I have two questions to ask: Does anybody here know about Vega? No, it’s not about food. It’s the fifth brightest star in the sky, twenty-five light-years away; expected lifetime: one billion years. Or Alcor and Mizar, the horse and rider, a binary star system in the handle of the Big Dipper, a big star that seems to carry a small star on its back. You can see it with just your eyes. I know these things because I’ve spent a lot of time in the dark.
Northeast of Santa Fe, on the Pecos River, is a Benedictine monastery. In the heady days of the renewal movement of the 80’s when Dennis Bennett was here at St. Luke’s, I went to Pecos twice: the first time for a conference on the holy spirit. The second time, I went for silence. Instead, I sat up half the night under the clear desert sky with a member of the community, as I pointed out the baseball diamond straight overhead in summer, centered around the star Vega and the Northern Cross. My ten-year-old daughter had gone with me to Santa Fe, as well as my mother, three generations on the only trip we’d ever take together.
But in the year before Pecos, my daughter and I had lived alone for six months in a hunting camp, miles from the nearest dwelling. There was no telephone and no television. After she went to sleep in the log house, I walked around the camp and turned off every light switch and lay on an old plastic lounge chair, night after night, looking up. Across that long, flat field, there was no light on the horizon. It was completely dark, only the canopy of the sky. It was there that I learned the names of fifty stars and star formation, using a book I had had since my tenth birthday. It shows the rotation of the stars, the seasons of the year, and how to figure out which stars are where. Being in the dark gave me the chance me learn the names of stars like Castor and Pollux, Sirius, and Rigel, Bellegeuse and Bellatrix, but that would not have been possible without being enfolded in darkness. Only the dark let me witness an infinite amount of spectacular beauty that had been there all the time, waiting for me to pay attention.
But that was not the only sort of darkness. There was clinical depression, an implosion of brain chemicals after a family problem. I began to dream about a house falling apart, the roof leaking, the floor unstable. I read John Sanford, Episcopal clergy and Jungian analyst, and Alice Miller and Virginia Satir and the dream showed me that my house, where the soul lives, was in peril of coming apart at the seams.
It was on one of those nights that I saw the rings around Saturn using coordinates in the magazine Sky and Telescope. It was long before I had a vocabulary for such an experience, but it felt like a revelation, a gateway, a portal, as I stood on a threshold and felt something shift inside. None of these things, not the stars, not the rings, nor the glory, not the dreams, not a threshold, not recovery, could have come to pass without waiting inside the dark.
Last December a few days before the winter solstice, I took part in a liturgy to honor the present darkness. It begins: “Is everybody here? Is everybody safe? Is everybody awake?” This language comes from a night ritual of indigenous people, mentioned in Terry Gibson’s book The Liminal and the Luminescent, and the liturgy ends, “You will get home safe tonight.” It’s all about staying awake and safe even in the dark.
On the night of my first encounter with the rings, even though I knew little about scripture, a passage flashed across by mind about the hem of Jesus’ garment. Later, lying in the log house, I came across something else: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and anyone who hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in, and dine with them, and they with me.” I was transfixed, standing on one side of a door, wondering if there were a physical presence on the other side: another gateway, the second in six months.
The lessons for today use the word “light” seven times, as metaphor, but that’s not the whole story. The second question to ask is: Does anybody here know about the dreams of Joseph in the OT in Egypt, whose dream interpretation takes him to the highest level of authority. or Joseph of the holy family in the NT, in whose dream an angel of God tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, that the child conceived in her is from the holy spirit,” and in whose dream an angel of God appears and says, “Get up, and take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him,” and Joseph gets up and does was the dreams tells him, or Nicodemus seeking out Jesus under cover of night, or Jesus praying in Gethsemane at night, or rising from the dead before the sun rises?
It’s fitting to add a quote from Carl Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious.” This is the road to individuation, or as Catherine Meeks writes, it’s about growing into your own person instead of being the same as everybody else on the planet.”
It’s not my intent to contradict anything you’ve thought or believed, but this is an invitation to put aside the notion that there’s something wrong with being in the dark. Staying there in the unknown, in the dark, one’s eyes become accustomed to starlight. There’s enough, to be safe, and there’s no need to be in a hurry to leave. There’s enough to stand in front of a doorway, and open a door when there’s a knock, and find a sturdy house in which to dwell.