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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