Back-story on “Enclosed in Darkness”

Writing on the theme of being “fenced in” had a strong attraction for me, as it gave me the chance to revisit two compelling books I read years ago.

More than twenty years ago, a friend handed me a copy of Margaret Spufford’s book, Celebration: a Story of Suffering and Joy, of which I had never heard but which I read at once. And then read again.

A kind of memoir of enduring unendurable pain, Dr. Spufford’s story would seem almost too terrible to read, and in some ways so it was. But the grace she found in her own suffering is so luminous that her account of it both broke my heart and strengthened it.

There is nowhere we can go, she reminds us—there is no suffering so intense, so enclosing-in-darkness—that God cannot find us in it. There is no fence, no wall, which can keep God out.

In celebrating this truth she found in the bedrock of her own pain, Dr. Spufford tells the poignant story (which, like hers, was new to me) of Robert Aske, the idealistic and courageous man who led a doomed rebellion against Henry VIII’s ruthless dissolution of the monasteries. Aske was betrayed by those he trusted, hanged alive in chains from the keep of York Castle, and left to die.

In the worst of her own suffering, and her struggle to keep her focus on the suffering God who promised to companion her through all her dyings, Dr. Spufford was inspired by Robert Aske’s story, as told by H. F. M. Prescott, in her remarkable novel, The Man on a Donkey.

Dr. Spufford salutes Prescott’s description of Robert Aske’s death as a tremendous evocation of suffering and redemption “at an unpayable cost, at a level of pain where the unimaginable worst has indeed come true, and the victim has not been delivered.” But in the white-hot crucible of that moment, in equally unimaginable silence and light, Aske finds the Crucified One by his side.

As does Dr. Spufford.

And so may we.

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Deborah’s article “Enclosed in Darkness (But Not Alone),” can be found on pages 27-33 in the “Fenced In” issue of
Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. XXVI, No. 1. Order Weavings subscriptions or single issues.

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