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Christian Viewpoint: The other side of the dark valley is a place worth finding

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Out to the light
Out to the light

“WHERE once I heard His voice, now there is nothing,” Sister Monica Joan said. “Nothing at all. The light by which I led my life it is no more. And worst of all, I fear it never was.”

The BBC drama TV series Call the Midwife always has a thread of faith running through it – the rhythm of prayer in the nuns’ daily routine as midwives at Nonnatus House, joyfully worship in the Shining Tabernacle House Church.

But the story of the aged Sister Monica Joan’s “dark night of the soul” in the recent series was one of the show’s most powerful religious plot lines.

“There is no light anywhere, and the very act of seeking Him only emphasises the void,” Monica Joan confesses to Fred Buckle. “Only God can help me.”

The “dark night” may in her case be deepened by the dementia which is slowly overtaking her, but many Christians pass through such valleys of darkness.

Monica Joan tells Fred that the phrase “taking the veil” doesn’t just refer to her attire. “We are trained to hide so many things from others. Fear, loneliness, doubt.”

And Christians generally find it hard to admit to a sense of God’s absence.

“Don’t hide it!” we might urge. “Be real! Share with someone you trust!” But those Monica Joan confides in are not particularly helpful. Fred, tries to encourage her, but skirts round her troubles; a well-meaning curate offers her the Eucharist, but fails to engage with her woundedness. Even the normally wise Sister Julienne tries to rationalise Monica Joan’s pain by seeking meaning in it.

What Sister Monica Joan needs but doesn’t get, is a hand on the shoulder, a listening ear, a heart open to the imponderable mystery of divine absence.

“Hold firm! He will return!” says Julienne. She’s right. For later in the series, God draws near to Monica Joan. Checking an afterbirth to ensure it is entire she sees the beauty at which “I never cease to marvel” in its “lines and traceries”.

“I see His handiwork and I see His love. I see where I began, what fed me and what feeds me now.” The placenta is “complete. And so within His love am I”.

As Christians we interpret this as the awakening wind of God’s presence bursting into Monica Joan’s life, dispelling the dark mist.

God returned as she went about her daily life. God came to her through something she was familiar with, yet saw again as if for the first time. And so God comes to us in our darknesses, making marvellous the ordinary.

So we too in the face of God’s strange absences can take to heart Sister Julienne’s words. “Hold firm! He will return!”

– Christian Viewpoint is written by columnist John Dempster

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