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Holy Darkness

When we moved to Seattle the winters became more pronounced.  I didn’t think moving 600 miles north would make such a difference, but we easily have three hours more darkness in the winter than when we lived in Northern California.  It also feels more perceptible because the sky is often gray and the sun that much lower on the horizon as it makes her gentle arc across a winter sky.

In contrast then, summer days are also much longer.  Days are filled with light in long expanses.  And while summers can indeed be beautiful here in the Northwest (of course anytime is beautiful here), I find them difficult sometimes with their stretches of sun.  I actually long for dark cool days.  Autumn and winter are my favorite seasons, autumn with its beautiful display of color and winter with its invitation to darkness, stillness, rest, and reflection.  I know many struggle with the effects of lack of winter light, but I wonder how that might be different if we didn’t force ourselves into unnatural rhythms of perpetual work all year long and responded to the invitations to rest and listen.

I wrote back in August about The Solace of Darkness for me.  This was soon after Duke died, and as I shared, darkness was not about absence of God or even deep sorrow, but about relishing the place of dreams, creativity, and the wildness of God:  “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.” 

As I prepare for Advent and continue to reflect on the image of birthing, I place my hand on my belly, my center point and place of grounding and nurturing.  We are discouraged from honoring the wisdom of their bellies.  I listen for the stirring there, the seeds planted which will one day will make their shapes against a future sky.

J. Philip Newell in The Book of Creation, says the Celtic tradition points to Mystery as both brilliance and darkness.  Darkness honors God’s wildness and ultimate mystery.  We domesticate God with our images and boxes, but God cannot be contained.  In the waters of our creation story we find the dark mystery of God that gives life to all things. All of Creation is rooted in the Unseen, finding its origins in the darkness of the womb long before becoming visible in the light of day.  Holy seeds unfolding in their own time and way.

Creativity emerges from surges of unordered energy from unknown depths within us.  We are often afraid of these emotional, sexual, and artistic energies, but they have their origins in God and when we suppress them, we turn them into forces of death rather than vitality.  Rather, we need healthy ways of giving them expression and life.

Darkness and unknowing for me is profoundly hopeful, because in darkness I recognize that what I can see and even imagine are not the fullness of all possibilities.  Only God is big enough to hold those.

Some of my favorite songs to celebrate darkness include two inspired by St. John of the Cross:

Holy Darkness by Dan Schutte  (Listen to a clip at the link)
Holy darkness, blessed night,
heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.
As we await you, O God of silence,
we embrace your holy night.

Loreena McKennitt’s Dark Night of the Soul, my favorite song from her Mask and Mirror album.

I see Trish at Story Midwife is also in love with darkness, so go read her wonderful thoughts.  Make sure to click on the link to check out Behold, the album she mentions. You can listen to samples here.  They have a beautiful a capella song called Into the Dark and also a version of one of my favorite Advent songs, Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song). Trish’s voice is just stunning.

May you embrace this holy season. May you find illumination in the fertile dark earth of your soul.

Where do you experience the invitation to holy darkness?

-Christine Valters Paintner

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13 Responses

  1. Pingback: Back Road Journey
  2. Christine, I just read this today:

    “Everything beyond a certain distance is dark, and yet everything is full of being around us. This is the darkness, heavy with promises and threats, which the Christian will have to illuminate and animate with the divine presence.”
    –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

    Heavy with promises and threats!

  3. Hi Cathleen, yes such wonderful invitations and images from the darkness. I wish I lived in a place where I could see the night sky more clearly, too many city lights. But the times I have been away from the city I have reveled in its brilliance.