Joyful is the Dark

EagleWe are in the dark season. The sun hangs low in New England’s southern sky, arching quickly along the horizon through the course of each short December day. A few brown leaves still cling to branches on otherwise barren trees. Snow flurries. Storms loom. Lakes and ponds, rivers and streams begin freezing. Wind rattles old windows in dry, dusty homes; heaters rattle and bump as hot air or water flow through old pipes, making eerie yet comforting sounds through long dark nights. 

We are in the dark season. It is our custom to revere light. We sing: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within as Light to dwell.”[1] We sing: “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view.”[2] We light lights to welcome the returning sun, to welcome Christmas. Just as the ancients celebrated the returning light, we too will celebrate within the great mixing of midwinter festivals: Saturnalia, Yule, Hanukah, Christmas, Las Posadas, Kwanzaa, Epiphany, Three Kings Day—as Barbara Kingsolver describes it, “that excess of holidays that collect in a festive logjam at the outflow end of our calendar.”[3]

But on this late autumn morning the solstice is yet to arrive. Yule logs are yet to burn. The menorah and kinara are yet to be lit. The child-savior is yet to be born. The angels are yet to sing. Presents are yet to be opened. Good tidings are yet to be spoken. The magi are yet to embark on their journey. We are in the dark season. Let us not pass through this season without availing ourselves of the blessings of darkness. As we also sang, “Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surround me. Let my thoughts go where they will; ease my mind profoundly.”[4]

There is joy and comfort and solace and peace to be discovered in the dark.

I offer these words with great care. So many people either prefer to find their joy in the light, or simply find no joy in this season whatsoever. There are many reasons for this. I want to name three I know are present here this morning.

First, Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD—is real. As the sun grows more distant, as daylight hours grow shorter, many people experience mood changes, anxiety, depression, melancholy, sleep problems and more. There may be a correlation between reduced sunlight and decreased serotonin levels in the body which can impact mood. There may be a correlation between reduced sunlight and increases in melatonin levels which can impact mood and sleep patterns. Six percent of the population experiences acute SAD; another twenty to thirty percent experiences a milder version.[5] Many of you experience it to some degree. So, when I say “joyful is the dark,” you may very well say “no; physically, emotionally, mentally, this dark season hurts.

Second, “Blue Christmas.” Not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the season. For some the bright lights, festive music, Christmas trees, messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, with recent painful experiences, recent deaths of loved ones, health challenges, difficult childhood memories. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. There’s nothing merry or happy about it. So when I say, ‘joyful is the dark,” to some it sounds tone-deaf. 

Finally, there’s the current, wider-world political, social and economic context. Given the outcome of the United States presidential election, many of us hold deep, justifiable fears. In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Barbara Kingsolver spoke to these fears. She said “losses are coming at us in these areas: freedom of speech and the press; women’s reproductive rights; affordable healthcare; security for immigrants and Muslims; racial and LGBTQ civil rights; environmental protection; scientific research and education; international cooperation on limiting climate change; international cooperation on anything; any restraints on who may possess firearms; restraint on the upper-class wealth accumulation that’s gutting our middle class; limits on corporate influence over our laws. That’s the opening volley.”[6] Though we don’t know the extent to which these losses will materialize in the coming years, we can reasonably expect efforts to bring them about will be powerful, well-organized, and vicious. If we use the word ‘dark’ in its traditional religious sense meaning dangerous, demonic, evil, then we might say “we live in dark times.” But “joyful is the dark” does not roll off our tongues.

Yes, for some the holidays bring complicated emotions, painful memories. We don’t hide them here. We name them in some way every dark season because they are real and we know to ignore them is to ignore part of ourselves. In naming them we honor the fullness of our humanity. Yet that is also the reason I name the joy to be discovered in the dark. That joy, though subtle, is real too, part of our humanity too. Especially in these difficult, bitter days, I believe we diminish a potent spiritual resource, and we diminish ourselves, if we don’t pay attention to the blessings of darkness and the joy residing there.

To experience this joy, we must first abandon that traditional western religious equation of darkness and evil. We must abandon rigid, binary thinking where light equals good and dark equals bad. Let us strive, instead, to discern the value in both dark and light, to discern how they complement each other. Let us remember that only those who sit in darkness can witness the light of stars.[7]

yin-yangI find it helpful to recall the ancient Chinese concept of the Tao, the way. Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching says, essentially, “the Tao gave birth to the one.”  Reality begins with oneness. Then, “The one gave birth to the two,” yin and yang—complementary forces that compose reality. Yin and yang dance in and out of each other; they balance each other. Yang is light, spirit, sky, activity, fire, summer, sun, creativity, heat, the sacred masculine, rationality, reason and intellect. Yin is dark, matter, earth, passive, water, winter, receptive, moon, cold, the sacred feminine, instinct, intuition and feeling. Each of us has all of these qualities within us. In fact, everything has all of these qualities within. Chapter 42 continues: “All things carry yin and embrace yang.”[8] Our spiritual task is not to embrace one aspect of ourselves and shun the other. Our spiritual task is to embrace all aspects of ourselves, allowing them to cycle through our lives in the proper time. In the dark season our task is not to chase away darkness with light, but rather to explore what the darkness has to offer, how it might speak to us, hold us, nurture us and, ultimately, how it complements the returning light. Only those who sit in darkness can witness the light of stars.

The early 20th-century German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote of “the flame / that limits the world / to the circle it illumines / and excludes all the rest.”[9] Light only reveals so much. Beyond that hazy circle of light around the candle flame, beyond the last campfire spark, beyond the cozy corner lamp, beyond the corona around each star, there is a vast background of darkness. Rilke says “the dark embraces everything: / shapes and shadows, creatures and me, / people, nations – just as they are.”[10] Instead of sheltering in the light as protection against darkness, Rilke imagines darkness sheltering, holding, nurturing the light. The dark womb shelters the unborn child. Dark space holds the stars. The dark earth nurtures the seed. What might it mean that the dark embraces us?

As Unitarian Universalists we have long celebrated the exercise of reason in religion. Reason helps us think logically; weigh arguments; reach evidence-based conclusions. Reason assures us that our religion is grounded in reality, that we’re not just making it up. Without reason at the heart of our faith we would not be us. But reason has limits. Reason constructs religion based on what we know, but has much less capacity to engage with what we don’t know. Reason gives us religion by the light of day, religion in response to what the flame illumines. We might say it is yang without yin. And yet so many of us intuit truths that lie beyond our senses, beyond our capacity to measure, beyond reason. Such truths play a role in our religious lives too. How do we approach them? We need spiritual paths that don’t require the light, the flame, the brightness of day. We need paths that lead into darkness; for darkness—because it shrouds and obscures, because its vastness resists measurement—requires us to use faculties other than reason. It opens us up to intuition and feeling, invites imagination, invites dreaming, invites the contemplation of things we can’t physically sense or measure. Darkness takes us beyond “the flame / that limits the world.”

In more practical terms, there are times when I feel constrained. We all have such times. I sense something in my life needs to change, but I can’t quite figure out what or how to change. Perhaps I want to conduct my ministry differently, relate to my family differently, parent my children differently, structure my days differently. I want to transform patterns and habits that no longer serve me well. But the frenzied pace of life, the relentless rhythm of my days, the fullness of ministry, the fullness of the kids’ schedules—all of it can feel unrelenting, inflexible, constraining. Often when I need it most there is no room for imagining a different way, let alone doing things differently. I feel constrained.

full-moon-rising-2-22-16Until the dark season comes. This is my experience. When darkness becomes prevalent; when I bring the garbage and recycling to the curb on a late autumn evening for the first time after daylight savings time has ended and the dark surrounds me; when I look up from my work for a moment and lose myself in the dark outside my window; when I leave a meeting to go to my car and the sun has set; I am reliably reminded that this experience of feeling constrained—the experience of not knowing how to make the changes I want to make—happens within the circle the flame illumines. It happens within the light of day. It is the life I know. But it is not the life I don’t know. It is not all there is. The vast darkness reminds me there is vastness in me, and a vastness in you. So much is possible within that vastness. Indeed, in darkness lie all the possibilities my light-of-day mind hasn’t yet imagined. In darkness lie all the different ways of being I cannot fathom when feeling constrained by the life I know. When I sit quietly with the vast dark beyond the circle the flame illumines; when I let the quiet calm surround me; when I let my thoughts go where they will, [11] (which takes discipline); then I can let my rational mind go, connect back to my instincts, follow my intuition, encounter the divine. This opening up in the darkness is as reliable for me as the feeling of constraint in the light. In darkness, I regain my balance. The ideas begin to flow. My resolve strengthens.

We are in the dark season. The sun hangs low in New England’s southern sky, arching quickly along the horizon through the course of each short December day. This may be a season of sadness and melancholy for you, a season in which your body, heart and soul hurt. There may be no relief until the sun returns. But I wonder, might there nevertheless be some blessing—some answer to a long-asked question, some resolution to a long-fought battle, some release of a long-carried burden waiting to reveal itself to you in the darkness?

This might be a Blue Christmas for you; there may be no way around hard feelings and memories. But I wonder, might there also be some recollection of a smiling face, good times, caring and companionship waiting for you in the darkness? Might the next step toward healing and acceptance be waiting to occur to you in the darkness? Might there be some balm, some salve to soothe you in the long dark night?

You might feel fearful, angry, lost, powerless in response to world events. But I wonder, might there be some path forward, some source of courage and strength, some reminder to be gentle with yourself and others, some call you haven’t yet heard, waiting in the darkness to send you forth into the hurting, grieving world?

If you feel isolated from your best self, your true self, might the darkness of this season offer some previously hidden pathway home? If you feel isolated from that place inside of you where you commune with the Holy, might the darkness enable you to imagine, in the poet’s words, “a great presence stirring beside [you]?”[12]

We are in the dark season. I wonder, might these opportunities darkness offers to peer beyond the circle the flame illumines, to let your thoughts go where they will, to ease your frantic mind, to imagine, remember, find strength and courage, come home—might it all dsc_0004-2be the source of great joy?

I pray that it is.

Have faith in the night friends. It is half of who you are.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Helmore, Thomas, ad., Neale, John Mason, tr., “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #225.

[2] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #83.

[3] Kingsolver, Barbara, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2007) p. 285.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Dark of Winter” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #55.

[5] “Seasonal Depression,” Mental Health America. Visit: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/sad.

[6] Kingsolver, Barbara, “Trump Changed Everything. Now Everything Counts,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016. Visit: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/23/trump-changed-everything-now-everything-counts?platform=hootsuite.

[7][7] Apologies: this line is my best recollection of a line from a poem for which I cannot remember the title, author or location. If anyone knows the original line, where it’s from and who wrote it, please let me know!!!

[8] There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. The translation I am quoting here seems to take some poetic liberties when compared to other translations with which I am familiar. But the meaning feels essentially consistent with other translations. I like the words this particular translator uses, especially ‘birth.’ Visit: http://www.taoistic.com/taoteching-laotzu/taoteching-42.htm.

[9] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “You, Darkness, Of Whom I am Born,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 57.

[10] Rilke, “You, Darkness, Of Whom I am Born.”

[11] Jackson, “Dark of Winter.”

[12] Rilke, Rainer Maria, “You, Darkness, Of Whom I am Born,” in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 57.

 

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