Darkness can terrify us, can consume us, as we know from our 2020 experience.
And yet, the right kind of darkness can give us peace. A night of good sleep, for instance, or a “lovely soft day”—as the Irish call those shady, rainy, drizzling days that make Ireland green.
Once I had an experience of lovely, soft darkness. It took place in Hawaii—strangely, since light abounds there. A brother Jesuit and I decided to climb all the way up the side of one of Maui’s volcanic mountains—with a guide and with friends of his, I am happy to say—and then climb down into the crater itself.
Fine, but no one had mentioned that there was a great dark cave at the other end of the crater floor. It was a “lava tube,” formed when a huge molten stream begins to cool and harden on the outside while the inside keeps flowing and emptying. This leaves a tube, into which we were ushered, following trustingly. We took a few curves, and suddenly there was not a scrap of natural light left for us, only a single electric bulb hanging from above. We settled down on various rocks.
The guide put out the light.
He had warned us ahead of time, very kindly and all, but the words “put out the light” did not sound comforting to my ears. It is what Shakespeare’s Othello said as he blew out the candle and then again as he took the life of the sleeping Desdemona. Creepy.
Off it went.
Perhaps a dozen of us had made the trip, and we simultaneously stopped our movements and our nervous talk. Deep, unrelieved darkness settled around us and around everything else. Eyes open, eyes closed, it was all the same. No light, no shadow, no least spark. Obviously we felt trapped and afraid, lost in a strange place, our eyes suddenly useless.
Against all reason, we felt great rest, great peace.
“I’ll turn the light back on now,” the guide whispered after several minutes, but we revolted.
“No, no, leave it off. Give us more time.” We sat, unseeing, consoled by the warmth and depth of absolute night.
When the tiny little bulb did finally go on again, our own eyesight surprised us. Seeing was like a memory that had slipped away. The dark had formed a resting place, it seemed, where our souls could re-charge, our eyes recover their innocence. Maybe the daylight world had become too ordinary, too usual, just something to reveal tools to be used. Now it seemed miraculous, a gift given by God, even if by means of an insignificant incandescent bulb.
In Sunday's Gospel, the people hunger for light. “Are you the light?” they shout to John the Baptist. Will you “bring glad tidings to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners” (First Reading)?
“I am pointing you toward the light,” the Baptist seemed to say. “He will be here soon. Hold onto my arm.”
What is your experience of darkness? Maybe it is the opposite of quiet. Maybe terror is its name. If so, know that, however unrelieved your night may be, there is still, always, the promise of light. When you have been deprived for a long, long time, even one speck of light will change everything.
As a tiny child will on Christmas night.
You are invited to email a note to the
author of this reflection:
Fr. John Foley, SJ