“Luminous Darkness”

Epiphany 5A
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:13-16

Who among those who have read the gospels does not know that Christ has made all human suffering his own?

Origen, “On Prayer”

On Sunday, when I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, my breath caught a little. I didn’t know him, of course, though I’ve admired every performance of his I’ve seen. (Oh, the power of cinema to make us feel like we know the actors we love—indeed to make us love them in the first place.) Hoffman was an actor of astonishing intuition and virtuosity. As one writer put it, “he could nail a part in one punch, summoning the richness of an entire life in the smallest gesture.”

It would be tempting to narrate Hoffman’s all too brief life and tragic death within the tired tropes of celebrity culture (money can’t buy you love; movie stars are desperately lonely people) but, thankfully, I’ve seen none of that in the moving tributes I’ve read to Hoffman’s life and art.

In particular, James Martin, SJ, recalls spending time with Hoffman in preparation for the off-Broadway production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot:

Phil, as everyone called him, projected a unique blend of relaxed intensity as a director . . . He approached the text with an almost scholastic seriousness, carefully attending to every line in the script . . . From time to time, to illustrate a thorny point, or to describe the emotion that might underlie a scene, he would offer a story from his own life. “Did you ever have this experience?” Phil would ask, and recount a tale illustrating despair, or hope, or joy, or betrayal or trust . . . When I asked Phil Hoffman about his directing style on “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” he readily agreed with the inherent strength of the parable—or, in his words, the personal anecdote—in its ability to communicate more than a strictly worded directive . . . In Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not follow was always that person’s own decision.

For all that was luminous about Philip Seymour Hoffman—his generosity and kindness, his immense talent—he, like all of us, struggled against darkness. His was in the form of an opiate addiction that he would not conquer. But also in his art, he revealed the “luminous darkness” of the human condition.  “He could take the most pitiful souls,” writes Ryan Gilbey, “and imbue each of them with a wrenching humanity. The more pathetic or deluded the character, the greater Hoffman’s relish seemed in rescuing them from the realms of the merely monstrous.”

* * * * *

You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others.

When Jesus speaks these familiar words about salt and light in Matthew 5, they come immediately on the heels of the familiar Beatitudes (last week’s lectionary Gospel reading for Epiphany 4). For those who celebrated the feast of the Presentation of the Lord last Sunday, we have no liturgical continuity with these two parts of chapter five. But it is important, I think, to hold the entirety of the passage in view.

What Jesus blesses in the first part of the chapter are not moral states he expects us to achieve—be meek! be peacemakers!—but the conditions of our shared life as we acknowledge loss and lack (poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness) and as we seek to flourish together in the goodness of God (mercy, purity of heart, peaceableness, and persecution for the sake of the gospel). In the first two Beatitudes, especially, as Frederick Dale Bruner notes, “Jesus puts himself on the side of outsiders, of those who aren’t doing very well.” Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn—the wounded, the weary, the broken, the broken-hearted, and all “those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it” (Richard Rohr).

In Jesus’ own broken-heartedness—when he mourns his friend, Lazarus, for instance, or when he weeps over Jerusalem before his own death—he reveals the way of blessedness and shows us something of God’s own heart for the world God loves. And he makes all suffering his own.

So when Jesus says, immediately after offering these gentle benedictions on mourning and meekness and such, “let your light shine,” he isn’t giving a pep talk. This isn’t a motivational speech. Richard Rohr has suggested that “Jesus is a teacher of vulnerability, more than anything else.” If this is true, then Jesus is “inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties [and] to make ourselves a gift of unbounded love” (Pope Benedict). We witness this in artists—broken and broken-hearted and darkly luminous though they may be. And we seek to bear witness to it in our own lives.

In this season of light and in all the seasons of our lives we wrestle and rage against the darkness, trusting that it is in and through our struggles and fears, our confusion and doubt, our loss and lack that we can be—that we can have any hope of being—salt and light in this world.


4 Responses to ““Luminous Darkness””

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  1. A recovering alcoholic told me years ago that she maintained her sobriety by reminding herself constantly that life is just a tad more beautiful than it is painful. As you probably know, walking with people on that razor edge is spiritually and emotionally draining, but also mysteriously inspiring. It is about as close to understanding Jesus’ struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane as I suppose I will ever get. Thanks for another insightful piece.

  2. J. Stephen Jorge says:

    Thanks for writing this piece. Hoffman’s life and death rocked me. I found Richard Rohr’s writing daily meditations quite helpful in sorting out my own thoughts and feelings in mourning. I found some solace in writing a short story as a tribute…ended up calling it Luminous Darkness. That is quite a powerful phrase for those who feel broken. Glad it see it echoes with others too!

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