The law of growth is rest. We must be content in winter to wait patiently through the long, bleak season in which we experience nothing whatever of the sweetness or realization of the Divine Presence, believing the truth that these seasons, which seem to be the most empty, are the most pregnant with life. It is in them that the Christ-life is growing in us, laying hold of our soil with strong roots thrust deeper and deeper, drawing down the blessed rain of mercy and the sun of eternal love through our darkness, heaviness and hardness, to irrigate and warm those roots. The soil must not be disturbed. ---Caryll Houselander
I love Advent but I have to confess I get a little weary of the repeated invocation of light. Advent is in the darkest part of the year—and if the light is important, so is the dark.
By nature and nurture, I am a winter person, winter in coloring and winter in soul. I live through the long days of summer so that I can enjoy the falling of the leaves and the cold stillness of short days. The dark doesn’t frighten me. I understand the analogy of light and find it beautiful but left to my own repose, I find my peace and comfort at the end, not in the middle, of the day.
I suppose it’s because I know there are two kinds of dark. I know the reality of extinguishing darkness. I know the fears that come scuttling out of my worry-closet in the middle of the night to gnaw at the very core of my peace. I know the fatal darkness of the small hours of the night, when help and hope seem so very far away. Every doctor know that third shift is when people are most likely to die, as though the deepness of the night saps their very life away. I have had my brushes with the dark night of depression and despair and the abyss that the mystics write of.
But that is not the only dark. There’s another kind of dark, warm and enveloping, that nurtures my soul. It’s the twilight dark, when knowing is almost a living thing, like the stars hidden by the brightness of the sun that suddenly appear at dusk and grow stronger as the night deepens. In the gathering darkness, failing light and emerging shadows give new depth and dimension to familiar things. Twilight is the time when frenetic work subsides and there is time to sit and think and enjoy the colors that play out and finally fade on a distant horizon. It heralds a dark in which sounds recede and quiet envelops me, like God, not pursued, or captured, but present just the same.
Light tempts me too much to rely on myself. In the bright light of day, there is always something more to be done, another hour to be filled, another task to be finished, another shortcoming to be amended. Because the pathway for God’s action in my life is through me, I mistake His grace for my own volition, and succumb to the temptation to busy myself in the work of Finding God. Good work, in itself, but ultimately destined for frustration.
Any good scientist knows that as soon as one tries to measure a system, the very act of measuring disturbs the system and makes the measurement inaccurate. So it is in my spiritual life. As soon as I think I have nailed God down in time or place or activity, I find He’s moved—not that He isn’t there, but that He isn’t who I think He is or present in the way I think He is. It is all the result of my trying so hard to pursue God, instead of recognizing that He pursues me. The harder I set myself to find Him, the less likely I am to encounter Him, for resting in God is not a matter of my own work, it is a matter of His.
Fortunately for me, God knows me better than I know myself. He knows that the way to speak to me is not in the frenetic work of the sunlight, but in the quiet shadows of the impending darkness. It used to worry me—and still does, from time to time-- that I do not have that clear, immediate, almost physical sense of God in my life that others speak of. I’ve become accustomed to the sensation, real and pervasive, that my prayers move out from me into a quiet and often unresponsive darkness. But in the shadows of evening, I have found that the darkness is not a void. God is not absent, just talking to me in the way He designed me to hear.
My twilight dark is rich with dimensions, just not the dimensions of day, and the language of the day doesn’t fit, doesn’t do it justice. It is enveloping, keeping me focused on what is at my feet, not something distracting in the distance. It forces me to think and react with all my self, not just that part that sees and hears, and it forces me to slow myself and absorb what the darkness has to reveal before I respond. It is the time and the manner in which by some mysterious combination of will and intellect and spirit, all the thoughts and projects of the day slide into cohesion.
This is my time of year. I prepare for my day in the dark, these days reading my morning office by the candlelight of an Advent wreath. I return, if not in the dark, at least as the sun is slipping away. Even the weather cooperates; the days are more often flat, gray and bound-in than in the summer, blunting the light that seems to lead me astray. And sometimes, it is wonderfully foul.
I arrived home a few nights ago, in the middle of a driving rain, picking my way down the fog-bound road by the light of reflectors in the middle of the road. I wound down my darkened driveway, and was met at the door by my husband. He held a votive light in his hand and it cast a faint, yellow light that spilled across his hands to illuminate the doorway. The power had failed.
I followed him to the living room, where he had a low fire laid, and a few other candles scattered about. We spent the evening curled up before the flames, with wine and cheese and each other, because of the dark. The splendid, liberating, comfortable, loving dark.
I know Christ is the Light, and I eagerly await His coming. But sometimes, I think He comes, not on brilliant clouds, but standing in a murky doorway with a candle to beckon me into a place of comfort and quiet and shadows and rest.