One of the advantages of studying science in undergrad and grad school is that I know all kinds of random biology facts.
For instance, 25% of your bones are in your feet. Your fingernails grow four times faster than your toenails. Your bladder can and will explode if you hold it too long. More people die of heart attacks on Mondays than any other day of the week.
Last week I was walking through the floral section of the grocery store with my friend, and she wandered over to a display of poinsettias. “Some of these are really vivid, and some are really pale,” she said.
“It’s because of the light,” I said.
“Poinsettias need darkness in order to retain their color. If there’s too much light, they fade, or get those weird-looking spots.”
My friend looked at me like I was psychic. “How do you know that?”
I shrugged. “I was a science major.”
This morning I woke up thinking about poinsettias. The past year has felt really long. God’s felt far away, being single has felt more like a liability than an asset, and then a friend passed away suddenly from breast cancer.
All of these things have collided, like too many appliances draining energy from the same source, and my soul has blown a fuse. “I’ve gone dark,” I told my friend the other night as I was crying. “And no matter how hard I pray, God doesn’t turn on the lights.”
If I’m honest, the darkness has been there on and off for years. It feels like something’s wrong — even though I wrack my brain and most of the time I can’t think of anything specific that happened, or any obvious way to fix it.
And then, mysteriously, daybreak comes and the light starts getting in again, and I always emerge from these dark seasons with something to say. This year I’ve traveled the country, speaking dozens of times about the valley of the shadows I went through when I thought I was going to die from breasts cancer seven years ago. And every time I talk about the truth I learned in that difficult time, it resonates with people in a powerful way.
It’s like the book of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples that what he’s whispering to them in secret, they’ll be proclaiming in the public square (my paraphrase). Dark seasons are kind of like that — God’s voice is barely audible, sometimes completely inaudible — but I always emerge from them with something important to share with people.
But for now, in this bleak night, what am I supposed to do? I asked God this week.
Recently I’ve been reading about saints who have gone through this before me, especially Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa. Teresa of Avila spent 18 years praying to be closer to Christ without seeing any results. Secret letters published after Mother Teresa’s death show that she spent 50 years of her life wrestling with doubt, feeling like God was far away. Fifty years.
“There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead,” she wrote to her spiritual advisor. “In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—there is so much pain—the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted.”
Both women, who lived centuries apart, came to the same conclusion, that there was nothing they could do to make the darkness go away. They could just sit there with it, and trust that God was using the darkness to accomplish something in them that they couldn’t achieve in the light.
This week for the first time it dawned on me that maybe I should stop fighting the darkness. Maybe, like the Teresas, I can come to a place of radical acceptance, unquestioning trust, and unflinching faith, believing that God is accomplishing something in me that couldn’t happen any other way.
At one point, Mother Teresa wrote, “I want it to be like this for as long as he wants it.” Even though she got so lonely and despondent, she couldn’t think or speak or pray.
“As long as he wants it” is hard to say. Like most people, I’d prefer the hallelujahs and the miracles and the exuberant happiness that sometimes characterizes people who love God. I want my life to be Easter Sunday, not the three days in the grave that preceded it. I want to be the sunflower that thrives in full sun and long summers rather than the poinsettia that becomes vivid in the dark.
But for now, for however long this darkness lasts, I can only press into a God who is merciful and loving and wise, and accept that whatever’s happening now is accomplishing something in me that I may not see for weeks or months or years — or ever? — and learn to prefer a vivid faith that grows in the dark rather than a faded, spotted soul that insists on the light.
That’s the thing about being a poinsettia.
That’s the thing about being me.