The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
As you may know, a few weeks ago, Bill and I went on a three week holiday to New Zealand. We spent the last two weeks in the South Island, which includes lots of open country and not a lot of big cities. One of the things that we had planned was to spend a night at Lake Tekapo, which is part of the Dark Sky initiative, a world-wide project to reduce the amount of light that limits the sight and the health of millions of creatures, including humans.
This project seeks to cut down on light pollution, which threatens the health and well-being of wildlife and blinds us to the depths and wonders of the night sky, just for starters. All of the area around Lake Tekapo is in fact a Dark Sky reserve called Aoraki MacKenzie, near Aoraki/Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. In an area of over 1600 square miles, deliberate measures have been put in place to limit light pollution, and the result is one of the darkest night skies on earth, with an observatory to take advantage of it. The result is perfect for stargazing, yes, but also the community there saves money on electricity, the wildlife there suffers less disruption from light, especially nocturnal creatures.
Unfortunately for us, the one night we spent there the sky was overcast, and even though I awakened periodically through the night, it never really cleared enough to be able to go up on the hill behind the house in which we were staying to see the night sky as I remembered it as a child, driving across the southern plains in Oklahoma.
It was my dream during our trip to see the Southern Cross and other constellations not visible here in North America. So being a 21st century person, I know there’s an app for that. So one other night when I had fallen asleep early from exhaustion, I got up in the middle of the night, moved to the southern end of the house in which we were staying, and voila—right in front of me there was a kite-shaped cluster of stars just 20 degrees above the horizon. I pointed my phone at it, and yes! There was the Southern Cross. I was so excited I went and woke Bill up so he could see it too.
The reminder came to me forcefully as I gazed at the Southern Cross: the darkness is not just something to be overcome. The darkness actually is an aid for is in seeing the light at all.
During the day, we are blinded to the millions of patterns of stars that nonetheless hang like rich tapestries overhead. It is only in the precious deepest darkness of the night—now so hard to come by—that we can see clearly the amazing handiwork of God in creation, and remind ourselves that all that we love we share on just this one small planet in a vast galaxy, in an incredibly more vast universe.
As I gazed at the filigree of stars that danced overhead, and more and more parts of the Milky Way danced before my adjusting eyes, this Night Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book came to me most forcefully, reminding me of the gifts that darkness, and nighttime, offer us all:
it is night.
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
In your name we pray.
It is in the heart of holy darkness in which God nourished the creation of the universe that John’s gospel begins. Listen again to the first five verses:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
For our Biblical ancestors, the night, just like the sea, was more often than not a locus of terror. We have inherited that fear—that’s probably WHY there’s so much light pollution to begin with. Yet not all cultures share that fear—the Maori, for instance, used the stars to guide them to Aoteoroa New Zealand. What if we perceived that fifth verse like this: darkness does not overcome the light of Christ, but instead makes Christ’s light more present, more real?
It's a challenge to think of darkness as a blessing. Yet what if we stopped viewing darkness and light as binary and oppositional, but rather complementary? Our animal bodies need darkness just as much as they need light. Animals who are active at dawn and dusk or at night can be prevented from normal behavior when disturbed by too much light. Circadian rhythms for both humans and animals can be disrupted by too much light, for it is in the night that our bodies produce melatonin, a critical hormone for good sleep and resistance to disease.
Too often, we think of the darkness as being aligned with fear, desolation, even evil. We may think of the darkness as being the lack of something, as being a sign of abandonment. We may even associate darkness with the bleakest times of our lives. As the old year draws to a close, and a new one hovers right around the corner, we may be assessing the year that lies before it. We may be seeing the times of darkness, and the times of light.
But what if we remembered that the darkness itself can be holy, can be an aid for devotion? What if we remembered, unspoken but nonetheless plain in the accounts of creation in both Genesis and the gospel of John, that creation, and Christ’s saving care for us, begins in darkness, and that Christ’s light is therefore amplified in darkness, if only we can summon up a little faith?
Even when we live through times of darkness that are truly challenging or terrifying, the remembrance of the flickering lights of kindnesses, of acts of love within that darkness, can help us heal and make our peace with even the worst parts of our past. If we learn to embrace the darkness as being something that cannot overcome us, that can never overcome us, we can instead remember that darkness as a reminder of how prevalent the light truly is.
Darkness allows our perception to become more acute, more sensitive. It makes light something remarkable. Similarly, spiritual darkness can be a gift—even if only in hindsight—that makes the light of Christ burn even more beautifully and richly in our lives. It is in those dark times that we see most clearly that even when it is dark, there is light accompanying us. Darkness can be beautiful, an unexpected gift.
The Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross wrote movingly about his experience of darkness as a spiritual gift in his poem “The Dark Night of the Soul:”
In a dark night,
With anxious love inflamed,
O, happy lot!
Forth unobserved I went,
My house being now at rest.
In darkness and in safety,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
O, happy lot!
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now at rest.
In that happy night,
In secret, seen of none,
Seeing nothing myself,
Without other light or guide
Save that which in my heart was burning.
That light guided me
More surely than the noonday sun
To the place where He was waiting for me,
Whom I knew well,
And where none appeared.
O, guiding night;
O, night more lovely than the dawn;
O, night that hast united
The lover with His beloved,
And changed her into her love.
On my flowery bosom,
Kept whole for Him alone,
There He reposed and slept;
And I cherished Him, and the waving
Of the cedars fanned Him.
As His hair floated in the breeze
That from the turret blew,
He struck me on the neck
With His gentle hand,
And all sensation left me.
I continued in oblivion lost,
My head was resting on my love;
Lost to all things and myself,
And, amid the lilies forgotten,
Threw all my cares away.
The light shines in the darkness. May we open our eyes, and our hearts, to that light and bear that light, shining from the holy darkness.
Images: The Southern Cross; The Church of the Good Shepherd at Night, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.