Lately, I’ve been reading the mystics. You know, Christians from a different time and place who speak of love as the highest knowledge, calling us to the God beyond God—the God who cannot be rationally known, only encountered. I know our protestant sensibilities react negatively to this, conjuring up monks walled off from the world, living in caves, hating all things human. But that’s just a caricature, the example we need to justify our worldly existence. Maybe all of our doing isn’t worth doing, maybe it’s more of a distraction than serving Jesus. This is what the mystics tell us.

The mystics also remind us that God is not found in our emotions, our senses, or our carefully manufactured experiences. God is found in nothing, in darkness, in the cracks of our constructed identity. This past week, for me, was one to forget. Beyond all that happened hangs a malaise of meaninglessness in which all the striving seems to be for naught. You know, when the threads of the world get stretched and the seams begin to open up. Not because of anything traumatic, just the slow drip of nothing. The realization that what mattered so much at one point in life doesn’t really matter at all. For much of contemporary Christianity this experience is covered up with overly spiritualized language because there’s nothing more unspiritual than nothingness… darkness… the fragmentation of a constructed life. But this is where the mystics live, it’s where they silently listen, it’s where they encounter God.

There’s something beautiful about being able to finally let go, to no longer feel the need to cover the darkness with words, to stare directly into it and let yourself be overcome. It’s only by letting ourselves be overwhelmed by darkness that we are finally open to the possibility of life. This is the gospel according to Elijah, Jonah, and of course Jesus. This is the experience of St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton. This is the beauty of Ash Wednesday when we remember we are nothing but beautiful dust. Thanks be to God.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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