Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fearing the Darkness

When a friend yesterday mentioned his young son's fear of the dark, I was reminded how widespread, and natural, such fears are. My wife and I both retain, after more than half a century, childhood fears of the night and the need for a light while we sleep. Pitch blackness is terrifying, no doubt a vestigial sign of death, the thing we unconsciously dread. Poets often remind us of the sleep of death.

I just read in the New Yorker a review of a modern piece of music by the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas in which the orchestra and audience sit in total darkness. The reviewer, Alex Ross, confessed to a fear "such as I've never exeprienced in a concert hall: it was like being sealed in a tomb."

That sums up the terror we have of the darkness, a topic of great interest to me, in part because I am preparing a program on light for an Advent retreat December 1. I will quote John O'Donohue on Celtic spirituality, which puts great emphasis on the power of light:

We are all on a journey, he says, from darkness to light. Our bodies came from the darkness of the womb, and throughout our lives we live within the darkness of our bodies. Every thought we have is a spark of light arising from this deep source of inner darkness. So the brilliance of thought is born in darkness. All creativity begins at this point, he goes on, where light and darkness meet.

The Franciscan preacher Richard Rohr also notes the positive side of darkness, not just the mythic female idea of the dark womb as the source of creativity but the fact that in Scripture, light always includes shadow and darkness. Pure light without darkness is unendurable, so light and dark are not absolute dualities but they go together in the Bible (and in literature generally) since each is included in the other.

Mystics often refer to God as a light too dazzling to see, a light that appears as darkness to the human mind. Sometimes this darkness appears to be despair--the dark night of the soul--or depression or confusion, but it is a prelude to the light. We descend to the dark to rise to the light. This is the universal journey of life.

I like what Paracelsus said in the 16th century: Darkness is what we call the light we can't see; the light we can see we call 'light.' All things on earth are a mixture of light and dark (life and death) and it is unwise to pretend they are totally separate. Even the good things of the world are tinged with imperfection and mutability.

Having explored the meaning of silence as something much more than the absence of sound, I can see that darkness, similarly, is more than the absence of light. If I associate it with the solitude and stillness experienced in contemplative prayer, when the soul is quiet, I can see that it connects me to the unknown God, who is Light but who dwells in a kind of darkness (from the human perspective). My passage from this life to the next will be a passage from darkness to light, just as my birth was. That, of course, was a rude awakening, I presume, the shock of being removed from the warmth and safety of the womb into the cold light of earthly reality. No wonder we have fears and need comfort at night.

Thinking about darkness opens so many doors, ones that we prefer, in the light of day, to keep shut, but at night get opened in the realm of dreams. It's no wonder we are apprehensive about the mysteries of the dark and never quite overcome our fears of its imaginative potential, heighened by stories and films of dangers that come in the night. The dark wood at the opening of Dante's "Inferno" is archetypal, a fearful reminder of those places in us that are connected to what we dread: death. Hell is a place of lifelessness where nothing lives.

My conclusion, for now, is that darkness can be a source of creativity, as our dreams reveal, and our fear of its potential and mystery are normal as long as we are not terrorized by it and fail to believe in the light that is always there within us.

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