I was once dismissed by a creative writing teacher for my love of all things Star Wars.
“There’s no nuance in those stories,” he claimed, waving his hand about. “The villains are all wearing black. It’s called the dark side of the Force. You’re either evil or you’re good. What kind of story is that? How do the characters grow and change?”
I was in high school at the time, attending a weeklong writing workshop, highly impressionable and hoping to learn how to turn my fantasy stories into real-life, paper-and-bound books.
Clearly, we were off to a bad start.
But a lot of time has passed since that fateful day — and I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing on spirituality and Star Wars — and honestly, I don’t think that guy actually saw any of the movies.
Take the scene from “Empire Strikes Back” when Yoda sends Luke into the cave on the swamp planet, Dagobah. Luke is apprehensive, uncertain, and cautiously wanders into the dark and shadows. What is he supposed to learn here? What is the old green Jedi master trying to teach him?
Luke turns a corner and who should appear but our nemesis, a vision of Darth Vader. And yes, he – the villain – is wearing black.
Our hero wastes no time. That blue laser sword ignites to parry its red opponent, and Luke swings it at Vader. Clash! Buzz! Zip! Sparks fly as Luke strikes Vader’s helmet.
Success! Luke has struck down this vision of darkness. Our hero – clad in white – has defeated the villain cloaked in black. It turns out that creative writing teacher was right and — WAIT, WHAT’S THIS?!
Vader’s helmet rolls across the cavern floor and EXPLODES, revealing not the face of a monster but that of Luke himself.
If you’ve seen the original Star Wars trilogy — and if you haven’t, I mean, c’mon, spoiler alert for the 40-year-old film, “Return of the Jedi” — then you know that the resolution to this supposedly cut and dry, dark versus light story isn’t the defeat of Vader. Luke has his chance to strike the villain down, but he doesn’t take it.
Instead, he learns from that experience in the cave. He learns that, in fact, the fulfilment of his own so-called destiny isn’t as obvious as beating the supposed villain. He doesn’t take a life; he saves it. He recognizes that even in this archetypal villain, good remains.
In his rules for discernment, St. Ignatius of Loyola writes:
“It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. …he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares.” (SE 332)
I’m no Jedi — and I bet you aren’t one, either. But still, we find ourselves casting about in a world marked not by clearly defined signposts, one leading to the light side and the other to the dark, but instead a world muddled with gray and nuance and crying out for discernment.
Before we swing our own proverbial lightsabers at the foe we’ve identified in front of us, we might do well to pause, to pray, to wonder with God if we’re not instead being invited to participate in the work of redemption.
To wonder if our own ongoing efforts to slash and burn and beat back those who stand in our way is in fact not a trick of the evil spirit.
So, this week, whether or not you’re celebrating Star Wars Day on May the Fourth — and for the record, I definitely am — I invite you to pay closer attention to the spirits at work in your own life, the pull of the dark side and the light.
What might you learn in the depths of your own inner cave?
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here.