Seeing in the Dark

We are made for light. Sunlight literally triggers a happiness hormone in our brains that helps us stay calm and focused. Researchers now know that certain conditions—like depression and anxiety—get worse when we don’t get enough sunlight. Many of us complain on gray, dreary days in the middle of winter that we feel blue and have no energy. Scientists have learned that Seasonal Affective Disorder—a type of depression that seems tied to the low light in colder months–can be managed successfully with the help of a full-spectrum light that emulates sunlight.

Research is showing that getting a healthy amount of light also keeps our bones strong and helps prevent cancer, clears up skin conditions, and can even help reduce flare-ups of autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and thyroid disease. The World Health Organization says that getting five to 15 minutes of sunlight on your arms, hands, and face two to three times a week is enough to get the vitamin D boost that brings about those health benefits.

Of course we need the darkness too. The fading of the light triggers our brains to release the hormone melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. We need both sides—light and dark, activity and rest—in order to feel healthy and whole, to have a natural rhythm in our lives. In recent years there has been much research on the importance of sleep–how getting a good night’s rest contributes to our overall well-being—but scientists still haven’t answered the question why we need to sleep at all. Why were we made in such a way that one third of our lives would be spent, literally, in a dream state?

But we were made to be adaptable, and adapt, we do. Most of us seem to find the right balance of light and dark that works for us. Some of us stay up into the wee hours and then sleep late in the morning; others are up before the sun and fizzle out just past sunset (I’m part of that group.) But learning to live—and tolerate, and even thrive—in both light and dark is one of the ongoing lessons of all our lives.

It’s harder, though, to adapt when the darkness isn’t just a 10-hour stretch that will end with the sun coming up tomorrow. When a time of darkness is a sudden crisis—like the loss of a job, a scary diagnosis, or a time of upset and distrust in our country—the darkness seems heavier, more permanent, more immoveable. We worry that maybe things have changed; we might not come through okay. What if the light never returns?

This reminds me of the first scene of the movie Vision, which is about the life of the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen. The movie opens with a scene inside an ancient sanctuary on the last night of the first millennium. The first dramatic and dark moments show candlelight reflecting on the sorrowing and frightened faces of the faithful townspeople as they hold their prayer beads and pray. The priest says, “This is a momentous night—our last night on earth. After this day there shall be no new day. For time has fulfilled itself.” He admonishes them to “reflect on their sins, repent, and await the end in humility and silence.” They were convinced, on this eve of the end of time, that the light wouldn’t come again.

The next scene shows a soft gray cast in the still sanctuary, with the camera’s focus on a tiny girl, who is smiling softly at her doll as she smooths the doll’s hair. Around her, the space is filled with still-sleeping people. We realize before they do that what the priest foretold has not happened; the light has returned. The world did not end. A young man wakes and, in wonder, steps gently over the sleeping people and goes to the massive front door. With both hands, he pushes it open and we all see the rising sun.

Hildegard’s visions began at the age of three; she realized by age 5 that she was experiencing things others didn’t see. She, like George Fox, had an immediate, transforming, and ongoing relationship with the Light. After a remarkable life in which she founded and led convents, created great spiritual music and artistic works, and developed a comprehensive system of medicine that heals body and soul, Hildegard wrote a letter to her superior, saying,

“From my early childhood, before my bones, nerves and veins were fully strengthened, I have always seen this vision in my soul, even to the present time when I am more than seventy years old. In this vision my soul, as God would have it, rises up high into the vault of heaven and into the changing sky and spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away from me in distant lands and places. And because I see them this way in my soul, I observe them in accord with the shifting of clouds and other created things. I do not hear them with my outward ears, nor do I perceive them by the thoughts of my own heart or by any combination of my five senses, but in my soul alone, while my outward eyes are open. So I have never fallen prey to ecstasy in the visions, but I see them wide awake, day and night. And I am constantly fettered by sickness, and often in the grip of pain so intense that it threatens to kill me, but God has sustained me until now. The light which I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud which carries the sun. I can measure neither height, nor length, nor breadth in it; and I call it “the reflection of the living Light.” And as the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in water, so writings, sermons, virtues, and certain human actions take form for me and gleam.”

Do you hear something familiar in Hildegard’s writing here? She knows the living Light—as Fox knew, as we know today. In our verses from Psalm 139, the psalmist puts it this way: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

Sometimes when we hit dark times of turbulence in our lives, we can feel like we’ve suddenly lost a blessing somehow, like something has gone wrong in our life of faith that allowed this hardship into our experience. Otherwise, how could this happen? We may even be tempted to wonder if, for one reason or another, God has turned his face the other way. The problem with this kind of thinking—even though it’s understandable as we try to make sense of what’s happening—is that it perpetuates the mistaken idea that is also at the heart of the prosperity gospel: That when we are right with God, life will be great and we will have all we need—health, wealth, and abundant blessing. But here’s the catch: the reverse is a slippery slope. If God is with us when times are good, it would follow that God isn’t with us when times are bad. And we can extend that damaged thinking as we look at others’ lives as well. We could end up sounding and acting like Job’s unhelpful friends: “What did he do to call such trouble on himself?” they asked. They blamed him for his hardships.

But the psalmist knew the truth: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.” The whole thing isn’t about whether we are blessed or cursed, whether we have feast or famine, health or illness—the point is that God is with us in all of it, in light and in dark and every shade in-between. This is true not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is and what God does. God’s nature is Love itself. There is literally no place we can go that is outside the presence of God.

James Nayler was an early Friend who earned a bit of a reputation as the “bad boy” of Quakerism because his passion and belief took him a bit too far. In October of 1656, he felt led to reenact Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and he rode a horse into the small English town of Bristol. He was arrested and convicted of blasphemy and after a highly publicized case, he was imprisoned for two years and put through several public and painful humiliations, one of which involved being branded on the forehead with the letter B, for “Blasphemer.”

Even so, James had a real and abiding faith and a deep trust in God. George Fox was horrified by the public spectacle, writing in his Journal that, “James ran out into imaginations, and a company with him; and they raised up a great darkness in the nation.” Years later, though, the two men would reconcile when James went to Fox to ask his forgiveness. His “imaginings” notwithstanding, James Nayler’s writings leave us with the testimony of a real and deeply lived faith. Here is his best answer to his—and our—times of darkness:

“Art thou in darkness? mind it not, for if thou do it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till light arise out of darkness to lead thee.”

This beautiful idea—that the true answer to anything we face is to remember God and let the light lead—is so simple, so clear, so easy we may miss it or forget to follow it in our daily circumstances. When something unwanted happens, our reaction is to fight, to push back on the darkness, to figure out what went wrong, and turn on a light to make it all go away. But those answers—fighting, trying, pushing, struggling—are often born of fear, not of that deep sense of abiding trust that God is here—right here in our present difficulty—and that we can trust God to provide the light we need to open the way.

Jesus was speaking about the radiance of God’s presence in our lives when he told the large crowd on the mountainside,

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your lights shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

When we face a challenge in our life we may, understandably, be focused on what’s going on inside and around us, trying to sort things out, lessen the pain, get through the difficulty, whatever it may be. We might not give a lot of thought to how others are witnessing our situation. But God’s presence continues to shine out of our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not. Have you ever gone through something rough and afterward, had someone come up to you and say, “I don’t know how you got through that with such grace,” or “You’re so strong” or “I don’t think I could have handled that as well as you did.” They are letting you know they saw God’s light at work in you, even if you missed it at the time. People notice. People feel it. The light shines on, in all we say and do and are.

Last week on social media I passed along a cartoon drawn by Sandra Boynton, a wonderful author and illustrator of children’s picture books—some of my kids’ favorites–like Moo, Baa, La La La, Hippos Go Berserk! And But Not the Hippopotamus. The cartoon showed a picture of a bewildered-looking cat with wide-open eyes, holding a single lighted candle. The words above the image said simply, “Offer whatever light you can.”

In times that seem dark and uncertain, that is excellent counsel. And it’s good for us to be reminded: We aren’t mere recipients of the light or darkness surrounding us. We aren’t passive participants, fated to simply accept whatever pressures and hardships life brings. We have another option that is much more powerful and loving and creative, one that brings into full, living color the peace of God’s presence. If we would use this gift to help our world, it’s vitally important that we remember that we are bringers of the light ourselves. The light of the world, Jesus said. We carry that light, God’s light, because “that of God” is within us, always and everywhere. There’s no place we can flee from it, this inherent power and ability to brighten the corner where we are—bringing kindness and warmth, modeling peace and forgiveness and respect—simply with the quality of our presence. It happens without effort. It’s the natural shining of the light. We were made for it.

I’d like to end with a lovely poem by Danusha Lameris called Small Kindnesses. You’ll hear the shine:

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We wanted to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting templates we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

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