A darkness full of light

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December 22, 2011, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

These are the darkest days.  And they are so full of light. Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, which I regularly refer to as the holiest day of the year for me.

I find the darkness is deeply comforting.  Maybe because I can see all the light and glory that’s contained within it.

I always remember the moment I realized that I loved the darkness.  It was many years ago, in Devember 1996.  I was sitting on the 31st floor of a building downtown, at my first job, and I stood and watched the sun set out a window.  I had an interior office, so maybe I was walking back from the kitchen or the bathroom. I don’t know, but I wasn’t sitting at my own desk which was in a small room with a whiteboard on the wall with a running list of “things you don’t want the bargain version of” (I recall only “surgery” and “sushi”).  I had many hours of work ahead of me; it wasn’t anywhere near the end of my day.  But the sun slipped below the horizon and it was dark.  And I was struck with a powerful sense that this was absolutely okay.  For years the short days had troubled me, and I’d railed against them, but suddenly, that evening, I felt differently.  I was reassured by the dark.  I felt held by it.  I was dazzled by the beauty of the lights that spangled the buildings all around mine.  I also felt a new, bone-deep certainty that the days would lengthen and that the light would come again.  We were just turning, all of us together, the 31st floor, downtown Boston, this state, this country, this world.  Somehow the dark made me feel in a visceral way connected with the world’s population, not just now, but through history.

We are all turning.  And we always have been.  Maybe this essential truth is part of why I’ve had T.S. Eliot’s we must be still and still moving in my mind non-stop for days (well, and the fact that I re-read Four Quartets last week).

People often assume that I find the darkness of the winter difficult and depressing.  Perhaps oddly, I don’t.

That evening so many years ago feels now like a harbinger, like one of those moments when the future glinted through the present like a strand of gold thread running through fabric.  Somehow I sensed then what I know now, that the dark is full of staggering, startling, serendipitous beauty.  These days, I’m certain that without dark light has no meaning.  To see the dark’s glorious, shadowy beauty we have to surrender to it.  We have to let go of our fear of the dark.  We may prefer the light, but the truth is there’s nothing to fear in the dark.  Once we let our eyes get accustomed to it, we can see the treasures that dark can hold.

Light and dark is a theme that runs through my life and which animates much of my writing.  I speak often of the darkness at the heart of the human experience, of the black hole around which my own life circles.  For me, that darkness is impermanence and the unavoidable, brutal truth of life’s brevity. Yet without that darkness, would life’s stunning, breathtaking beauty have as much power.  I doubt it.  The inexorable turning forward of my time on earth is the shadow that hangs over my every day and a truth so blinding that to look directly at it feels like staring into the sun.  Even as I write about embracing darkness in order to see the beauty it contains, the metaphors of light flood in.  But aren’t total darkness and blinding brightness almost the same thing?

Every year light and dark get closer and more interconnected for me, not less.  Every year I feel the rhythms of the earth’s turning and the solstice more keenly.  We are always turning, towards the radiance and away from it, and the subtle changes of light and dark beat somewhere intimate and essential for me, as though in my own bloodstream.

It is Wendell Berry’s lines to which I return in this season, over and over again:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.  To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.


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11 Comments

  1. Posted December 22, 2014 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    So beautiful. I will need to come back and re-read this and pull out passages to write down. I don’t fear the dark but I don’t love it either. I really don’t like the short days and the grey days we have had lately. Perhaps (or rather I am sure!) there is a lesson in my dis-like…

  2. Posted December 22, 2014 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Yes, one foot in the shadows, the other in the light, dancing.

  3. Posted December 22, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I printed this one out and it will be a light in the dark for me this winter. I too love the short days and longer nights and am always conflicted around the holidays because I feel the pull to be internal mixed with the pull to be jolly.

    This piece of writing reads like poetry. Thank you for this, which is so needed on this grey day. I hope the occupation “writer” is fitting you closer now because it is yours.

  4. Posted December 22, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    “…without dark light has no meaning.” Exactly. Beautiful post. Thank you for this. And, also, for sharing the quote by Wendell Berry.

  5. Posted December 22, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Did I show you William Alfred’s gravestone, at the Mt. Auburn? His epitaph is right up there with Look At The Light Of This Hour. WA’s goes thusly:

    There is in God (some say)
    A deep but dazzling darkness-
    O for that night! where I in him
    Might live invisible and dim.

    Love it. And yes, the dark makes the light that much more joyful, same as the cloudy days make those epic blue skies all the more precious.

    Life’s like that…

  6. Posted December 22, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    “Every year light and dark get closer and more interconnected for me, not less.” Yes. I feel the same. I am less scared of my own darkness. I no longer fear being consumed by it. But you only know that by going there, right?;) Lately I have realized that some people in my life may spend their whole lives avoiding their darkness – it is just too scary and unknown. This makes me feel sad, and kind of isolated. Reading this made me feel less alone. So thank you xoxo PS. Four Quartets was a total game changer for me. Joy and peace to you my friend.

  7. Posted December 22, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    “Somehow the dark made me feel in a visceral way connected with the world’s population.” These touchpoints we all share, these realities of the earth that bind us to one another–those moments when it all becomes clear. I live for that, and you write it so beautifully here. And this: “Once we let our eyes get accustomed to it, we can see the treasures that dark can hold.” Oh yes, perfect. This year more than ever, I’ve been embracing the dark, the gray, the turning inward. Feeling more at peace with it all, and I relate to your reflections here on why that may be. I just love this post.

  8. Posted December 22, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    “We may prefer the light, but the truth is there’s nothing to fear in the dark. Once we let our eyes get accustomed to it, we can see the treasures that dark can hold.”

    Wow.

    Your perspective is unique, powerful, and comforting. I always leave here a little more aware, a little more awake than when I arrived. I found that when I stopped fearing my own darkness is when I found the hope that was missing. Thank you for your words that are so rewarding as I read, digest, and ponder them.

  9. Posted December 22, 2014 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    You and I are connected in this across many miles.

  10. Posted December 25, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful. Merry Christmas to you guys!

  11. Posted December 26, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I love that idea of having no fear of the dark, embracing it for what it is and what it can show us. Some of my darkest hours have brought me the greatest light…thank you.