At Rothko Chapel: Darkness Shall be the Light

by Natalie LaValley

The Rothko Chapel in Houston is an octogonal structure with no electric lights, only a thin skylight. Speaking inside is prohibited. All around the chapel’s interior, modernist painter Mark Rothko hung enormous rectangular canvases painted with black, maroon, and dark purple. In the chapel’s dim light, the paintings essentially form a black wall. Underneath the layer of dark maroons and purples, Rothko had first covered the canvases in vibrant hues. If you sit in the chapel long enough for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, you may begin to see faint colors emerging from the canvases. These colors change with the time of day and the season.

Some say this chapel is a statement of nihilism. A few years ago, I would have been torn between agreeing that it is anti-Christian while feeling that it says something true. This conflict, which I felt about dark films and novels as well, began to resolve, however, when I learned about the via negativa.

I first heard of the via negativa while studying T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. A passage from “East Coker” states,

            I said to my soul, wait without hope,

            For hope would be hope of the wrong thing; wait without love,

            For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith,

            But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

            Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

            So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

This bumped hard against my more fundamentalist Christian thinking. These lines didn’t sound right. In a classroom discussion of the poem, a professor explained the ancient Christian tradition of the via negativa. Similar to the Jewish way of omission, the via negativa (or “negative way”) describes a thing by saying what it is not. Most specifically, Christians use it to describe God by denying the finite attributes we often ascribe to Him. For example, this way of thinking is characteristic of apophatic theology. In an apophatic meditation, you might say a positive statement about God, negate that statement, and then negate the negated statement. God is merciful. God is unmerciful. God is not unmerciful.

Yes, this theology is uncomfortable, even painful. It acknowledges that God transcends reason and language. It tears down every image we make of God, even our words.

Apophatic theology is still part of Eastern church tradition, but it doesn’t jive well with the rationality of the Western mind. Also kept mostly in the Eastern church is the idea that you might become even more unified with God in “the dark night of the soul” than through the experiences of joy that come from His manifesting Himself in the finite realm. You certainly will not find the dark night of the soul in popular contemporary worship (unless the song is about God ending a dark night). Take these lyrics from “I Will Exalt”:

             Your presence is all I need

            It’s all I want, all I seek

            Without it there’s no meaning.

            Your presence is the air I breathe

            The song I sing, the love I need

            Without it, without it I’m not living

Perhaps the phrase “Your presence” is a synecdoche and meant to represent God in His wholeness. But in other similar songs, it is abundantly clear that the lyrics describe the experience of God’s presence (or the manifestation thereof, since God is always present) rather than God Himself. Of course, some Psalms do this, too. The troubling part is the implication in some popular worship that these experiences are all we seek from God, and life is meaningless without them.

I have had many powerful experiences of God’s supernatural peace and joy, and I understand the sentiment of these songs. In fact, for a period of my life, I received the blessings of profound peace every time I prayed earnestly for them. However, during a later crisis in my life (a mental breakdown, actually), I did not receive that blessing. I prayed for it, I worshiped on my knees, I submitted myself to God. No peace came. During an earlier traumatic period of my life in high school, I had made a commitment to believe, whatever else happened, that God is good. And by good, I meant the transcendental Good itself, not “God is nice to me.” During my breakdown, I held to that commitment, even though any feeling or idea of goodness was the furthest thing from my panic-attacked brain. With mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety on such an unprecedented rise, I think many people can relate to experiences like this.

Which leads me back to this difficult fact: after he finished his paintings for the chapel, Rothko committed suicide. It’s nice to think that he was teaching us that in the darkness you will always begin to see the light. But what if you don’t? What if you sit in the darkness and wait, but only the darkness comes to you? What if you reach out for something and grasp nothing? Such can be the experience of deep depression. The worst part of darkness is its monotony. It stays and stays until it seems that your only escape from it is the escape from consciousness itself. In these times, you fear for your life.

When God did not meet my prayers with comfort and peace, my only anchor was discipline. If my own brain could not reason, and I could not trust my own thoughts, much less my emotions, trying to think positively or feel love was fruitless. For me, the best advice came from the character of Samuel in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Samuel speaks with a man who is deeply depressed after his wife betrayed him. After Samuel realizes that the man has hardly moved for years, even neglecting his two infant sons, he instructs him, “Go through the motions of living, until it becomes true.”

Even when you cannot take control over your mind and emotions, you can usually control the motion of your muscles. Sometimes it is all right to go through the motions of faith, when that is all you can do. When the heart and the mind are bound in a place you cannot reach, the actions are the faith. And thus ritual, called legalism by many Christians, can become your lifeline. I would tell myself: Kneel. Say this prayer. Read this Psalm. Say more prayers. Speak them out loud. It doesn’t matter that you don’t want to. It doesn’t matter that you don’t feel God. Repeat this prayer, time it to your breath, time it to your steps, say it all day long. Repeat it round and round until the sound rings in your head and drowns out everything else.

A much more compelling example than mine: about thirty years ago in Soviet Russia, Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Russian Orthodox, was thrown in a solitary punishment cell and starved. The hunger and solitude took a terrible toll on his mind; he had hallucinations and suicidal despair. He began to say the Jesus prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He spoke the words in rhythm with his breath and his steps as he paced his cell (that is, when the guards didn’t fill the cell with sewage so he could not lie down for days). He spoke no other words until this prayer became ingrained in his consciousness. The prayer did not stop his health from declining, but the self-imposed discipline apparently preserved a piece of his sanity. After his release, Alexander went on to play a remarkable role in the Peaceful Revolution, and today he runs charities to help prisoners and vulnerable girls stay off the streets.

Spiritual discipline, in conjunction with the via negativa, keeps me from saying that life is meaningless, even when I do not feel God’s presence. My feelings do not determine reality. Even my brain can break. Every avenue through which I once knew God has led me at some point into darkness. But the terror of darkness makes me aware of what God is not, and thus the words of 1 John 1:5 gain all the more potency: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you: that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”

When I cannot conjure hope or love or faith, when I cannot even think, I can wait. I know from Job that God has not necessarily withdrawn from me because I did something wrong. Perhaps God no longer appears as my bedroom-sized idol or inside my cozy prayer-closet temple so that He can be His infinite Self. But that is already too much trying to understand; I am not ready for thought. This I still believe: God is good, and God is present, even when my finite senses cannot grasp it.

            Where can I go then from your Spirit?

            where can I flee from your presence?

            If I climb up to heaven, you are there;

            if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.


            If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me,

           and the light around me turn to night,”

           Darkness is not dark to you;

           the night is as bright as the day;

          darkness and light to you are both alike.

The Psalter 139:6-7, 10-11

Natalie LaValley is studying filmmaking and writing at HBU and works in communications and marketing. She thrives on coffee, tea, and great conversations.

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