As a child, I was afraid of the dark. I never told my parents about my fear so they did not have a chance to indulge me and let me have a nightlight. But when I was ill, a fire was lit in the grate in my bedroom and a candle placed on the mantlepiece. That was a great comfort.
Of course, as the apostle Paul would say, we grow out of childish things. Or do we? I have no interest in horror films, for example, or any of the supernatural-action-with-aliens we see so often on television these days. I have never watched Dr Who. Perhaps they still hold a deep fear for me that I do not want to come to the surface.
What is darkness? The word ‘darkness’ evokes a number of ideas. There is the literal meaning of a physical absence or lack of light, the opposite of day, which itself implies impairment of vision, where something may not be within one’s field of view. Or even worse a ‘blindness’ of all the senses, with nothing to see, nothing to touch, no sound, no smell, no sense of direction. Or it can be a mental state of confusion with no frame of reference and a rush of competing thoughts; and in this vulnerable state, darkness is imbued with a sense of something unpleasant, a space where a malign force may be in control. Here the imagination goes into overdrive.
Spiritual darkness is not very different. In the Bible, darkness is sometimes a metaphor to describe the absence of God, or a lack of understanding about God. Job complains, “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” [Job 23.17 NRSV]
Yet darkness can also be a place of discovery as in the Exodus story. ‘While the people stood at a distance, Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.’ [Exodus 20.21 NRSV] And even more strangely, darkness is also a metaphor where there is an excess of light of God, where God seems to be beyond anything we could possibly conceive, a dazzling darkness.
The good news is that God dwells in the darkness. The darkness was prior to the light; it was, and is, God’s home. In this darkness, the promise is that we will never be alone. In this darkness there is nothing to be afraid of.
T S Eliot describes a comforting darkness of anticipation, in his poem ‘East Coker’ –
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Well you may saying, this is all very well for poets like T S Eliot. We yearn for stillness as the ultimate good; communion with God in the silence of the heart. But how do we get there? There is no map. No ‘satnav’ invented will deliver you to this destination. But we can all get there, though some skill is required, as otherwise it could just turn out to be an exercise in escapism.
We begin our journey in a state of wakefulness. But it is not the kind of wakefulness when we awaken from sleep. Spiritual wakefulness is different. It is a state of being fully awake in the present moment, aware of all the thoughts and feelings passing through us but not being dominated by them. Aware of a stillness, but a stillness that is vibrantly alive. A stillness that allows us to become witness to our thoughts instead of being imprisoned by them. We experience a depth to our thoughts that we have never known before.
There are many occasions when this stillness can be realised; in silent prayer; in meditation; in the ritual of worship and sacrament; in the study of Scripture, known as lectio divina. The key aspect of this stillness is watchfulness or awareness. The process of watchfulness is about realising the presence of God in our lives.
Advent is a time of darkness, of expectant waiting, of preparing for the Christ Child to be born in our hearts. Christ is bringing back the light. The light we must allow into ourselves. Into the heart of our deepest darkness.
Like Lent, Advent is a time of repentance. A time to examine ourselves. To consider ourselves deeply, honestly. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.”[11.36] The importance of the Luke passage, to our contemporary hearing, is not that light is a searchlight we throw out onto an object, as the ancient philosophers believed. It is what happens when we allow the Light into ourselves.