Holy Darkness (1)

 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

-Isaiah 61:1-2

The prophetic and poetic texts of the Book of Isaiah are some of my favorite of the ancient Hebrew scriptures.  This is the third Sunday of Advent which is also known as Gaudete Sunday, Gaudete means rejoice in Latin.  During this time of waiting, of growing darkness, we begin to sense the nearness of a new birthing.

This week is also the last seven days before the winter Solstice.  In the coming days the Northern hemisphere will grow darker and darker.  In Seattle we are down to just over eight hours of daylight and with our often grey skies, it usually feels much darker.  It’s no secret here that I love darkness, that I relish the contemplative invitation of winter, that my soul seems to be more in its own rhythm during this time of year.

And while my poetic heart does indeed rejoice in the Isaiah readings for this week, I also hear in them this extraordinary challenge and call.  I have been anointed, we have all been anointed, to “bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” These texts are not about our religious beliefs or the intellectual assents we make to doctrine.  These ancient words are about the way we are called to practice faith, to embody it in the world, to enflesh our most deeply held beliefs that God is a God of profound liberation and freedom for everyone and every creature. And when one is imprisoned or enslaved, we all are.  When I read those words, I feel both a rejoicing and a recognition of the God I believe in.  But I also feel a sense of weight, of sadness that I have fallen far short of this calling. My heart is committed to freedom for all, my work is focused on a kind of healing and liberation. And yet, I know that while I live a simple life by Western standards, it is extraordinarily comfortable by the world’s measure.

While leading the retreat on Praying the Hours through Art & Movement there were many moments of personal insight that I continue to give room within me to unfold.  The first morning we practiced lectio divina, the sacred reading of the scriptures and I offered this text from Isaiah 48:6-7:

Now I am revealing new things to you
Things hidden and unknown to you
Created just now, this very moment.
Of these things you have heard nothing until now.
So that you cannot say, Oh yes, I knew this.

For me, this text speaks to the rejoicing side of holy darkness.  This is the God of “hidden things” who reveals new possibility in the moment, things we had never even dreamed of before.  We don’t have to figure it all out, in fact sometimes our intellectualizing of our lives gets in the way of listening for the response being revealed right now. In the midst of the black space of night, we are invited to tend the sacred Mystery of a God who is far beyond our imaginations and calls us where we had dared not believe we would go.

To Know the Dark

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

-Wendell Berry

I discovered the poem above only a few weeks ago and it speaks to me most pointedly about what embracing the darkness means. It does not mean carrying a light into the dark, it means walking right into the darkness and exploring its landscape so that our other senses become heightened and attuned to the sound of seeds jostling deep beneath the black soil, to hear the slow in and out breath of animals in hibernation, to feel our own heartbeats and the heartbeats of those we love, to experience the pulsing of womb-sounds within us just before the water gets ready to break.

This is why I also love fog.  It is so much like life.  We really can only see a few steps ahead of ourselves.  As last weeks’ poems spoke to traveling the way of our lives — “the way is made by walking” Machado writes — all we can do is put one foot in front of another and pay attention to what is revealed in the mist before us.

I am keeping my heart open in these holy days, listening to the call of that first Isaiah scripture and how to respond, knowing that in my desire God will meet me and God will rise up within my desire expanding it, making it rise like bread so that it will feed others.

May this week you discover the blooming, singing darkness.  May you encounter the God of hidden things who is revealing something new to you this very moment of which you knew nothing before.  May you be blessed by holy darkness.

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

** Look for poems all this week to help you enter into the gifts of darkness **

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4 Responses

  1. I have experienced a darkness of suffering during Advent following an eye surgery for glaucoma. I barely see and wear sunglasses much of the time even in the dark. Your poems and pictures, especially Holy Darkness spoke to my heart as I allow my eyes to adjust to and try to see in the darkness. Thank you for sharing your gifts, your great insights, poetry and beautiful pictures. I hope one day again to see them better as I wait for healing. Sight is a great gift often taken for granted. To see in the darkness is also gift and I thank you for inviting me to be joyful in the dark.

  2. Your ruminations on darkness remind me of a Brian Wren hymn, “Joyful is the dark”

    “Joyful is the dark,
    holy, hidden God,
    rolling cloud of night beyond all naming,
    majesty in darkness,
    energy of love,
    Word-in-flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

    Joyful is the dark,
    spirit if the deep,
    winging wildly o’er the world’s creation,
    silken sheen of midnight,
    plumage black and bright,
    swooping with the beauty of a raven.

    Joyful is the dark,
    shadowed stable floor;
    angels flicker,
    God on earth confessing,
    as with exultation
    Mary, giving birth,
    hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

    Joyful is the dark
    coolness of the tomb,
    waiting for the wonder of the morning.
    Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom;
    darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

    Joyful is the dark
    depth of love divine,
    roaring, looming thundercloud of glory,
    holy, haunting beauty,
    living, loving God.
    Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!”

    Thank you for your thoughts of darkness this week.

  3. Thanks lovely lucy, yes the metaphor of allowing our eyes to adjust to the dark so we might “see” is a potent one. I am delighted when my summer friends begin to see the light, um I mean dark. ;-)

  4. i am stunned that there are no other comments on this incredible post. maybe they need some time to rise to the surface. i am really struck by the wendell berry poem. i find myself entering the dark more readily, but most often with a light. i was reminded, however, of walking in the dark without flashlight and allowing my eyes to adjust to the surroundings. there is something welcoming about the dark if we choose to allow ourselves to see it that way. thank you, friend, for continuing to introduce me/us to more and more ways to consider darkness.

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