LIGHT WHEN IT COMES:Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything. By Chris Anderson. Foreword by Brian Doyle. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. Xv + 165 pages.
The spiritual life can be challenging, especially when we’re called upon to examine our lives. To take this journey will require us to examine our relationship with God and with the world around us. Fortunately, down through the ages there have been people who have been willing and able to pave the way. We often tend to call them saints; at least the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches do this. Protestants sometimes adopt earlier saints as their own, but for the most part Protestants (and I’m a Protestant) lack the mechanism to truly recognize spiritual pathfinders. For Roman Catholics, one of those pathfinders is Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius had been a soldier, and he understood the importance of self-discipline and self-examination. He brought that insight to the life of faith. One who has taken hold of this insight is Chris Anderson, author of Light When It Comes.
The author of the book under review, Chris Anderson, is an English professor at Oregon State University and a Roman Catholic Deacon. As I read the book, I wondered if he had been in serious spiritual conversations with Marcus Borg, who himself had taught at Oregon State. They would have had their differences, I expect, but a lot of similarities as well in their understanding of the spiritual life.
Central to this book is the mechanism that stands at the heart of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. That mechanism is the examenen. This is a prayer taught by Ignatius that invites us to remember. The examenen is a prayer offered at the end of each day. It has three basic parts, and goes like this:
We remember the light and give thanks for the light;We remember the darkness and ask for forgiveness, and refuge and strength;
And we let it all go; we ask for the grace to follow the light, to know what we should do—but then we leave it all to God, trusting in his kindness (pp. xiii-xiv).
In prayer, we close the day, but remembering the light and giving thanks for it. We also remember the darkness and seek forgiveness. Finally, “we let it all go.” It sounds simple, but as we discover it’s not simple, but it opens the way to blessing.
The book is composed of a series of meditations and reflections organized around ten themes, which are divided into three sections. The format of the book is centered in the examenen, essentially making a book a series of reflections on the act of remembering light and darkness and then let go of the darkness so one can follow the light. The point is not to avoid darkness, but to move through it toward the light. This is important to keep in mind—both light and darkness occur and are important elements in our spiritual growth.
With this prayer guiding the conversation, we move into the book, which is divided into three sections: "Trusting Joy," Facing Darkness, and "Seeing God in Everything." Under "Trusting Joy," we look at expressions of light under chapter titles "Seeing the Light," "Doubting the Light," and "Following the Light." The reflections in each chapter cover a multitude of life experiences and expressions. The reflections might be a couple of paragraphs to several pages in length. It is in the chapter titled “Doubting the Light” that he tells us how he first began the practice of praying the examenen. He was on a thirty-day silent retreat on the Oregon Coast—living in a hut above Nestucca Bay (near Lincoln City for those who know the Oregon Coast). What he learned in that first retreat, as he asked himself about the light he saw in his life, along with the darkness he had failed to face, was how addicted he was to roles and titles. He writes: “And I thought I was going to go out of my mind. I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to the roles I play and the titles I have, or to television, or to thinking.” It was difficult. It was challenging, but it was wonderful as well. He writes: I hadn’t known God existed. Not really. But the I reached out and touched the bark of a tree and felt something like electricity passing through me, up from my feet through the top of my head, and it felt like tears and it felt like grief” (p. 16) But in this experience, he experienced God, perhaps for the first time.
In Part 2, "Facing Darkness," we explore such topics as "Dying to Ourselves," Holding On," "Laughing at Ourselves," "Learning to Serve." With chapters like these, you discern that darkness might not be what you thought it was. In the chapter "Dying to Ourselves," Anderson reflects on the examenen, and reminds us that it not only allows us to revel in the light, but face darkness as well. He writes that "It's the darkness that shows us the light. It's desolation that teaches us what joy really is" (p. 47). He points to Mother Teresa's experiences as a reminder that saintliness and darkness aren't mutually exclusive.
The final section of the book, titled "Seeing God in Everything," covers topics including "Going Wild," "Remembering these things are Mysteries," and "Completing Creation." As he explores how God is present in everything, he reminds us of the importance of belonging and particularity. He writes of the claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” suggesting that it’s not possible to not belong to something or act in a particular way. He writes: “We’re never outside a religion—a culture—a life. Were never without rules. It’s just that some are invisible. It’s just that some we choose and some we’re sucked up in.” While we might want to “escape from the mundane and ordinary our lives really are, and boring and messy” (p. 117). Yes, the spiritual life is not an easy path.
The reflections are often personal, arising out of times of spiritual retreats and points of ministry. Though they also emerge out of observing nature, including the pathways of migrating birds. The point is to look at things more deeply and ask spiritual questions. At the end of the book Anderson offers a note on the examenen. Each point along the way in the book is rooted in the examenen. Anderson closes with this note -- while Ignatius' language may be awkward, mechanical, and drawn from his military background, "underneath all that, throughout The Exercises, there is a deep conviction that God is present in our lives, in all our thoughts and actions" (p. 141). That seems to be the point—God is present, and if we're willing to take the time, we might discern that presence even in the most mundane parts of life. This leads to prayer, which he calls autobiography.
This isn't a systematic book. He doesn't explain things point by point. Instead, he weaves reflections and stories in such a way that we are drawn into the act of discernment. It's a good book, that can prove beneficial to the spiritual journeys of Christians, whether Catholic or not, whether we know the ways of Ignatius or not.