Spirituality of the Readings
Darkness can terrify us.
But 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 are typical of Ireland and make it so green.
I had an experience of a dark day when I was in Hawaii, no less, a place where light abounds. A brother Jesuit and I agreed to climb all the way up the side of Maui’s volcanic mountain—with a guide and with friends—and then climb down into the huge crater itself.
Fine, but no one had mentioned the great dark cave at the other end of the crater floor. This was a “lava tube,” formed when a huge molten stream began to cool and harden its outside while the inside continued to flow, leaving a hollow. Of course this is why it was a “tube.” We were ushered into this cave/tube, and of course went trustingly. After a few curves and reverses, there was no morsel of natural light left in the cave! Only one small electric bulb (our salvation). We settled down on various rocks by its light.
Then our “guide” turned it off.
He had warned us of this ahead of time, very kindly and all, but the words “put out the light” did not sound comforting to my ears.*
Deep, undifferentiated darkness settled in around us and around everything. Eyes open, eyes closed, it was all the same. No light, no shadow, no least glow. Obviously he knew that we would feel trapped and afraid, lost in a strange place, our eyes put out.
But the result was just the opposite. Against all reason, I felt wonderful: wonderful rest, wonderful peace.
“I’ll turn the light back on now,” the guide whispered after several minutes, but we stopped him. “No, no, leave it off. Give us more time.” We sat, unseeing, united, consoled by the warmth and depth of absolute night.
When the tiny bulb did finally return, our own eyesight surprised us. Sight was like a memory that had slipped away. Darkness made a resting place in which our souls re-charged, our eyes recovered their innocence. Maybe our daylight world had become too ordinary, too usual, too much just a tool to be used. Now the light seemed miraculous, a gift from God—even if it came through a trivial incandescent bulb!
Why am I telling this? Well, in Sunday’s Gospel the people hungered for light like this. To John the Baptist they shouted, in effect, “are you the light?” Will you “bring glad tidings to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives and release [to] the prisoners” (First Reading)? The Baptist said. I am only pointing you toward the light. It will be here soon. Hold my arm till he comes.
Have you and I found his arm to hold onto? What is our experience of darkness? Is it the opposite of quiet? For some of us, terror is its name!
However unrelieved our night may be, know that there is always, forever, the promise of light. When we have been destitute for a long long time, even one speck of light will change everything.
A tiny child might provide this on Christmas Eve!
John Foley, SJ
* “Put out the light, and then, put out the light.” Those words are what Othello said just before he blew out the candle and then killed the sleeping Ophelia.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University