Images of Darkness

 

This is the second sermon addressing the theme “What would it mean to live as people of LIGHT”

As part of the service I shared a reading by Vernette Suoerville, a Trinidadian blogger.  You can read it here.

Sermon

Just before the winter solstice I preached on darkness.  I offered a reading by Jacqui James.  It is part of our worship theme guide e-mailed to most of you just before the start of the year. She noted that our culture celebrates the light and denigrates the dark in the most frequent uses of our metaphors.

Blackmail, blacklist, black mark. Black Monday, black mood, black-hearted. Black plague, black mass, black market.

Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black. We fear black cats, and the Dark Continent. But it’s okay to tell a white lie, lily-white hands are coveted, it’s great to be pure as the driven snow. Angels and brides wear white. Devil’s food cake is chocolate; angel’s food cake is white!

She suggested that this is a problem:

We shape language and we are shaped by it. In our culture, white is esteemed. It is heavenly, sunlike, clean, pure, immaculate, innocent, and beautiful. At the same time, black is evil, wicked, gloomy, depressing, angry, sullen. Ascribing negative and positive values to black and white enhances the institutionalization of this culture’s racism.

In that sermon Embracing the Dark I mostly wrote about overcoming fear of and distaste for the dark.  Today I want to follow up by offering some positive images and a bit of rethinking about light and dark. But first’ let’s talk about why having both is necessary and helpful in our spiritual lives.

Thomas Moore- the former monk, psychologist, author and lecturer has long been a favourite of mine.  In one of his first works Care of the Soul he wrote about our western cultural addiction to light.  That’s his term- addiction.

He suggested that everything in our society drives us towards bigger, better, newer, shinier.  We are supposed to be pursuing and growing bright spirits (which he contrasts to soul – I’ll look at that in a moment).  The spirit time is the big high, the ‘a-ha’ of discovery and accomplishment, the bubbles in the champagne.  As a society we want that, we crave that, perhaps are even addicted to that.  Concomitantly, we despise the fallow time when nothing seems to be happening.

 

Vernette Superville gave a wonderful illustration of that in our reading when, with desperation, she wrote of running after the light with increasing frustration, decreasing success and too much ice cream.  We get impatient and edgy in the fallow dark.  Instead, countless articles and ads promote, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the race” as the old song suggests.  Higher, faster, stronger.  Heck even the phrase ’24-7’ is a product of this non-stop quest for the light.  We should always be growth-focused, trying for a personal best, reaching for the stars, heading towards the light.  It’s exhausting just reading the list!  In this driven cultural identity there is no time for rest and renewal and reflection.

But Moore argues that such a perpetual peripatetic pursuit is out of whack and unsustainable.  Spirit must be balanced with soul.  Soul lives and grows in the dark, the quiet, the peaceful, the contemplative time. Soul is the complement of spirit.  Complement…complete-ment.  You can’t have one without the other.

Moore introduced me to the ancient meditative cycle.  In virtually all the religions and spiritual practices there is a remarkably similar approach to mysticism and spirituality.  Whether it is a simple act of prayer, a worship service, a dedicated meditation or a long term therapy we follow this four stage model – often unconsciously.  And because it is so ancient and a part of us, it should be no surprise that this process follows the natural cycles of the seasons.

It has been described in many ways- mostly similar.  Here is one:

Engagement, Subsidence, Fallowness, Rebirth…Or perhaps you would prefer Sustaining, Emptying, Contemplation, Re-engagement.

As I say, there are many.  This is what they try to capture: Engagement describes the summer part of the cycle. It equates to living in the light, the high time of spirit.  We are enjoying the fruits of creativity, working with satisfaction, savouring our pleasures, not questioning or challenging very much.  But we can only live in this time of light for so long.  It does not last.

Then comes the autumn and the wheel begins it’s inexorable turning.  The pleasures of summer are ending or we are merely growing bored with them.  Maybe adversity comes our way in some form.  What has been good gets called into question – or is taken from us.  We wonder if we are in the right job, the right relationship the right city. Perhaps there is a health challenge or a life challenge.  What was good starts to break down.  The future does not look so bright and we aren’t sure what to do about it.  There might even be a touch of desperation or panic.  It’s the autumn, the time of subsidence, of falling leaves, of sinking.  The wheel of the year is turning.  Things are being lost to us.  We are shifting from the time of spirit into the time of soul.

The wheel keeps turning and we come to the cold and dark of winter, the fallow time.  We are faced with our losses.  There is grief in the shadows.  The seeds of growth – of what comes next- are there, but they are resting, not ready to sprout yet.  This is the soul-time.  It’s dark and quiet.  Thomas More contends that our culture trains us to be afraid of this time, to be impatient with it, to want to fly south as quickly as we can for as long as we can to escape this time and chase the sun and the spirit again.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Whether it’s grief, or rest from the pursuit of the spirit, we need to give the soul time to develop and show us its gifts.  We need to embrace the darkness.  As Ms. Supervise wrote, “It balances the light.”

The next turning of the wheel is the spring time return towards light and warmth and spirit.  It is the period of Rebirth.  It is the most exciting part of the cycle, a kind of reward for sitting patiently in the dark.  It is the time when those seeds that have lain dormant burst forth.  We are at our most creative in this time.  The colours are brighter, the ideas seem fresh and new, love is in the air, the spirit lifts us toward the light again.

And then the cycle begins again: Engagement, Subsidence, Fallowness, Rebirth

For the cycle to be full and fulfilling, we need to give each of these seasons, each of these stops along the way their proper due.  As a minister I cannot tell you how many people I have known who, having suffered loss, grew impatient with the demands of their grief.  Our hatred of the fallow time is so deeply ingrained.  No one teaches us how to sit in the dark period…just sit and wait for the fallow time to end.  No one teaches us truly how to pray in a way that lets go of our troubles. No one teaches how to wait patiently for grace to come to us. We struggle with seeing this time of shade – of confusion and sadness, we struggle to see it as the precious gift it is.  It is a spacious place with room for contemplation and discernment.

Instead we want to listen to the siren song of spirit and crawl back into the light as fast as we can.  That’s when we get psychically distressed and perhaps eat too much ice cream.  The soul can grow sick. That will just compound the problems we are already having.

We use all kinds of strategies to escape the darkness: travel, over booking ourselves in a furious round of activity, diving into work, self-medicating with alcohol or pharmaceuticals or food, sex, or even exercise.  They are all attempts to mask the pain and turn on the lights in the spacious shadow time.

I think that’s a mistake.  There is a lot to love in the darkness.  So let’s rethink some of those images.

We gestate in darkness.  Each of us began in our mother’s wombs.  We spent many months going from helpless seed to a being capable of sustaining life on our own.  Sound and sensation were muted, soft.  Like a seed in soil we slowly became ourselves.  We were allowed to develop in quiet, enfolding darkness.

Later in life we were taught that the dark could be a dangerous place, but our first experience of the shadow was as haven, as home.  We floated and we grew in peace.

There is something deep inside us that calls us back to that place.  Most of us return each night  to the dark when we go to bed.  How many of us see our bedrooms as a special place of sanctuary? I know I always have.  It is the home inside the home, a very special, private place.  Only my true intimates are allowed in there.

In the bedroom we shut out- turn away from the light.  The light is distracting, disturbing.  It calls us up into the world of duties and responsibilities and busyness.  A light on in the bedroom after our bedtime is usually a sign of anxiety and distress, or maybe it’s been turned back on because of a crying baby, an illness, some discomfort intruding on our rest.  At night we shut out the light and return to that unconscious place of rest and safety and peace.  It is this time in the womb of darkness that restores us reinvigorates us, literally returns us to life.

And so the darkness can be a symbol of rest, renewal and rebirth.

The dark is also place of focused creativity for us and others.  There are fewer interruptions in the dark, fewer distractions.  The dark steals our sight, or at least limits it.  The things that catch our eyes in the light of day recede in the shadows.  Go to a theatre or concert hall.  What happens as the performance is about to begin?  They turn down the house lights, sometimes fading completely to black.  It’s a reminder that this is now a different place, a place of magic and creative expression, a place of arts unleashed.  We are asked to quiet ourselves and let go of the day.  We are asked to focus on the performance and experience what’s on offer.  Have you ever wandered past a street performer or busker.  Some of them are very talented, but it’s hard to pay them careful attention, for they are working in daylight where a hundred others things are demanding our focus.  In the dark, we are free to embrace art.

That’s not the only thing we embrace, for the darkness is often the place of lovers.  Freed from work and prying eyes, the darkness give some of us the time and space for intimacy.  Once again there is a freedom to focus on another person, to give and take pleasure, to murmur rather than declaim, to speak with rare freedom in the quiet voices of intimacy.  We converse with our loved ones at other times too, but there is something special about conversations that take place in the dark.  They even sound different.

Of course this delicious intimacy is not just about sex.  Remember being a child and lying outside staring up at the stars while wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags?  Perhaps there were siblings, or parents, or pets or best friends forever cuddled next to us.  I suspect few of us remember the content of the quiet conversations we had in the dark, but I bet we remember what they felt like.

Of course I must acknowledge that for some the dark was and remains a frightening place.  Under cover of darkness some terrible things happen when predators take advantage of that peaceful, trustful time and place.  I have nothing but contempt for those violations and must struggle to find compassion for the violators.  I have never experienced it myself, and cannot imagine what it’s like.  But I feel sadness for those who have the comfort of the dark stolen from them.

The dark, the shadowy, the night-filled is also a place of release, for it is the time of dreaming.  The world of light is the world of the conscious, the rational.  It’s planned and scheduled and filled with commitments, some pleasurable others less so.

The world of shadows is the place of the unconscious and the subconscious.  It is the place where the marvellously non-rational story spinner in our brains plays out the joys and concerns we often suppress when awake and in control.  Our dreams, remembered or not, are the playground of the unconscious, the movie screen on which the stories of our deepest feelings are played out in technicolour metaphors.  Fantastic characters, amazing images or sometimes just a play of mundane things or people in wrong places.

It is in this kind of darkness where we can meet and manage our fears.  A mentor of mine,  dream teacher Jeremy Taylor likes to say, “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.”  Likes to say?  Loves to say!  It is his mantra.

The subconscious dresses up our concerns and our fears in ways that make them manageable.  It sometimes sends them to us time and time again until we are ready to deal with the content.  For some, dreams can be a struggle, but if that’s you, remember, it is yourself healing yourself in the safest possible place – night sweats notwithstanding.

“All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.”

And sometimes they reveal to us our own creativity.  They give us room to learn what major decisions our hearts want us to make.  That’s why some people often choose to “Sleep on it.”

No image, no metaphor will serve every person.  The events of some people’s lives will make the dark less safe and less comforting than for others. But I have tried to present some images that reclaim the darkness.  I believe deeply, with Thomas Moore, Vernette Superville and Jeremy Taylor, that we need to welcome the soulful dark, and the dream time in order to find our completeness.  The darkness is neither bad nor good on its own.  Like many things in life, it will be what we make of it.  But we might all wish to become aware of how much our culture teaches us to be wary of the dark.  I stand with Jacqui James in saying we can remind ourselves of the cultural and racial bias that inappropriately links dark with evil.

We need not surrender our love of the light, the spirit, the sun, the candle.  Just let us remember that it’s okay to love the dark as well.