-kids-will-ask-about-christianity/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Why Must Holy Places Be Dark Places?

  1. I read your blog several times before commenting. Although holiness is mutually exclusive to darkness because God is Light, King David remarks that God walks with him through the valley of the shadow of death. There cannot be a more dark place than that. But even Death could only cast its shadow because Light was present. The holy places are such because God has placed His name there. They are filled with light because they reflect His presence, separating them from the darkness of the profane and common. Those He chose, He “called out of the darkness”–the unholy place–into “His glorious light”–as citizens of His coming Kingdom. In other words, we come out of the world, spiritual darkness, because it is unholy.

    The Apostle Paul describes this inner conflict between the evil, carnal nature and the pure, holy spirit that God places within us upon conversion. Our physical bodies default to a sinful nature, but we must discipline ourselves to submit to God–a battle that we willed over to Him when we died in baptism. The darkness in which we dwelt was no more holy than the wilderness that claimed the lives of the children of Israel; both defaulted to a contrary heart. The specter of evil visited upon us by the sins of others darkens our world to the extent that we do not reach out and turn on the oil-filled lamp; a light always within our reach. This type of darkness cannot be fought with our own willpower, self-determination, or stubborn resolve. Only the Spirit greater than the one who “on earth there is nothing like him, for any hope of overcoming him is false” can vanquish and prevail–for he wants his darkness to swallow us up.

    • My thought was along the lines that dark places are holy places because while Satan would wish for people to despair or to lose themselves in the darkness, God sees those who must deal with the darkness in this life as fitting bearers of His light and His glory, for no one (least of all we ourselves) could then be ignorant of where that light and glory and holiness come from.

      • How I’m interpreting this now is that the saints are exalted by the Light which can only come from God because, as human beings, we are reminded of where we came from and what we are without it. However, God’s glory brought the light of His holiness and the darkness receded. I suppose I’m just too literal about such subjects. *sigh*

      • Oh, I understand how you see it, but yes, you are a bit more literal than I am sometimes :B. And I’m a pretty literal person too.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: If I Had Lunch With C.S. Lewis | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Character, Like A Photograph, Develops In Darkness | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: It Looks Much Different In The Daylight | Edge Induced Cohesion

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