In defense of darkness

A menorah

Chanukah — the Jewish Festival of Lights — started at sundown last night. Advent — often referred to as the Season of Light in Christian contexts — began this past Sunday.

In geological terms, the confluence of these two religious seasons of light kicks up a lot of my contrarian sediment. In astrological terms, when these seasons roll around, the bull-girl in me feels like stomping my hooves and bellowing, “Why don’t we ever celebrate the bounty of darkness?? Snort!”

An Advent wreath

I get why the pre-Edisonian agrarian cultures of the Northern Hemisphere would have wanted, even needed, to celebrate light as the dark days of winter grew longer and colder, bringing with them the sorts of blights and diseases that thrive when people find themselves in closer quarters with less fresh air.

But in the technological context of my urban post-industrial culture, it feels to me almost impossible to get away from light. Clocks glow in the dark. Electronic devices have LED indicators that glow red or orange or green to indicate that they are plugged in and ready to go. Streetlights come on at dusk and remain lit until dawn.

So when Advent begins, and we start singing hymns and hearing scriptures and prayers that equate light with hope, promise, salvation, goodness, cleanliness, and all other things bright and beautiful, my impulse is to defend darkness’ bad reputation. Why should light get all the good press?

GForce asked me once, “What did I do when I was born? Who did I look at? What did I say?” I explained that when she was born, she moved from the dark, cozy environment of my body into a hospital room that was both brightly lit and set to an ambient temperature that was sub-optimal for a new person who was both naked and wet. I added, “So what you did was you had your eyes slammed shut, your hands were balled up into cranky fists, and you were screaming your head off.” I suspect she had a different scenario in mind — perhaps a gauzy, Christmas pageant-style birth — because her response was to guffaw in disbelief.

I reflect a lot on that conversation, and my pregnancy, during Advent. One of the refrains of Advent — between hymns, readings, and the omnipresence of Handel’s “Messiah” — is the line from the beginning of Chapter 9 in Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Whenever I hear that line, I’m reminded that when I’ve been walking in darkness, great light is blinding — at least momentarily.

I much prefer when the mysteries that darkness protects — such as the growth of an infant, the spinning of the earth, the weird wisdom of dreams — are illuminated more gradually, and less with the “Let’s put on a show!” grandeur of Isaiah. When the mysteries of darkness are revealed one candle at a time, as in Chanukah and Advent, we stand a much better chance of greeting the revelation with our eyes wide open, not squeezed up into two little slits.

It seems to me that the candles of these seasons are, by their humble nature, designed to NOT provide a great light. Rather, the flickering nature of candlelight seems inseparable from the darkness that laps at the edges of the candles’ glow. With that image in mind, I offer you an homage to the often overlooked and undervalued shadows of Chanukah and Advent: Wendell Berry’s tiny poem “To know the dark.”

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.


There are lots of songs about darkness. I waffled around between The Weepies’ “Lighting Candles,” KT Tunstall’s “Through the Dark” and many others. But I’ve decided to go with my first thought: this song based on Lord Byron’s poem “Dark Lochnagar.” I’ve loved the Scottish duo The Corries since I was first introduced to their music in 1983 by the best boss I ever worked for, a Scotsman who hailed from Dundee. In particular, I love the Adventy ache I feel when they harmonize the line, “I sigh for the valley o’ Dark Lochnagar.”


7 responses to “In defense of darkness

  1. Had a conversation with a friend yesterday in which he quoted a professor of religious studies he took a course with in the mid-70s: “When I was in seminary, before I saw the darkness…” Maybe he should have stuck with it; he may have been on to something we could all use right now. Saw Vision yesterday, too, the German film about Hildegard von Bingen. An early scene shows us a group of people gathered on the eve of the first millennium in a candlelit chapel; the candles go out and they all hunker down for what they believe (and have been told by the priest) will be their last night of life. A young man rises in the morning and opens the doors of the chapel to a very surprising sunrise. I felt a moment of near disappointment that life was just going on — millennium, schmillennium. And then I remembered, too, how hopeful I’d been at Y2K that the technology doom-and-gloomers’ predictions about the millennial demise of computing would be right and we’d return to a darker, better way of living.

  2. I think Carl G. Jung would have loved Wendell Berry’s poem and Joy’s blog! Darkness teaches and reveals. Shades that are our ancestors and shadows and the edge of the dark wood. Not often pleasant but places to grow. Sundown here so I’m venturing forth. Courage. DRB

  3. Speaking of the weird wisdom of dreams!

    Dawn Dreams
    by Rachel Hadas

    Dreams draw near at dawn and then recede
    even if you beckon them.
    They loom like demons
    you tug by the tail to examine from up close
    and then let fly away.
    Their colors at once brighter and less bright
    than you remembered, they
    hover and insinuate all day
    at the corner of your eye.

    I’m off to see the Hildegard movie!

  4. some things kick up so much sediment, it hardly gets pressed into rock

  5. I love this post Joy. As someone with pronounced Seasonal Affective Disorder I have no love for the short dreary days of Nov. and Dec. …but maybe that’s the point of Advent? Sometimes you need to hunker down and spend time in the darkness. It’s natural. (On the other hand give me a summer night in a wilderness meadow with the Milky Way any time! or following Berry’s advice take a night walk in the woods with no flashlight)
    We like to rush straight into Christmas — my neighbors have decked the fence with lights and greens already. We will keep a bare and dreary front a bit longer.

  6. Pingback: Singing in the dark | Madroño Ranch

  7. Pingback: Apocalypse How Now Brown Cow | The Crooked Line

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