“I have been one acquainted with the night.”
-Robert Frost (1874-1963)
I am writing this as a part of Addie Zierman’s synchro-blog in support of her new book. I have not read it, but many pieces on her blog have resonated with me, including this challenge: “What have you learned from the dark?”
Darkness is familiar to me. Not quite an old friend, perhaps, but certainly an acquaintance of long standing. Many days I wish it weren’t so, but thus far, God has been content to keep us close. I suffer from depression, and probably have for years. I have been on mediation for twenty years, and it did not go well when I tried to not take them.
Like many, I found the religious culture of my youth inadequate to address the darkness. I was told to pray more, to seek deliverance, or claim freedom from the spirit of depression, as if I were demon-possessed. I ended up at a Christian college on a scholarship for Christian leadership, not certain I believed in God.
Here, then, is the first lesson I learned in the dark: God is there, too. Far from a static object of our quest or adoration, or indeed, some great, divine, Sugar Daddy, God is present and at work always, in the dark, as much as in the light. Graham Greene’s semi-autobiographical novel, The End of the Affair, uses its title as a pun. It is about the end of an affair conducted by the narrator, but as the story unfolds, we see the second meaning: the narrator slowly becomes aware that he is being silently, but relentlessly pursued by a Divine Lover, who will not rest until He possesses him, body and soul. That is certainly the God I found, or rather that found me, in the dark.
My act of teenaged rebellion was becoming Presbyterian, for I found myself connecting more with the older liturgies of the church. Light and Dark play an important role, and we are beginning Holy Week, when this is played out in dramatic fashion. During the course of the Tenebrae service on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, one by one the lights of the church go out until, with the loud cry of “It is finished!” the sanctuary goes completely dark.
The darkness continues until Easter. For three days Christ lay in the darkness of the tomb. Like the Disciples, we wait. The wait can seem long and hard. But even in the darkness, unseen and unfelt, Christ is at work. I am the grass. Let me work.
As the story of Christ “ends” in darkness, so it begins. In Advent, we start in darkness and silence. The minister strikes a match, it hisses and sizzles to life, piercing the darkness, as it moves to a candle, wavers and catches, spreading the light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the minister intones, quoting the words of Isaiah 9:2, “they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
We need darkness to see the light. It is part of the cycle of life. In human terms, we rest when it’s dark. And perhaps in our darkness, God is calling us to rest, too. We find it so hard. We cannot see, and any action is as likely to end in a collision or a stumbling. We can only trust the God who hides in light as well as dark. We are at an end of ourselves, and it is terrifying.
Yet we are not alone. The other lesson I have learned is that there are others in the darkness. Some have passed before, others are with us now, and we need them. God connects us in the darkness in ways that He cannot in the light. We wrestle with God, and like Jacob, we bear the marks, and we can spot a fellow survivor. Those who have accompanied us into the darkness will stick with us in the light.
Our days consist of darkness and light. Any practice of faith that will only recognize one is incomplete at best, and false at worst. And there was evening, and there was morning, and so it goes.
I love old hymns. At their best, they hold a richness of faith and experience. And so, as I close, an evening hymn seems most apt.
All praise to thee, my God, this night, for all the blessings of the light! Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings.
Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done, that with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.
Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the judgment day.
O may my soul on thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close, sleep that may me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake.
When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest.
O when shall I, in endless day, For ever chase dark sleep away, And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee, eternal King?
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; praise him, all creatures here below; praise him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
-Thomas Ken (1637-1711)