For over 2000 years Japanese women, known as ama, have descended to depths of over 30m underwater, in a single breath lasting over two minutes, in search of pearls. They descend into the darkness where all colour has vanished. Only silence, shadows and outlines remain. It is a place of extreme cold and danger where few ever venture. They do it 100-150 times a day, and continue into their eighties, needing to retrieve a ton of oysters in their nets to find four or five decent pearls. Not many of us will ever experience the physical and physiological hardship of such a way of life.
But many of us do experience the depth of darkness of physical or emotional pain, loneliness, loss, or other forms of suffering. It can seem like a place without end, without hope, devoid of joy or happiness, no ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, just continual darkness. For some, the weight of bearing pain, or caring for others, can be relentless, lasting for years, For others, traumatised by experiences of years ago, or who have suffered abuse of one form or another, it can seem like being trapped in a suffocating cage from which there is no way out.
Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, grapples with the depths on his own failure as a human being. Although he begins with a summary of the mess the world is in (chapter 1), describing our struggles with fallenness, he descends further and further into the darkness of our own, and ultimately his, sinful nature (chapter 7) – “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
It is true that he passes the beautiful corals of Christ’s work on his way down (chapters 5 and 6), and they hint at the treasure below. But he must make that descent himself first, before he can find the pearl of great price for which he seeks in the darkness of his innermost despair.
The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 8th Sunday after Trinity (2023) can be found here.