Well-Springs of Belief: An undiscovered contemporary classic

By Harold Fickett

Posted 3/25/08 at 2:00 PM


As Holy Week began and I reviewed my slack observance of Lent—that is, as I reflected on “things done and left undone”—I found I had wasted my soul more than anything through needless distraction. Pascal pointed out how kings have their minstrels and courtiers and fools to ward off the possibility of self-reflection, as he diagnoses how divertissement keeps everyone from confronting the mystery of his life. This past penitential season, I had let Hardball, CNN’s The Situation Room, and innumerable panels led by Brit Hume on Fox perform the same dubious service. As important as the election may be, I could as well have been tying-off every evening and plumping out a vein as I prepared for my nightly dose of political smack.  This is not even to speak of RealClearPolitics and the smaller hits it afforded. There were always at least 13 different ways of looking at the same political blackbird. 

This was one of the many things I had to confess as I prepared to get “locked up in the box,” or for confession—how I had displaced my true life in getting and spending and just plain messing around. 

There’s a lovely book called The Luminous Dusk by Dale Allison (Eerdmans, 2006) which addresses the central problem of diversion in the spiritual life.  I believe to be an undiscovered contemporary classic. I’ve been reading and re-reading it now for 15 years, since much of the book’s material was published in a previous edition. 

The Luminous Dusk addresses both the macro and micro issues of distraction and directs the reader from these to the wellsprings of Christian spirituality—silence, darkness, light, asceticism, the Scriptures, the saints, and prayer. It’s a significant read in any season, but particularly during Advent, Lent or at the beginning of a retreat. 

Allison argues that disbelief in our world is as much the result of our loss of contact with the natural world and its inducements of wonder as it is philosophic trends. Almost everywhere, the lights of the city are so bright that we cannot see the stars. We rarely cry out for God’s help even in the midst of hurricanes, because we feel ourselves the masters of nature. The psalmist asks, “Whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Ps. 139:7, KJV)  “One good answer,” Allison says, “is inside a house in the city.” 

As apt as his analysis may be, Allison’s praise for the sources of Christian spirituality elevates the book beyond argument into a deeply affecting hymn. He leads the reader to desire silence; to find a monastic chapel in the pre-dawn hours where it’s possible to worship by candlelight; to read the Scriptures in such a deeply meditative way that they become as meat and drink. 

The book’s prose is lucid, witty, and enlivened by convincing analogies. Allison’s wide-learning allows him a range of allusion that’s stunning and yet never merely showy. 

“Our tradition teaches that confrontation with silence is requisite for the sincere religious pilgrim. Even Jesus, according to the Four Gospels, felt the need to go off by himself for prayer and contemplation… Our technology, however, has so populated the world with so many devices of distraction that it is now possible to spend the entire span of a human life without learning of silence. I know of a woman who cannot even sleep without the noise and light of her television.

This is no good omen…

Perhaps Nietzsche was half-right.  Maybe we have murdered God. But maybe the moral wounds were inflicted by something other than our clever arguments.  Perhaps we finally did away with God indirectly, by exterminating silence. Artificial noise has become an unholy liturgy that unites all in the aimless rush toward collective amnesia and banality, away from Nature’s God and God’s self-imposed muteness of love. As Jerome asked, “Where there is the beating of drums, the noise and clatter of pipe and lute, the clanging of cymbals, can any fear of God be found?””

Here we have Jesus, Nietzsche, and Jerome, all in a seamless exposition that drives us toward stark recognitions, both of the world in which we live and how we use the world to escape hearing the “self-imposed muteness” of God’s love, which never clamors, never insists, but unceasingly calls, in a whisper, a still small voice.  Page after page is like this, which is what makes this book great.

So many passages deserve quoting, but here’s just one more, on the necessity of confronting God in the darkness of his mystery. 

“But it is not just literal, external darkness that the pilgrim should happily enter.  There must also be an inner darkness, an unlighted chamber within.  Although we should find God in the natural world around us, and while we are commanded to find God in the neighbor next to us, there is also an imperative for turning to the Divine that requires a turning from the world, what Evelyn Underhill calls “a deliberate drawing-in from the circumference to the centre.”  Here I follow Meister Eckhart who once interpreted darkness as “a silence and a stillness apart from the commotion of creatures.”  Before this is a Presence, there must be an absence….We were physically formed in the darkness of the womb, and we are spiritually formed in the darkness of our minds.  As in the creation story, so too in each individual life: darkness comes before light.”

The Luminous Dusk is one of those books that makes you want to tear your hair out and ask what in the heck you think you’ve been doing. This life holds the possibility of knowing God! What could be more interesting than that? Wolf Blitzer with his soldier-boy bearing and snappy questions? Oh, my…

But the encounter with God entails an encounter with my personal darkness.  I already know or suspect the bollocksed emptiness I am, and so I delay whatever appointments I have with the Almighty until another time.  But the dusk is luminous, the darkness filled with light, and God still seeks, in his mercy, in his refulgent outpourings, to give himself.  Why can’t I get this? 

Allison’s The Luminous Dusk is a big help—one I recommend with the greatest urgency.