Treasures of darkness

The Wieliczka Salt Mine in southern Poland was in operation for eight hundred years. It has nine levels, goes 1,000 feet deep, and has over 100 miles of tunnels. Over time, miners began to make carvings in the walls, and when they wanted places to pray, they began to carve chapels. The mine now has over 20 of them. The largest is the Chapel of St. Kinga, which took 67 years to complete, all of it made entirely out of salt.

I came upon an image of that chapel some weeks ago, and it’s haunted me ever since—haunted me, for one, because it makes me think what a bunch of catastrophic time wasters we are nowadays, bemoaning the lack of fresh shows on Netflix, when not so long ago, people were creating exquisite underground art. But it’s haunted me more so because I think there’s a profound spiritual lesson to be learned here.

I don’t know, during those eight hundred years, what kind of people hauled salt from that mine. But I know enough of history and humanity to know that those who work long hours underground do not typically do so by choice. Whether by economic or governmental force (or both), for years upon years, miners descended into those tunnels to hack their living out of the earth. And at some point, someone must’ve gotten an idea—there, in the dark, where they had no choice but to be, they could make something beautiful, something worth seeing.

Most people who know me know I take issue with the phrase “God’s will.” I think we get way too mucked up about what God causes versus what He permits and how much our own free will comes into play. I don’t think we’ll ever know, on this side of heaven, how these weights hang in the balance, and a lot of damage can be done, spiritually and otherwise, by trying too hard to wager a guess. What I do know is nothing escapes God’s notice, and that, whatever the cause of our circumstances—even the worst ones—He is capable of bringing good out of them.

The other night, I was scrolling through YouTube, and its algorithm churned up “Faithful Wounds” by Cory Asbury. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” he sings, quoting the King James translation of Proverbs 27:6. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted,” is how the New International Version renders it. If you are a Christian, you are fortunate because your God is, first and forever, a God of love. First and forever, He is a God of compassion, who knows what it is to be wounded, and who yearns to bring us healing. And yet, we wonder—is He really so good? Is He really watching over and weaving mercy into this riot of chaos we call our existence?

You wonder—looking at the world, at your life, you can’t not wonder—and so, you tunnel: did He cause your pain, did He allow your grief, did He sit idly by while you or someone you once trusted ran a railroad spike through your heart? Ask those questions—I won’t tell you not to. I have asked them enough times to fill the 100 miles of tunnels in the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Ask those questions, and then, when you are weary of spinning your wheels, weary of the bitter water they’ve poured into the marshlands of your soul, let them wrap their arms around you, whirl you, churn you, spit you out onto a different shore.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.” Think what you will about this verse’s implication that God is the cause of our pain. This is, I think, not the idea to focus on. I like instead to reflect on the lyric near the end of Asbury’s song: “I’ve learned to kiss the waves that push my soul into the caves.” We don’t like to be in caves, and to be sure, there are some that we need to crawl out of. But when crawling out is not an option—when your love is dead, your body broken, your months of isolation showing no end in sight—then is it possible there is something for you to do here? Is it possible God has something to give you?

“A vein of good is to be found in every mine of evil,” Charles Spurgeon writes. I believe this with more fervency than I am comfortable admitting. I am a master ruminator, and despair is chief among the demons dwelling in the alleys of my heart. Sitting in the muck of the cave, drenched in desperate sorrow, is and will likely always be my first impulse. But I can’t get around the reality that I have grown the most, learned the most, soared the most by enduring the most difficult seasons. And so I have had to teach myself to wipe the muck off my hands, take a breath (or a dozen), then say, “Okay, Lord, what are we doing here?”

Often, it starts with something simple: buy a plant, go for a drive, call a friend, write a book (not so simple, that last one). Often, it’s something that, on the face of it, seems like it couldn’t possibly help. But if you have the privilege of knowing this God, then you also have the privilege of Him knowing you—knowing what you need when you haven’t a clue. Pick up a paint brush, light a candle, start to carve something into the wall. “I have come into the world as a light,” Jesus says in John 12:46, “so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” I know few greater gifts than this: to be able to dwell in the light, even while the darkness remains.

For the darkness will remain. True, it comes in waves, and some seasons are gentler than others. But it is always lurking, there in the background, ready to come crashing down upon us with another loss, another sorrow, another disaster beyond our control. We can’t outrun it any more than we can outrun ourselves. So consider, for a moment, that God knows this—that He knew it before He created us, before we fell into sin. He knew what kind of world we would live in, and yet, He placed us in it nonetheless. Unless you find validity in the theory of a Cosmic Sadist, there must be something deeper going on here.

Of all of C.S. Lewis’s books, I’ve reread A Grief Observed the most. In it, there’s a line I use as the epigraph in my memoir: “I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.” This idea used to infuriate me. Now I cling to it—not because it makes the confusion any less confusing. Not because it makes the pain less painful. But because, year upon year, I have come to know more of this God who holds the world, such as it is, in His hand, and I have gained more by yielding to Him than I could’ve thought possible. I have gained more by letting Him shape me in the darkness than I could’ve by shutting my eyes and waiting for it to end—possibly more than I could’ve if I’d never been driven into the darkness in the first place.

“I will give you the treasures of darkness,” God says in Isaiah 45:3, “riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.” The great gift of Christianity is not that it spares you from trouble, and anyone who believes otherwise has, I think, not spent much time reading the Bible. No, the great gift of Christianity is knowing to whom you belong—that this world can do its worst, and still, you will be called by name by the One who created you, who sees you, who has something to give you: a treasured thing that will cause you to know, in the depths of your being, that He is God.

And when you know that, it becomes the secret that carries you through the darkest days. It becomes the richness that trains your eyes, your ears, your heart to notice the veins of mercy running through the barren places in your soul. It becomes the impulse to take stock of where you are and not just resign yourself to a decrepit fate—not just use your season of strife as an excuse to resent the God who put you there—but to open your hands, such as they are, and ask Him to fill them. And there, in the darkness, where you have no choice but to be, He can teach you to use what you’ve been given to create what you otherwise could not.