A profound reflection from Richard Rohr (in Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer):
I think Jesus’ primary metaphor for the mystery of transformation is the sign of Jonah (Matt. 16:4, 12:39, Luke 11:29). It’s taken on a great significance for me. I was reading the Gospel passage in which Jesus says, “It is an evil and adulterous generation that wants a sign” (Luke 11:29). He said the only sign he will give us is the sign of Jonah. That’s the only sign Jesus offers. Think of all the other signs, apparitions, and miracles that religion looks for and seeks and even tries to create. But Jesus says it is an evil and adulterous generation that looks for these things. That’s a pretty hard saying. He says instead we must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call. That’s the only pattern Jesus promised us. Paul spoke of “reproducing the pattern” of his death and thus understanding resurrection (Phil. 3:11). That teaching will never fail. The soul is always freed and formed in such wisdom. Native religions speak of winter and summer; mystical authors speak of darkness and light; Eastern religion speaks of yin and yang or the Tao. Seasons transform the year; light and darkness transform the day. Christians call it the paschal mystery, but we are all pointing to the necessity of both descent and ascent.
The paschal mystery is the pattern of transformation. We are transformed through death and rising, probably many times. There seems to be no other cauldron of growth and transformation.
We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the great language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out. Answers are not what we are here for. When we look for answers, we’re looking to change the pattern. When we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. The good energy is all in the questions, seldom in the answers. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. Instead we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer.
Simone Weil said, “It is grace that forms the void inside of us and it is grace alone that can fill the void.” Grace leads us to the state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaningless in which we ask, “What is it all for? I don’t want to wake up tomorrow.” A woman called me yesterday whose husband had just died. She could not imagine why she would want to live and couldn’t imagine how it would ever be different again. All I could do was just tell her, “Believe me, believe me.” She said, “I’ll trust you.” I told her, “Some day this immense bottomless pit of pain will go away.”
It should be the work of Christians who believe in the paschal mystery to help people when they are being led into the darkness and the void. The believer has to tell those in pain that this is not forever; there is a light and you will see it. This isn’t all there is. Trust it. Don’t try to rush through it. We can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it. That means that in our life we have some blue days or dark days. Historic cultures saw it as the time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. It becomes sacred space, and yet this is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God who works in the darkness—where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret.