Thursday, December 21, 2006


This morning I rose especially early and managed to make it to church several minutes before anyone else (the church is in a safe area, so it's left unlocked). It was wonderful to pray in the darkness with only the company of the vigil lamp and our Lord. Eventually others filtered in, but what really ruined the solitude was the old guy who switches on the lights. I'm sure he does it in all innocence. In our electrified world, no one remembers the value of darkness.

Having just posted on nothingness, it is appropriate to ponder darkness. Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice, the day that the sun stands still and turns back from its southward journey to begin its climb to the north. The day is shortest and the night longest. NPR had a great little segment this morning on our civilization's lamentable eradication of darkness:

Our brighter world also affects sleep patterns. Ekirch says the standard of eight continuous hours is a modern invention. Before artificial light, he says, Western Europeans slept in stages.

"The average person slept for three or four hours, awoke for an hour or more of quiet wakefulness and then returned for a second round of sleep, he says.

That wakeful period provided a time to think, or pray, or ponder dreams while they were still vivid, Ekirch says.

Artificial light also can affect hormones. For example, it can suppress the production of melatonin, which seems to affect both sleep and the immune system

Given this interstitial period of wakefulness, rising to pray the office of Vigils wouldn't have been violent to natural sleep patterns as it might seem at first glance.

In the usual traditional symbolism (exemplified in St. John's writings), light symbolizes goodness and darkness evil.1 But like any analogy, it has its limits. There are ways in which darkness is superior to light. Darkness allows us to push away the distractions and busy-ness of life and to focus on what's most important. In Charles Peguy's Portal of the Mystery of Hope, God praises his creation Night2:

Night is what is continuous. Night is the fabric
Of time, the reservoir of being.


O Night, o my daughter Night, the most religious of all my daughters.

The most reverent.

Of all my daughters, of all my creatures, the most abandoned into my hands.

You glorify me in Sleep even more than your Brother, Day, glorifies me in Work.

Because in work, man only glorifies me in his work.

Whereas in sleep it is I who glorify myself by man's surrender.


O beautiful night, night of the great mantle, my daughter of the starry mantle

You remind me, myself, you remind me of the great silence that existed

Before I had unlocked the firmament of ingratitude.

And you proclaim, even to me, you herald to me the silence that will exist

After the end of man's reign, when I will have reclaimed my scepter.

And sometimes I think about it ahead of time, because this man really makes a lot of noise.


1. There are of course exceptions in which darkness has a connection with God, as in Psalm 18. Not to mention the "still, small voice" that Elijah recognizes as the Lord's.

2. This section of the poem is so lovely that at some point I'll have to post a longer excerpt. Maybe next year.

Jon Hamilton, "Is a Brighter Earth a Better One?" NPR Morning Edition (December 21, 2006).

Charles Peguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's, 1996), 130, 132, 136. Another edition available here.


Anonymous said...

Hi LG:
     Good post.
     Darkness is not a real being but a being of reason—it is the absence or privation (total or partial) of light.—darkness is one mode of being, light is another. When we say, “the sky is dark,” we do not really mean the very beingness of the sky is darkness, rather, we mean there is not much light: when we say “the sky is dark” we do not mean the sky IS dark. We do not sense darkness—we sense a lack of a real being, i.e., light. That’s the geek in me speaking…
     … I say this not at all to criticize what you wrote (which I thought was quite good). Rather, it’s to bring out how I like to understand votive candles or vigil lamps. It’s especially interesting during Advent, when there is more and more darkness (err, I mean, less and less light), and yet on a weekly basis the Advent candles increase the light. The symbolism is breath-taking if you think about.
     The light of the vigil lamp can hardly be seen when the “lights” are turned on. Darkness helps me to center on that light… and beyond to that which it symbolizes. Who saw the Star of Bethlehem? The shepherds who kept watch over their flocks by night, i.e., “in” darkness. Who missed the Star of Bethlehem? Those in the brightly-lit taverns or palaces or those too caught up in their own self-created “lights” that rationalized away the “extra bright” star. Will one find a vigil lamp or votive candle among the secular slef-proclaimed “Brights”? Hardly. Darkness can come when we let certain objects of the mind cast shadows—blocking the Light… but that is a foul kind of darkness. Darkness also comes when we run away from the Light into our own shadows… but that is also a foul kind of darkness. The darkness of the church, however, permits holiness to be seen by those who seek it—the darkness of the church is a removal of the “extra” distracting lights. Why is it sometimes so difficult to find God—who is admittedly shrouds Himself in silence and darkness? Because we drown Him out with our own artificial lights and cacophony of shrill sounds (which Peguy’s poem nicely captures): we find it so hard to be still and quiet in the darkness… when He asks us to “be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
     Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Further discussion here.