Sunday, 3 December 2017

Advent: In a Dark Time the Eyes Begin to See

Twice a week I sit in shared meditation, in the dark, with friends. The silence is lit by three simple candles. One of the things I love about the time, early in the morning, is that during the weeks of November and December we begin in darkness, as the silence ends we remain in the dark and then as we share where we are personally at spiritually the sun rises and the day begins. At the end of the hour our space is fully lit by sunlit. I love this time and space as we move from darkness, to half-light, to full light. It is a gentle transition from one spiritual space into another, without physically moving.

There is another time in the week when I do something similar, only it ends very differently. There is not the same transition from darkness into light. As the time ends the lights are switched on and I find the transition from darkness to light, a little shocking. There is no in-between space as we move suddenly from darkness into bright, shocking neon light.

We are approaching the darkest time of the year as we head towards the Winter Solstice, closely followed by the coming of the light that is Christmas. Today is Advent Sunday, the day that marks the beginning of the days leading to the coming of the new light, that is Christmas.

Advent is a time for waiting, a time of preparation. A time set aside to wait for the “coming” of Love in human form symbolised in the birth of the Christ child. A promise of what love can become if we let it grow and nurture in our hearts and lives. For every new life is the gift of promise and possibility. A gift of possibility that can be reborn in each of our lives if we allow it to be.

Advent is a season of preparation and it cannot be rushed. It requires patience. We cannot wish the days away, we cannot wish the winter away. We have to wait patiently, but not passively. We have to adjust ourselves to the coming light. If it was to come all at once, it would be too much for us. Let us not wish away the darkness of winter and look forward too desperately to the future, for what is yet to come. Let us adjust to the limited light we have been given, just enough to take the next step.

We impatient people, we who live by neon light and instant gratification do not like the dark and certainly know little about patience, about waiting. If you don’t believe me just watch yourself the next time your computer freezes when you’re trying to watch a clip on YouTube. We want it all and we want it now. We also want it all in bright lights, with bells on. We certainly don’t want to have to go through the hardships to take us there.

Yes Advent is about the coming of the light, but not something sudden and dazzling, more a journey from darkness into natural light. This is the classic spiritual journey. This is the beauty of the holy month of December. I experience this powerfully in that dark silky silence of early morning, when the frosty winds make all moan. I revere this dark, cold, humbling time that leads to the coming of the light. I have noticed these last few years that if I don’t rush and push my way through this time, If I allow myself to savour it, something shifts deep within me if I allow myself to truly embrace the darkness. Somewhere between Solstice and New Year, probably on Christmas Day, some new light comes into my vision, but not suddenly. Like most good things in life, slowly it rises. It is coming. This is Advent, the coming of the new light. If we allow it to it will work its magic and something new will grow within each and every one of us.

We are afraid of the dark though aren’t we. We want to rush through these weeks and force the light, we people born in neon times. We impatient and expectant folk. The truth is though that in order for us to truly appreciate the light we must first know the dark. Brings to mind those beautiful words from Isaiah chapter 9 verse 2 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light shines.”

Now of course the very same light shines on us all, it’s just that we don’t always notice it. We only really notice it when we are in the deep darkness. I saw a beautiful example of this during the last singing meditation I experienced. I always light a hundred candles as we sit together in the dark. The candles are meant to light what we are engaging in, to allow those present to read the words we sing around. Now usually I leave the kitchen door open which adds a little artificial light. I now realise how much this has been a mistake. Last week I didn’t and do you know what the room seemed even more illuminated. The candles burned ever more brightly in the darkened room. The light shone even more brightly on we that were singing and sharing silence in deep, deep darkness.

We need to honour the darkness in order for us to truly rejoice in the light, when the moment of magic comes.

But first we must know the dark, we must learn the patience of sitting in the dark. This brings to mind that beautiful short poem “Know the dark” by Wendell Berry

“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.”

But we don’t want to know the dark, we want to walk in the light. Often we spiritually inclined do not want to look at the darkness, we only want the light. Who really wants to take the time to look at the darkness within ourselves and within our world? The truth is of course that if you refuse to look at the dark, to shine a little light on it, is to truly live in the dark; this is a life without joy, this is not truly living in life. We need to bear witness to all life, to hold life with a steady gaze, to live spiritually alive.

In order to live spiritually alive we need to see life in its fullness. We need to practice holding an unwavering gaze in the dark to not look away or to flush it out with neon light, one that is far too bright.

You see as Roethke said: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

I am learning to surrender to a more natural light, to the dark. I am learning to allow my eyes to adjust to the whole of reality. I need to do so to truly embrace the beauty of the dark. This includes the lingering darkness within myself that leads me to still reject and to turn away from some aspects of life.

I am slowly learning to follow those words of Wendell Berry

"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 travelled by dark feet and dark wings"

I am learning the lessons of the darkness and during these Advent days I will not be waiting passively for the coming of the light. Instead I will appreciate these dark days, shed some gentle light on the dark places within myself, my life and this our shared world, so that when the moment of magic comes I can become a child of the light and become a light for others. This is what we are here waiting for. To be a light to others who may be struggling in their own dark times. We can light the way. This brings to mind the following beautiful words by Mary Oliver “The Buddha’s last Instructions”

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire—
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

So let’s prepare ourselves for the moment of magic yet to come. Let’s nurture the love within us and prepare to give birth to it in lives. Let’s not wish these dark cold days away. There is a beautiful gift in them if we allow ourselves to fully experience them. We need to experience each and every sensation of this season. We need to not fear the dark, we need to know it and fully embrace it. And when the time comes to once again give birth to the new light.


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