It is a sight forever etched in my memory … a hillside ablaze. Trees, houses, anything that could or would burn was burning. If there is a hell, the image of that burning hillside comes very close to my mental picture of hell. I live in Colorado Springs, and unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last several weeks, you know that part of the city was overwhelmed by a wildfire destroying 346 homes and killing two people. My office is located less than a mile from the homes destroyed, and each morning as I drive to work I can see the scared ridge and get a glimpse of some of the destroyed homes.
As the days and weeks since the fire unfold, more and more stories of personal tragedy and victory are emerging. A soldier serving in Africa watched his home burn over satellite television. Two friends, who both left on vacation just prior to the start of the fire, waited anxiously for information concerning the condition of their homes. In other conversations, I listen as people talk about how the fire has caused them to rethink their priorities, their possessions, and their lives.
St. John of the Cross once said, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.” On one level I have understood his statement to mean that until one has suffered, one cannot know hope. There are a variety of levels at which St. John’s statement can be understood and digested. Nevertheless, ultimately, they all come back to the paradoxical link between suffering and hope. It is perhaps one of the most confounding paradoxes of life.
This paradoxical link between suffering and hope runs counter to our cultural expectations of “Don’t worry, be happy.” Pain, loss, suffering, and disappointment are to be avoided. In our culture, these emotions are thought to have little to no value and any individual who gives into such feelings is considered weak or even pathetic. We are encouraged by society to move on, let it go, and be strong, rather than sit with these emotions and allow ourselves to experience them fully.
I have watched this cultural norm play out through the media, as well as listening to people as they share their current circumstances. The emphasis is “Move on and rebuild.” In one sense, one cannot deny that such steps are necessary. Those devastated by this event do indeed need to begin making plans for their immediate, as well as their long-term future. However, in so many situations, you can see the vacant, lost look in people’s faces who have not allowed themselves to fully experience the heartache and loss that this firestorm brought upon them.
Many assume that the dark night of the soul has passed. Their perception is that the fateful and traumatic events of that Tuesday afternoon and evening when the fire raced with rage through these homes is the dark night of the soul. However, the reality is much different, for the dark night of the soul is just beginning.
The dark night of the soul is not the event, but the manner in which one emerges from the trauma of the event. The dark night of the soul is that period after the event and how one deals with the changes and struggles that emerge. For these families, long after the rest of the community has moved on to other news stories and life activities, they will be struggling to rebuild and restore their lives. They will face rebuilding homes, replacing furniture, and salvaging prize possessions. They will struggle with being in the same location, but not in the same home. They will wrestle with fears and images that may haunt their sleep, their thoughts, and even their actions. In the process, they will experience the isolation that loss and suffering always bring. They may experience the loss of prized friendships because these friends are unable to cope with the ache and pain that this devastation has wrought.
The dark night of the soul is wrestling with a different perspective about life and its meaning, of accepting and embracing the changes taking place, and acknowledging that life is new and different. In addition, these new perspectives and changes lead to changes in attitudes and insights, which in turn influence relationships, priorities, values, and actions. At its climax, the dark night of the soul is an embracing of these changes, while emerging with a deeply held sense of confidence and courage—hope—in their ability to move forward.
Like the burn scar along the hillside ridge, the impact of this tragedy will be around for many years. Just like the healing and restoration of the burn scar, how those affected by this tragic event experience healing and restoration will determine just how brightly that river of hope (God) will flow.
— Steve Fehl
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