A couple of time a year when I was in seminary we would have “Quiet Days,” which were basically half-day retreats that third year students had to attend. It was in the music of one of these Quiet Days that I experienced God speaking.
Two different pieces of music were played that day, and we were to meditate or pray while we listened. I was not particularly connecting with the first piece – a Christian pop song – but the mournful sounds of a choral adaptation of Barber’s Adagio for Strings resonated with me immediately. There is a certain reverence about the piece, but it also gives you the eerie sense that you are confronting something very dark. I noticed that this feeling struck a particular chord within me, and that I felt a deep connection to God in that confrontation with darkness. I am talking about a kind of existential moment, a standing at the edge of “the abyss,” contemplating the futility of human efforts, the radical corruption of human desires, the “nothingness” of human existence and achievement.
I have faced depression on a couple of occasions in my life, and I believe that those experiences changed me profoundly. I am not a particularly mournful or pessimistic person, but, I still pause in those “existential moments,” and feel an incredible resonance within me. It is very difficult to describe. The words of Ecclesiastes 1:8 spoke so clearly to my experience at the height of my depression:
All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
While I don’t struggle with that feeling regularly, I have never really left it behind, and the brief moments when that weariness has resurfaced in my life have been some of the most profound encounters I have had with myself, and with God.
Aside from the music, I remember connecting with the Psalms we read that day, and with the practice of praying the Psalms, which I have done since experiencing the daily offices in my first year at Wycliffe. During my depression, I was comforted to find an expression of my experience in Ecclesiastes, and in a similar way I have found it liberating to be able to pray with the emotion found in the Psalms. Strange as it may seem to some, I find that I feel closest to God in those moments when I contemplate the loneliness and futility of human life with honesty. Somehow I know that God is there, because, as the Psalmist prayed, Christ also prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In God the Son’s decent into that “abyss” of human darkness, he established his true presence in the God-forsaken places of this world. I am, therefore, surprisingly comforted when I find myself in such a place, knowing that, in spite of the profound sense of darkness I feel, he is indeed there, and I, in Christ, can make the same cry with authenticity.
I do connect with God in feelings of joy and thankfulness, of course. Often, however, the shallow “happiness” that is sometimes characteristic of evangelical worship fails to resonate with my experience. There is an unfailing optimism (“Christians should be happy people!”) among many which is only possible when the problem of sin and suffering is gravely underestimated. Coming to terms with human depravity was a watershed moment for me, not only in terms of understanding myself and God, but also in terms of understanding the broken world in which we live. I am not in any way discouraged by the profound brokenness of the world, or by my own depravity, given the sufficiency of Christ’s work. Rather, I feel a great sense of freedom in resting my hope in him alone.
I was particularly thankful during that Quiet Day, that I could experience that dark encounter once again, and still feel that powerful resonance within me. I am thankful that I have not left that experience behind, though I am no longer confined by it.
2 thoughts on “encountering God in the darkness”
James, I have to say the Agnus Dei set to Barber’s Adagio for Strings is my favourite piece of music, period. It is a profoundly intimate piece. I have found myself running it on a loop while I lie there wading through the deeper parts of my own life. In engages me far beyond the rational to the ‘darker’ places I often neglect. I hear the entire piece as a movement of suspensions, a dissonance longing for resolution. The tension builds. The ‘existential moments’ compound as if the song itself is calling out for meaning. It achingly yearns for the return of the the foundational beginning, the opening tonic, The suspensions, build and move a half-step higher and higher until finally at the height of the chaos the tonic returns in majesty. There is no mistaking this, It is the crowning note of three different chords.
The entire orchestra then falls silent as if in reverence.
A solemn muted return to the original theme is played until finally the orchestra fades away to a single note.
There is something about my own human experience that seems to be mirrored in the notes of this piece.
Thanks for sharing the impact of this piece on your life Mark. I really appreciated your musical “exposition”. You’re able to put into words a lot of the reasons why I find it so moving. It really is a masterpiece.
It is amazing the way music can help make sense of our lives – or at least give expression to something that we are going through, something that is often so deep we have a hard time expressing it ourselves. I can’t imagine life without it. It is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, I think.