Risking the Darkness

A Sufi story tells about a man who lost his keys one night in the street outside his house. Desperate to find them, he made for the nearest lamppost, which shed a small pool of light on the ground. A long time passed, and the man had no success. Eventually a passerby joined him.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.


“I have lost my keys,” came the reply.

“I’ll help you,” offered the passerby. Soon others joined the search until quite a crowd was there, circling the lamppost. Time wore on and still no keys.

“I don’t think your keys are here. Are you sure you lost them here?” asked one of the helpers.

“Oh, no,” the man replied. “I lost them over there in that dark corner.”

“So why are you searching for them here?” his helper asked.

The man answered: “Because this is where the light is.”

Ten years ago on a bright sunny, September morning, we lost something very precious. We lost our sense of security. We lost our trust in one another, in our world, perhaps even in God. We lost a great deal of tolerance and willingness to be present to the “other.” We lost these things in a very dark and painful place. And perhaps we have been searching for them ever since. Like the people in the story, we walk around in desperate circles within a patch of light, and yet we will find what we seek only by daring to go beyond the narrow circle of light into the deep dark.

The darkness continues to sneak away with our lost pearls of great price. It stalks through the Middle East, concealing our humanity and our compassion. It slithers through the corridors of power, wearing its beguiling disguise of market forces and easy credit and wreaks havoc in the lives of the poorest among us.

And still we walk in circles around the tiny pool of light that our inadequate minds and hearts can shed. We will not find what we are looking for in these narrow circles of flickering light. But what would it mean to go and look for what is lost in the place where we lost it—in the darkness?

If I find myself in conflict with someone, how do I get to the root of the problem? I might complain to my friends or try to gather support for my side of the argument. I will have an armory of excuses to justify my own behavior, and because I am human I will exercise my unlimited ability to delude myself. I am searching in the light of my very small lamppost for a harmony that I actually lost in the dark, when what I really need to do is approach my adversary and genuinely listen to another point of view. I do not want to go there!

If I have lost my peace of mind by surrendering to the seductions of a “spend now, pay later” culture, I might try to search for it by taking out yet another loan and surrendering even more of my freedom to my creditors. My little pool of light offers me this apparently easy way to keep going along this primrose path. Meanwhile my real freedom lies where I first lost it—in the darkness. To regain it, I will have to go there and discover what I do not want to know—that my freedom lies in living within my means, repaying what I owe and adjusting my lifestyle accordingly.

If I have lost my health and my shape through over-indulgence, I might search for it by spending money I cannot afford on easy “cures,” special diets and books that promise to melt away my pounds in days. But to find what I have lost, I will have to go into the dark place where I lost it and discover that it can be recovered only through self-discipline and exercise. And I do not want to go there either!

No one wants to go into the dark. How would we begin to search for that lost treasure where there is no light? God’s answer is clear. God offers us a light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness can never extinguish. All that is asked of us is the courage to take that first step into the darkness we dread, to make the first phone call suggesting a conciliatory meeting, to make that first resolve to reverse the process of unbridled acquisition.

And, for myself, I can say that I find the key into this necessary darkness only when I withdraw to a quiet place, stop the frenzied searching and listen, instead, for the still small voice of God.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
7 years 1 month ago
When I was young I heard it said that you can only see light in the dark.  I never understood what it meant.   You came along, and you explained it so beautifully.  Thank you for sharing your insight.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 1 month ago
I so look forward to your writings here, Margaret. The spirit, mind, and heart always come across as in accord; your challenges to your reader clear and demanding, but always arranged in a basket of supportive calm, conveying to your reader that the spiritual journey you suggest can be managed, is attainable, and worth the effort. 
Your words stick to the page as well as the minds and hearts of your reader.
You don't so much write essays as create affective memories for us. A sort of feminine Ignatius Loyola for everyday urban life. Thanks. And please keep them coming.


The latest from america

 10.17.2018 Pope Francis greets Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago before a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 16. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
“We take people where they are, walking with them, moving forward,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 20, 2018
Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018