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The Solace of Darkness

I know I am at the start of another long journey.  There is no way out of the landscape of grief except straight through the heart of it, even though we may construct all kinds of useful diversions to try and avoid it.   

These last few weeks I have been feeling this invitation to move even more deeply into the contemplative life, and to spend even more time than I already do with dreams, darkness, wild places, and the wisdom of the body.  There is a call from deep within me to claim these as essential parts of my being in ways I haven’t fully done so.  Yet up until now I have been resisting a bit because I have had a sense that by following this path I was going to be asked to release my hold on some things I wasn’t quite ready to give up. 

Little did I know that this letting go meant being really stripped bare and also losing a precious companion.  And yet, in spite of this sense of profound loss, or maybe even because of it, I am more ready than ever to dive deeply into the darkness.   

As I sat vigil with Duke on Saturday, I kept imagining the Great Night that he was going to be released into.   I know there are many who embrace the Light as the most appropriate metaphor for God – in the Christian tradition Jesus says in John’s Gospel “I am the Light of the world” and in Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah talks about God as a mirror from which shines the brilliant light.  We even talk in religious language about darkness as representing the forces of evil, the Dark Side, the powers of darkness.  Yet, I am finding darkness lately to be so much more comforting and inviting than light.  It has nothing to do with depression or the like.  This summer with its long sunny days has been difficult.  For me, the vast night sky, the endless underworld of the sea, and the sleep world of dreams speak to me more clearly of God’s Mystery and Being. The glorious darkness of womb-spaces where new life is slowly and gently sprouted, that place of fertility and juiciness and hope where we begin to birth new possibilities long before we even realize the shape of them. 

Duke was for me a window into the otherness of God.  Although hardly a wild creature, still there was a profound soul connection that drew us ever more deeply together, and drew me deeper into the wildness of God, God as untamed Mystery, God who dwells in the Great Night and whispers to me in my dreams.  I have been longing for the darker days of fall, cool rainy days to curl up by the fire, walking among the falling leaves as they announce the beauty and radiance of death.  Each footstep a prayer.  Each breath an offering. 

Duke has changed me by his presence in my life.  His death will change me as well.  Perhaps I will come to grow even more comfortable with the dark mysteries of the holy, with the language of dreams, and how to navigate the landscape of grief with grace and surrender.  A landscape we are each compelled to enter at some point during our lives, perhaps many times. 

The poems below by Rilke have been sitting in my journal these last couple of weeks and  now invite me firmly into the night.  They are wonderful, luscious poems about the God of darkness.  In the darkness, like Rilke, I begin to feel wide and powerful, and my God is dark like Rilke’s, “like a webbing made of a hundred roots that drink in silence.” Yes, indeed, I also have great “faith in nights.” 

-Christine Valters Paintner


I love the dark hours of my being
in which my senses drop into the deep.
I have found in them, as in old letters,
my private life, that is already lived through,
and become wide and powerful now, like legends.
Then I know that there is room in me
for a second huge and timeless life. 


You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them!-
powers and people-and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.I have faith in nights.


…no matter how deeply I go down into myself
my God is dark, and like a webbing made
of a hundred roots that drink in silence.
I know that my trunk rose from his warmth, but that’s all,
because my branches hardly move at all
near the ground, and just wave a little in the wind.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

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16 Responses

  1. Christine,
    I enjoyed reading about your feelings…about accepting your next journey…of healing….learning…from light to dark to light again and back to the cool, embracing darkness. i find myself going back and forth continually. lately more into the deep, cool, loving darkness of God’s presence. I picture myself finding a quiet sacred dark stone…perhaps by the River…a place where i can cloak myself in prayer with God and just …..listen. listen.

    Thank you also for sharing Rilke’s beautiful poetry.

  2. Maggie, thank you so very much for your warm comments. I am finding writing about all of this very helpful, so if it is helpful to others then I am doubly glad. Blessings on your wonderful journey ahead into the wilderness and womb-space of the cave. I eagerly anticipate hearing what is birthed within you in that sacred and holy place.

    One foot, thanks for the footnote. So very true. I love the absolute exuberance and enthusiasm that dogs show us. There were never any games with Duke, no playing it cool, you always knew when he was filled with delight which was quite often. Watching his whole body wag when I got home or the happy dance he would sometimes do laying on his back on the floor were always such wonderful reminders to not censor myself too much and allow myself the spontaneous joys of life.

  3. I was thinking about this again on the way home and had to come back and add this footnote: What makes dogs different from other animals is the way they seem to experience joy–another lesson we humans would do well to remember.

  4. Christine,

    I was so sorry to hear of the loss of your dog. So wonderful though that you are taking time to really grieve and remember. Animals are such wise teachers. Thank you also for your wonderful thoughtful comments about the darkness, going into the womb, the unknowing. I’ll keep your words in mind as I journey into the darkness of the cave over the next few weeks.
    Much Peace, Maggie

  5. Welcome Tiffany and thank you for your sympathy and understanding of the bond with animals.

    Rilke is definitely worth checking out, he was a German language poet who lived 1875-1926. The poems I shared come from his collection “Book of Hours.”

    I was just looking through another translation I have done by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy and I think I like this translation of the second poem even better:

    You, darkness, of whom I am born–
    I love you more than the flame
    that limits the world
    to the circle it illumines
    and excludes all the rest.

    But the darkness embraces everything:
    shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
    people, nations–just as they are.

    It lets me imagine
    a great presence stirring beside me.

    I believe in the night. (from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God)

    In the apophatic tradition, or way of darkness and unknowing, darkness is about experiencing the God beyond images and names. This is partially my experience of the God of darkness, but also this sense of this “great presence stirring beside me.”

    Blessings to you, Christine

  6. Cynthia, thank you so much for sharing your experience with Gracie. Animals really are our guides through desert times with their absolute presence. I completely understand about the clarity, knowing, and glimpses of the universe you talk about. They are rare gifts, moments that embrace us in something so much larger than ourselves and yet at the same time so very intimate. The blessing you offer is beautiful. Thank you for the gift of your friendship. Love, Christine

  7. The Rilke poems are starkly moving and eloquent in their phrasing. Thank you for introducing me to a poet I was unfamiliar with. And, as the owner of many beloved animals, my deep sympathy on your loss.

  8. I am so very sorry for your loss. I am inspired by your embracing of grief and sharing your journey openly. I sat with my cat, Gracie, for a month in her dying process. Gracie was my companion in the desert. The vet that did acupunture to keep her pain free said animals come into our lives for a reason; they also teach us about life, and death. I had moments sitting with Gracie and walking her through that night journey transition where spiritual clarity and knowing were so strong, I knew they were rare moments and gifts of glimpses into the universe. It was a time of pain and great lows and yet spiritual truths so rich.
    May you and John be blessed with spiritual truths and moments of grace in the midst of your tears, throbbing pain and healing hearts.
    Love and Healing Blessings,

  9. One foot, you said that so well. Yes, yes, yes, Duke’s life was a prayer in that he was fully a dog. Ah, how much energy is wasted in our resisting. That is what this call to darkness feels like, an invitation to release the resistance and embrace the true fullness of my own calling. Thanks so much for your prayers and understanding words. Blessings, Christine

  10. Many times I have watched my dog and thought that her entire life is a kind of prayer. I know that must seem frivolous to people who aren’t close to a dog. What I mean is that she is, just naturally, what God made her to be. Dogs don’t waste psychic energy thinking about it, as I do, they just live it–with gusto. And when you look into their eyes, you know you are connected in some deep unspoken wordless way, as I aim to connect to God. My prayers are with you as you start on your way …