A rather well-known book once began with this rather foreboding line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.”
A few lines down in that same story, we read:
“Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years…”
Much later on in the Book of Matthew, Jesus talks about sinners being flung into the darkness, where there is “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” That would be down there with the devil, of course, the guy who, in pagan and much early mythology, is associated with ice and cold, even though he presides over the everlasting fires of hell.
Which reminds me of the movie, “The Exorcist.” I saw it again just a few years ago, and I can report that it still scared the bejeezus out of me.
If you saw it, you surely recall how icy and full of foul vapors poor Regan’s room became every time the devil came for a visit. His dark mission was to inhabit her body and commence intriguing little theological discussions with Father Damian.
Indeed, paganism and medieval Catholic theology even posited that the devil had sex with witches. Many of them reported, in confessions just prior to them being burned at the stake, that the devil’s sperm had been “icy cold.”
What might darkness reveal about ourselves that the daylight conceals? What deeper qualities or vulnerabilities might we allow ourselves when we’re not being held to the sharp, penetrating light of day?
This actually led, in the real world 21st century, to both a heavy metal band and a paperback novel entitled “The Devil’s Sperm Is Cold.” I did not make this up. This morning, the novel was available for $8.04 on Amazon, but please don’t take that as an endorsement. I’m just making the information available here.
In any case, this casting of darkness and cold as inherently evil and undesirable has a long history of occupation in the human psyche. Most all of our metaphors for spiritual growth and happiness reflect a reaching for the light, the sun, under which all can be seen, revealed and cherished.
Our associations with all this light are of resting into warmth and ease. To be warm is to be secure. Imagine shorts and flip flops, maybe a backyard hammock to top it off.
A kind of earthly version of heaven, where one never shivers nor complains of cold feet. Heck, the supposed summit of spiritual life is called “Enlightenment.” No one except for the devil ever longed for anyone’s “Endarkenment.”
The association of darkness and cold with fear is almost palpable, a persistent theme in various arts and theologies around the world.
The singer-songwriter John Prine put a light-hearted spin on this, but there’s sure no mistaking his stance on the subject:
“Please don’t bury me, down in that cold, cold ground,
I’d rather have ’em cut me up and pass me all around…”
So: light light light!!! Warmth and sun and goodness, and when it turns dark, let’s all go to Las Vegas, where they can handle the electricity bill to light up our world even in the deadest of dark winter.
This is about the time when we have to ask Peggy Lee’s famous question: “Is that all there is?”
Is it darkness’s sole attribute that it allows us to know and exult in the light emerging from it?
Or does darkness perhaps have its own value and integrity, quite apart from whether it finally passes and lets us get back to our true goal of ever more light?
Darkness does find a more welcoming audience in Asian philosophies. Historically, eastern religions in general are less binary and more inclined toward the unity of opposites. In Buddhism, all phenomena of every sort ultimately collapse into the formless void.
Darkness is Yin in Chinese mythology, and rather than suggesting chaos as it does in the biblical texts, in Taoism it denotes calm. Yin is the receptive, feminine principle, darker, quieter, moist and more hidden than the bright, drying daylight of yang.
And that greater calm fits with the basic tenor of the season, doesn’t it? (As long as we exclude the frenzied stores and airports during the big holidays.)
I walk my neighborhood regularly with my dog, and it is striking, once the days shorten and dark envelops the land, how much more quiet and withdrawn the world appears to become.
Summer means bustle, with kids playing in the streets till late, walkers stopping to chat while their dogs endlessly sniff each other. Cyclists still zip by long after the dinner hour.
The same scene in these weeks, though, begets a very different feeling. Most houses are all curtained up if I’m out walking at 8 pm. (Makes it tough on us voyeurs of domestic life!) Many show only bedroom lights burning toward the rear of the house, the occupants withdrawn from worldly activity.
Distant traffic is barely above the sound of the fluttering leaves. The world is cocooning, and one of my favorite words prevails: quietude.
It can be truly stirring, how silent things seem in winter, like snowflakes settling on tree branches in the forest. How can one thing settle down on another thing without making even the faintest sound?
I am reminded of a journey many years ago when I was in Brussels in mid-June. The sun was bright and high in the sky. I was laying over while trying to find a flight to Kenya, where I was set to spend several months.
There were thousands of people milling and promenading along the plazas. Seemingly half of them were strolling about, the other half leisuring over their lunch plates, coffee and pastries, in scores of outdoor cafes.
It was a sight of human conviviality and love of the herd that all of us long for at least part of the time, and it engraved itself upon my memory.
So now we fast-forward to my return in mid-October. As I landed at the airport, my imagination was still back in June. I was carrying an image of all those bright people in sunny plazas smiling and surely welcoming me back. Maybe someone would invite me to sit at a table with them and enjoy a spritzer.
But sometimes it takes a while to reconcile imagination and reality.
As I got into town on the bus from the airport barely into Happy Hour, it was getting on toward dark, and adding insult to that injury, it was raining.
And as I approached the exact same plaza where I had left those thousands of people behind in what seemed just days before, I beheld a startling scene: There was not another soul to be found in the entire vast expanse.
I was alone, headed for my hostel, wet and a bit numbed, noting all the closed shops and their rolled up awnings, stacked chairs under tarps, the world having adjusted to the season—as I had not been able to do myself while down south in the African sun.
I was shocked, and had to work very hard to get oriented to what was in front of me. It was as if I had lost a season like we lose an hour when daylight savings ends. My task was to catch back up to the reality that yin follows yang, fall follows summer, dark follows light, solitude follows sociability.
But there’s good news in that picture. And it’s not simply that dark dreary days always end and then we can all romp around in the light and be happy again.
Because darkness has its own integrity, which is fundamental to the good news of winter.
Too often, we define darkness only as the absence of our beloved, warming light. As if all its meaning and application are predicated on what it lacks. It’s a good thing we don’t apply that standard to evaluating our own character.
Because darkness isn’t only about the absence of light, any more than cold is only about the absence of warmth.
Darkness deserves its own respect. In dark yin energy, things slow down. One can’t rush headlong across the landscape of the dark, romping like baby lambs from one hillside to the next. The night and the cold require more attention and deliberation. We can’t jam as much into it as we do the long warm days.
This is not a bad thing for us busy-as-bees residents of the industrialized world. We of the chock-full calendars and pinging phones, our schedules set six weeks out to meet someone for coffee. Always complaining (or is it bragging?) about how busy we are.
And the more careful attention the dark of winter requires offers additional rewards: We all know we can’t behold the grandeur of the stars until darkness prevails upon the land.
There’s a paradox there. We most often think of darkness as concealing as we wait for—or turn on—the light to see what’s “really” there.
But when it comes to viewing the heavens, the opposite is true: It’s actually darkness that reveals our vast, fathomless, haunting and gorgeous universe, and it’s the daylight that conceals it.
That lets us entertain a question: What might darkness reveal about ourselves that the daylight conceals? What deeper qualities or vulnerabilities might we allow ourselves when we’re not being held to the sharp, penetrating light of day?
Sometimes darkness and quiet can provide a haven for our deeper selves to shine through, like those stars that reveal their existence only when the sun goes down.
In darkness, when the world slows, we might, paradoxically again, feel safer in letting down our guard, exposing our more private places, the chambers of our heart and soul that we’re not inclined to parade in the town square on the 4th of July.
We all know about pillow talk. In my experience, it seems to take on a very different quality depending on whether it is late night, emerging dawn, or full-on morning light. In the dark, we seem compelled to whisper, even if there’s no one else in the house. Why would that be?
I suspect it goes with cocooning. The night, the roof over our heads, the blankets, the surrounding silence: All of these encourage our withdrawal from the light of day, the cares of the world, for slowing, to a more measured pace and volume.
There’s sacredness in that place—and it’s true whether we’re with someone or not. In a cocoon of our own, we are safe from the cold, the bright glare of the day, the clamor of the marketplace. In a place where we are sufficient and whole within ourselves.
I don’t think we can live—or at least we can’t flourish—without that experience. Without a hiatus from all the hubbub that the day world and the bustle of spring and summer require us to attend to.
Certainly we must give the light and warmth of summer its due. I don’t know anyone who is not pining for those things come about March.
But in these colding, darkening months of December and January in particular, in the very depth of winter, it is good to honor the darkness for what it, too, offers us and reveals.
For the contemplation and slowing it encourages in us. The self-reflection, that Self revealed not only by Louie Armstrong’s “bright blessed day,” but just as importantly, by “the dark sacred night.”
That night plays a central role in allowing us to exclaim with Louie, in spite of everything that often suggests otherwise, “Oh, what a wonderful world…”
Absent any good quality live versions of this, we return to the original:
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Expense and upheaval were recently levied in our bedroom to replace the original single window with a double, bringing abundant light into a previously dim space. The light spills in all day, particularly glorious in the morning from the east facing perspective.
The irony that additional nighttime light from street lights also pours in, makes it near impossible to sleep and left me scrambling for the blackout curtains is not lost on me. The human body must have light, and the human body must have darkness. The human spirit and body are intertwined and follow the rhythms and profound joys you have described. Ironical perhaps, but no contradiction: I absolutely crave and celebrate the extra light from that new window, and I also need the complete solitude of darkness to fully rest.
So, it is with profound satisfaction that I draw those heavy curtains across the new beautiful windows come nightfall, creating a quiet and very dark place of rest for my body and soul…. and find equal joy in pulling those curtains aside each morning to greet the riches of the eastern sky. Simple joys, necessary joys.
Beautifully written as usual. The comparison between light and darkness truly hits home. Solitude vs. bustle. Blossoming & sleeping petals. Yin & yang. Half- awake breakfasts drifting into romantic dinners. The Big O or Mr. Clutch. As I look back to my teen years, darkness was comforting; it hid the acne. Today, as I near my 70th birthday, once again I find solace in blackened shadows; it hides my wrinkles. The flip side, light means I’m still breathing.
Nothing like a simple declarative sentence that says it all, Mary: “The human body must have light, and the human body must have darkness.” Pithy! Brings to mind the (only slightly longer) declaration of 1st century Rabbi Hillel, approached by a gentile who asks, with intentional provocation, whether the rabbi can teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg. The rabbi responds, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary— now go study it.”
Robert: yes, from acne to wrinkles, seemingly in a straight and fast line, the shadows always there & helpful! Thanks for that chortle. Bright sunlight isn’t always our friend, as was also proven by the strips of skin we playfully peeled off our scorched shoulders & backs after a too-long & exposed day at the beach. That’s about too much day exposure, with the exposures of the night a whole different kettle of fish, as it were…
Nearly eleven years ago I was thrust into the bewildering darkness of a severe ischemic stroke that paralyzed the left side of my body, diminished cognitive thinking abilities and temporarily robbed me of my ability to swallow and do most anything for myself. It was a deep dark hole that I could never have imagined. I was later told by loved ones at my side that from within that dark hole in the early going of it all I signaled for a pen and paper. To their surprise and hopeful delight I scribbled a note about something that needed to be done at work. Months later a few close colleagues who had witnessed this event (and their hospital visit no doubt inspired the impulse) said that they returned to Colorado from my hospital bed in Salt Lake City and mused to one another that they couldn’t imagine why I would even want to return to work; and that the stroke gave me a perfect way out of returning to the madness of the highly politicized (and publicly unappreciated) world of higher education, where I served as the president of a small public college. With the benefit of hindsight, and the blessings of a remarkable and relatively swift recovery, I told them that my whole focus was to climb out of the disorienting and bewildering chasm of darkness and to reclaim my life. The depths of the brain injury felt quite dark, unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I recall at times being in a semi-hallucinogenic state coaching myself to make peace with the darkness and the confusion. It no doubt helped me make it through some of those troubling nights, but the goal was clearly to rise up out of the hole and regain my life in the light. The troubles and the reality of what lie ahead could wait. I just wanted to emerge and to be part of it again.
Hiking up the canyon above Forest Falls I had an unsettling yet profound experience with no darkness. It snowed that night and the light from a full moon reflected off the snow covered granite walls. A sureal black and white scene complete with vivid shadows struck by the pine trees was quite unsettling yet serene. The small campfire was the only color. The comfort of the darkness inside our sleeping bag and tent was welcomed. And the next morning we were greated with a white out. You could not see your outstretched hand in front of your face. We struggled to pack up and proceeded to use gravity to navigate down the canyon. Struggleing to see in the white abyss the mind conjured up unimaginable images. Having experienced halucinations from other devices allowed me to not freakout and just be with my visual creations.
We need the dark, to turn off the light, to close the eyes. As a child I wondered what it would have been like before God. I ejoyed the light show of blues, greens and yellows projecting behind my eyelids. And I surmised that nothingness was more like what you don’t see trying to see behind your head. And that was the same as with or without your eyes closed.
Darkness is not nothingness.
This lifelong night owl so appreciates the word ‘quietude,’ though I have never used it. Thank you for that.
The coming of night draws anxiety up for many people; for me it is the coming of peace, quiet, and often the fine roomy solitude of feeling at home with just myself. (“What!!??” say my dogs…)
Long ago a seemingly mystical woman I had known briefly wrote me a letter during a blue period I was having. She reminded me that in the darkness of winter, the seeds are drawing nourishment in, building and storing energy, preparing for other work coming in the spring; that gestation of creatures happens in the darkness, growing life itself.
As noted by Kirk – darkness is not nothingness; nor is it inherently an absence. To me it signals that there is room for magic.
Jay, it’s amazing what different pieces emerge from that story every time you tell it. Endless permutations and implications, it seems. I’m struck now with what seems like your deep immersion in darkness at the time, not as friend or comforter or cocooner but challenge. And therefrom a re-emergence (perhaps more accurately a clawing back!) into the light, a place of continual and extreme gratitude. Made richer, as ever, by darkness’s scaffolding. So there they are, darkness and light, joined deeper than ever at the hip, your experience the perfect exemplar…
Kirk, I swear I am going to start collecting favorite snippets from readers, “Darkness is not nothingness” being a prime example. Thanks for setting the scene so vividly here, really enjoyed it, and for reminding me that such daunting conditions can occur even in what seems like the mostly benevolent environs of Forest Falls, a favorite old haunt. Nature rules! And it is the biggest “somethingness” of all.
Interesting observation, Jeanette, that magic seems mostly the province of the night, to which I would attach the “gloaming” time as well. Textures, shapes, tones—all achieve a kind of mystique that the sunlight busts right through, rendering it too transparent and defined for mystery to abide. And as for the night’s gestation and growth you mention, I’m reminded of the intensely physical poet William Everson’s line, can’t remember which poem but I’ll try to hunt it down: “I sense the mushrooms in the night, brutal as all birth.” All happening amidst the quietude!