Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
At dawn my small dining room window framed a patch of gauzy coral cloud pierced by a morning star. As I watched, light wafted from the bare treetops and painted the sky silver. Dawn is almost always a welcome turn in the revolving waltz of night and day, dark and light. For several years I was a teacher of 3-6 year olds in a school that had a Montessori-based program of spiritual development, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Around this time of year, we reflected on the verse from Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We would gather the children and ask them about their times of light in darkness. They told of happiness upon waking in the night and seeing the reassuring nightlight on the bureau, or the crack of light where their dad had left the bedroom door ajar. From infancy, it seems, light has evoked comfort, safety, and joy.
We are in a darkening season. Whereas we used to linger long after community supper was done, sometimes in the garden or around the wood-stoked barbeque grill, now we sit down for the meal in deep twilight and leave under a star-studded sky. The nights have been lengthening as we come up to the Winter Solstice. Since the dawn of human culture, in the northern hemisphere we have celebrated the solstice as the beginning of the return of the light and have embraced it with the highest of holy days. In the last half of the first millennium, the Roman Catholic Church declared December 25 to be Christ’s Mass. In those days, under the Julian calendar, December 25 overlapped the solstice.
There is holy joy at the promise of the great light returning to dispel the darkness, but the solstice remains the longest night of the year. In this shadowy, harsh time in the history of world, the darkness can feel pervasive and never-ending. Lately even the days are not quite able to shake the mood. Today the wind is howling around the corners of my cottage. The gnarly branch of the hackberry tree, with shrunken berries and a few dry leaves still clinging, is scratching the roof of the old smoke house. Clouds fly across the sky, bare trees silhouetted against the gray, and in all the brown woods, only the bamboo down by the creek holds any glimmer of green.
Yet this is the time of year for dreams, those that come when we sleep through the long nights and when we listen in the deep darkness to the sacred voice within. This is the time of year for story, sitting by the fire in the lingering evening, listening to ancient tales and to the ones rising out of our hearts. This is the time of year for letting go and the healing release that comes with lament, when even the bending, creaking trees and the dog’s bay in the distance seem to sing our sorrow. This is the time of year when we can gather in the candlelit Meditation Shelter, surrounded by the embracing dark, our faces lit by firelight from the wood stove, and know ourselves deeply connected to one another and to the eternal family of things. This is the threshold time between the light and the gifted darkness, when we can walk out from the Meditation Shelter into a night of stars.