One discovers the light in darkness. That is what darkness is for. But everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found there is a light.
—James Baldwin, Nothing Personal
In the northern hemisphere, Advent always arrives at the ripe time, as the light wanes and the days darken. This means that all of us move into darkness now, in one or both of two ways: there is this natural fading of the light, a time of hunkering down inside and of gathering together for warmth; and/or, the dark times that come into everyone’s lives due to the various circumstances of life. In either case, or both, we are now in dark times.
If we enter Advent in its deeper mythological sense, the story holds clues to ways to navigate the seasonal darkness as well dark times in the seasons of life. For in this story, an event in which nothing is truly known other than a birth of a Jewish child in an out-of-the-way place in a small occupied territory within the Roman Empire of the 1st century BCE is made into a cosmic event affecting the entire known world.
In order to hold the primal fear, deep pain and unknown mysteries of the darkest times it is necessary to have a larger “container” than our little survival-oriented ego-selves, in order to embrace the fullness of whatever experience we are having in the times of darkness. Our recent Spiritual Searcher, Nancy Ellen Abrams, reminded us again of the cosmic container we possess (or better, that possesses us!) of our 13.8-billion-year history as the crowning point of conscious evolution.
Basic spiritual practices put us in touch with the larger container, and why they are even more important in dark times. You could call them “human” practices or even “earth” practices because they are that basic, and simple: being aware of our breath when in a stressful conversation, sensing into your body when waiting impatiently at a traffic light, being aware of your physical sensations and your emotions just a little bit more when you are giving or receiving a hug. These practices “ground” us in something larger, what can easily be called “The Ground of our Being.”
Second, the myth of Advent has Mary, with the seed of God within, “pondering all these things in her heart.” The hunkering down of winter is a time for hibernation and reflection; a time for inquiry into the deeper meaning and purpose of life and of our individual lives.
Nancy Abrams teaches that our “aspirations” are keys to discovering “a God that could be real.” “God emerges from our aspirations,” she says, “so embrace aspirations worthy of the kind of God you want.” In the dark, holding on to our aspirations is essential. At her workshop, Nancy gave us a “prayer” inquiry exercise to practice:
Write your name on one line of a sheet of paper followed by a colon with this question: What are my real aspirations? Then write the word “God” on a line below that, also followed by a colon. And then let “God’s” answer arise, as you write it, in all the time it takes for that to happen. A minute, a day, a week, a year.
One of the larger containers that hold my darkness and pain are my children, and especially now, my grandchildren, and those souls who will be their grandchildren. In that light, Marian Wright Edelman gives this inquiry exercise for living in times that are dark:
What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of people do we want our children to be? What kind of moral examples, teachings, choices—personal, community, economic, faith, and political—are we parents, grandparents, community adults, political leaders, and citizens prepared to make in this new century and millennium to make our children strong inside and empower them to seek and help build a more just, compassionate, and less violent society and world?
Paula d’Arcy, who suffered the tragic loss of her husband and 21-month-old daughter in a car accident and faced all the darkness of that experience eventually came to a place where she could begin to wonder, and to advise others in darkness, to ask these questions about our dark circumstances:
What might this be saying to me in my life? What if this is a summons and not just the fact that life is radically and inexorably hard? What if something is trying to open up something inside of me…?
We need, says Marian Wright Edelman, “spiritual anchors to meet challenges with resiliency, knowing always what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’”
Most of those spiritual anchors we need are human ones. James Baldwin, a voice from “the margins” we need to hear from again, concludes, “I know we often lose…and how often one feels that one cannot start again. And yet, on pain of death, one can never remain where one is. The light. One will perish without the light… For nothing is fixed, forever, and forever, and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witness they have…The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. And the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
In the dark times, we need each other even more. Shalom.