Psalm 130 “I long for the Lord more than sentinels long for the dawn. ” Whenever I read the word sentinel or sentry, I imagine a geography of shadows in which a barely visible guard stands on what can only be called a battlement and watches the darkness for . . . what?
You don’t need advanced degrees in psychology or anthropology to recognize that there is something about darkness itself that speaks of menace: Darth Vader’s mission to tempt his son to join him on the dark side; noirfilms of the 40s with their stories of dark characters who live just over the line between good and evil; the article “The Self in Hiding” which begins with this somehow familiar word-picture:
“A small band of humans draws close to the warmth of a fire. They stare outwards past the light into the unknown darkness. The farther edge of light shades unevenly into shadow; yet each person seems to recognize some point on the rim of the circle within which is safety, beyond which is . . . that which is to be feared.”
Children, of course, are afraid of the dark. And many psychologists say that to children, the dark becomes a mirror of the fears they locate within themselves. Dealing with it, with the “monster,” is eased by fairytales. The most widely quoted expert on this subject, Bruno Bettelheim, says that although the anxieties experienced by the child can be graphically pictured in the tale, “these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.”
A more direct evaluation comes from G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
What about adults? What manages our monsters and how do we navigate our darkness? Because, whether it’s the scar of Original Sin or the inability to face our mistakes, or our courtship of what author Saul Bellow would call the Pretender Soul, shadows live within us. The darkness of substance abusers, for example, conceals denial, the defense mechanism that convinces the alcoholic or addict that nothing is wrong, that the drug is not the problem; it’s the solution.
But denial is not the exclusive property of the addict. A 2013 article from Inc.com sees it as
“a vast plane of gray, where people sort of know, deep down, what they need to do but something’s stopping them from doing it. That something is almost always beneath the surface, meaning it isn’t easy to get to and folks will often confound, thwart, or downright resist the effort.”
Writer Paul Jun sees this dark struggle as ego-driven: “fighting against all your adaptive and evolutionary behaviors—your mind is hardwired to protect itself at all times. . . . so instead of expending energy on fruitless actions for the sake of a damaged ego, you pause, reflect, and do what’s best for you.”
Easy for him to say. Because what’s best for you, as Jun agrees, begins with self-awareness, and we all know that’s far from easy. It takes getting to know the person who lives in your darkness—the one who isn’t a monster after all—and asking that person what’s really wrong, refusing to accept excuses or blame other people and no longer trying to please the Pretender Soul. This conversation isn’t open to other people because your feelings are yours. As your identity is yours. Throw the masks away.
Remember Catherine of Siena’s famous saying: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”? We know, don’t we, that God means us to be no one but ourselves, the person we are coming to be. Not anyone else, no matter how perfect.
Maybe the sentinel isn’t watching the darkness for monsters. Maybe he’s really only watching for dawn. For resurrection. This is the season.