In a Dark Time: I Believe in Night- Mark. S Burrows

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see. . .” – Theodore Roethke[1]

We no longer know much about darkness. We’ve harnessed the light in every conceivable form, unleashing it against the night’s power to unsettle us by obscuring every trace of the visible. Most of us, living in cities and towns awash with light from dusk until dawn, can only dimly imagine the staggering beauty of a deep night sky. Children raised in such environs know little of the magnificent canopy of stars which swirl silently above us. A recent article in National Geographic, aptly entitled “Our Vanishing Night,” reminds us that an ever increasing majority of humankind lives under “intersecting domes of reflected, refracted light, of scattering rays from overlit cities and suburbs, from light-flooded highways and factories” to the point that “in most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars.” “We’ve lit up the night,” the author concludes, “as if it were an unoccupied country.”[2]

The gains of inhabiting such a starkly lighted world are clear: we stave off the darkness in order to provide a measure of comfort and security. Ours is a world far removed from that of antiquity when the stars oriented travelers within a largely unmapped world, and the constellations of the night sky told stories which rooted ancient peoples in their identity. Most of this is lost to us in late modernity. Many of us would be hard pressed to identify the moon’s phase on any given day, and few know the tales told by the stars, tales of generosity and jealousy, of conflict and comfort. How might such marvelous stories enlarge our imagination if we only knew them? What life would not be deepened by one as evocative as “Cassiopeia’s Chair,” the lovely but vain queen who angered Poseidon and was punished by circling the celestial pole half the time in an upside-down position? The world my great grandparents inhabited, before the harnessing of electricity, was a decidedly different one. Those living in such times, shaped by the familiar flicker of gas lamps lighted at dusk, knew nothing of the “visual pollution” which chokes our night skies. Of course, all of us still know the feeling described by the poet Emily Dickinson when she reminds us, in contrast to our habit of becoming accustomed to the “natural” dark, that we are often ill at ease with what she calls the “larger darknesses,” “evenings of the brain” as she calls them in which we find neither moon- nor starlight to guide us on our way.[3]

We recognize in these states of interior confusion and anxiety, often triggered by the disorientation of suffering and loss, a threat to our well-being. But they also may represent, as the Spanish mystic John of the Cross astutely observes, the occasion for a deepening of insight, if not also a clarifying of difficult truths we find ourselves facing. The experience of such encounters, which he calls a “dark night of the soul,” confronts us with trials of anguish and terror familiar to the psalmist’s cry: “When shall I come and behold the face of my God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually: ‘Where is your god?’” (Ps. 42. 2 – 3) This “when” is the difficult truth of the long nightwatch that carries us through darkness.

Darkness and light are categories deeply rooted in biblical texts and traditions. Among these, a particularly bold claim prefaces the fourth gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1. 5). But such declarations of themselves cannot diminish the “larger darknesses” we face, the trials and tragedies that befall us and others despite the intensity of our prayers or the urgency of our need. We may find comfort in such words, but we know that they are finally unable to shield us from the burden of tragic suffering in our world – and, often enough, in our own lives.

Yet this is only one of the many reports found in the scriptures regarding darkness and light. The apostle Paul voices one in an altogether different vein, remembering the creation story with an unexpected twist: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts” (2 Cor. 4. 6). This is a startling variation of the ancient story, a shift which may be small but is hardly insignificant. What would it mean to live as if this were true – namely, that our God is the one who brings forth light out of darkness? It may well be that this claim anticipates, though surely unintentionally, current scientific theories about the origins of the universe. But the force of the apostle’s intent steers in another direction, suggesting not how but that God works in unexpected ways and places – among those who are “afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed,” and in one of the most penetrating of images, those who are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4. 8 – 12). This is a truth we will come to know, if at all, only in the places of weakness, loss, and defeat.

Such a claim is alien to those offered by the “prosperity gospel” so widely marketed in our day. Nor does it have much of anything to do with a “purpose-driven life” with its relentless demand of meaning. It beckons us to yield to a deeper mystery found in the unknowable order of chaos, reminding us that “in a dark time, the eye begins to see.” It calls us to “fit our Vision to the Dark,” as Dickinson put it, when the darkness refuses to “alter” or change.

This faith finds its proper shape only in the crucible of darkness, offering itself to those led by night vision which “adjust[s] itself to Midnight,” as the poet suggests. It is the courage to continue even when prayer and effort cannot ameliorate the suffering that life and death throw our way. It is the unexpected conviction, to recall the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which knows that “darkness holds all things together”:

forms and flames, animals and myself, everything thrown together, humans and powers –

and it could be that a great strength moves all about me where I am.[4]

Is it possible that darkness is the bond holding the world together, a trace of the primal beginning before the advent of light? Rilke suggests as much, concluding this poem with the startling claim: “I believe in nights.”

What would it mean to say that we “believe” in nights, that we trust the darkness as a power holding the mysterious origins of light? How do we face our own burdens when the fragile web that seems to hold our world together – health, relationships, jobs – threatens to unravel or actually does? When we find our sense of control falling away? When terror or tragedy strikes us or others, and tears our world apart? When facing the terrible consequences of human evil in the “prayers that went up in smoke,” to recall haunting lines from the poem “Psalm” by the holocaust survivor Paul Celan?[5]

Our world is poised now, as it always seems to have been, on the edge of a darkness we cannot manage. I am aware of this when the telephone rings strangely late in the night and I rise to answer it with a sense of dread, wondering what difficult news it might bring. I sense it in the merciless happenings that clutter the news: the traffic accident that takes the lives of a group of teenagers out for a late-night ride; an apparently healthy baby struck by “sudden infant death syndrome”; the relentless violence stalking our cities; the senseless waste of war. In the face of such merciless tragedies, I find little comfort in Jesus’ promise – true as it may be – that he “will do whatever you ask in [his] name” (Jn. 14. 13), since reality often points to a much more difficult truth. In such times, we stumble in disbelief when our prayers cannot change circumstances, and we find ourselves joined with the psalmist and with the crucified savior in crying out: “Where is my God?”

I wonder what Rilke meant about believing in nights, and whether darkness is ever a force that “holds everything together.” Too often I can only hope that a “great strength moves all about [us] wherever [we are],” beyond what we know. But such faith comes closer to grasping something essential about the incarnation than does the wishful thinking Voltaire mocked in his character Candide, who continued to insist despite insurmountable personal loss and tragedies of epic proportion – in his case, the massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755 – that we live “in the best of all possible worlds.” He did not, nor do we. And we do not require the perpetual testimony of the modern media to convince us that the darkness is a ubiquitous force. God does not or will not “control” history or nature in any such way as this.

What we do find at the heart of the gospel narrative is a stark refusal of the notion of God as the great “fixer” of the world. This witness resists the lure of theodicy, refusing to account for God’s power and purposes in the face of evil. It announces that the “son” of God begins life in a contested birth and meets his end in an ignominious and cruel death. This God who is “with us” – “Emmanuel” – is the one who faces the darkness, having “emptied himself” of divine privilege and humbled himself in obedience “to the point of death.” This suffering servant took the psalmist’s bitter lament on his own lips when facing the cross with its torture, crying out in words the gospels record in the Aramaic he spoke: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22. 1) This same Jesus, the one who claims to be “the light of the world,” is the one who learns that light shines out of even this darkness. This is the one we come to know as God’s foolishness in contrast to our demand for wisdom, as God’s weakness against our desire for strength (cf. 1 Cor. 1. 20 – 31).

This is the “slave” (doulos) who remains vulnerable to tragedy and even despair, indwelling the night even to the point of a horrific death. This is the one who “shares our common lot,” as one modern statement of faith has it, offering his “presence in trial” as well as in our rejoicing.”[6] This solidarity, and not some promise of solutions stands at the heart of faith, which finds its pulse most profoundly in the midst of what both body and soul know as the “dark night.” We come to know the truth of the incarnation here or not at all.

Such faith chooses to take as its own the “mind” of this Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil. 2. 5 – 6). Following in his steps, it knows of God’s “visible absence,” as the poet Rod Jellema puts it, which

Makes it hard for us in our time To celebrate his invisible Presence.

But such faith knows another way despite the threat of darkness:

This must be why mystics and poets record The slender incursions of splintered light, Echoes, fragments, odd words and phrases Like flashes through darkened hallways.[7]

Such light splintered in “slender incursions” offers a hope that “shines in the darkness.” Fragments and echoes, when we find the courage to know them, keep faith alive – even, and perhaps especially, in the night. They offer an interior optics by which the eye begins to see, a “night vision” no longer dependent upon the artificial light we might produce by our own efforts. They remind us that faith is in truth “the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11. 1). Mystics and poets know this. So do the rest of us, stumbling upon their “odd word and phrases” and finding that they point us to a light that comes “out of darkness,” if often as “flashes through darkened hallways” of our lives. “In a dark time” this faith invites us to trust the God we face in the memory of the crucified one, the one who waits with us precisely in the absences. This is the faith which assures us that the night is not finally an “unoccupied country.” Against such a specter, it offers a taste of presence at the very heart of our hunger, an instance of what theologians once knew as a sacrament of desire; an “assurance of things hoped for,” which brings us the courage to sing even while waiting for the light’s coming – out of the darkness. The quiet word humbly heard; a trace of incarnation glimpsed in the long night. God among us once again, even here, even now.

[1] Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), 231.[2] Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Our Vanishing Night,” National Geographic 214 (November, 2008): 106, 108.[3] The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 198.[4] My own translation, ©2009, of a poem included in The Book of Hours, from the first part entitled Vom mönchischen Leben; Sämtliche Werke, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1955), 258 – 59.[5] Paul Celan, “Königswut,” first published in Atemwende; see Die Gedichte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005), 202. My translation.[6] “Statement of Faith” of the United Church of Christ; republished in The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1995), 885.[7] Rod Jellema, A Slender Grace: Poems (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 13.

This article originally published in Mark’s book, Weavings 24: 1 (2009).

Mark S. Burrows

Mark S. Burrows

A longtime resident of New England, Mark S. Burrows, Phd has spent the last decade teaching religion and literature at a university in Bochum, Germany, and was part of the “Bonn Rilke Project” that offered programs across the country blending original jazz compositions with meditations on Rilke’s poems and photographic images. He is the translator of what would become ‘Part I” of Rilke’s Book of Hours, published as Prayers of a Young Poet (2012/2016), as well as 99 Psalms by the contemporary Iranian-German poet SAID. Other recent publications include a collection of his recent poems, The Chance of Home: Poems (2018) and two volumes of meditative poems inspired by Meister Eckhart, written with Jon M. Sweeney: Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart (2017) and Meister Eckhart’s Book of Secrets (2019). The recipient of the Witter Bynner Prize in Poetry, he remains an active member of the Bochumer Literaten, a circle of professional writers living and working in the Ruhr Region of Germany.

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