This time of year, as the days shrink and the nights get longer, my family has this thing that’s something between a tradition and a habit. We leave off all the lights at night. We use candles or lanterns when we need them, and though we might use lights sometimes, overall we spend a lot more time in the dark.
For starters, it’s a very different thing to have a conversation in the dark than it is to have a conversation with the lights on: drastically different. But it’s easy to forget that. We spend so little waking time in the dark; and in some cases, so little sleeping time too. Over 100 years ago, the advent of electric light changed the context of our daily experience so fundamentally that we are still catching up to the consequences to our health, our planet, and to our peace of mind.
Among other things, darkness reminds us of our limits, of how little we can actually see with our eyes or know with our minds. In the perpetual artificial daylight of the modern world we can start to believe all the slogans of our egos, and it becomes easy to demonize anyone who disagrees with us. But in darkness our hubris is checked by a vast could of unknowing, and if you can tarry there, all the other coping strategies of the human sojourn are quickly restored: mystery and wonder, humility and humour, fear and faith.
Of course, darkness can only be savoured through direct experience. So as an experiment, consider turning off all the lights tonight and asking yourself: how does this make me feel? How does it change how I think of others, or the world around me? How does it change my perception of God, or Spirit?
For some, any step into the dark is a scary one. Depending on what our hearts project into that darkness, it could be that there are very threatening things out there waiting to get us. This is why so many of us were raised to avoid the dark, either literally (by keeping some degree of light on all the time throughout the night) or figuratively (by always needing to be right, to know; by fooling ourselves into thinking we have all the answers). The result is that we’re terrified by not being able to “see.”
But in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor says that, “Those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God. If we decide to keep going beyond the point where our eyes or minds are any help to us, we may finally arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness…”
So what if we lingered in the dark a little longer this season? What if we allowed the natural rhythms of night and day more sway over our lives? Because when we run from darkness entirely, we don’t learn much about what we’re running from. And if we believe the wisdom of our spiritual tradition, when we turn away from the cloud of unknowing we turn away from the Spirit Counselor and Guide that was promised to us. Because by my reading of him, Jesus doesn’t suggest that God is found in the bright light of bold proclamations and triumphant charges, God is found in the midst of our uncertainty, in the womb of darkness, in the Sacred Mother of Mystery in which all Children of God are actually conceived, nurtured, and delivered. So what if that were true? Let us continue to pray for one another: O Gracious God, be with us in the dark.