In Praise of Darkness

In the first weekend of October, Mormon leaders gathered in Salt Lake City to share roughly ten hours of religious discourse. Two talks yesterday got my attention especially as it comes on the first weekend of October and the upcoming Halloween season. The first, by Elder Stevenson used the recent solar eclipse as a metaphor. The sun’s warmth, light and energy can be diminished by something relatively small and insignificant. We need the light and the warmth, but sin and pride might dim that light for a time. Then later, in the priesthood session, Elder Uchtdorf describes darkness as something that “reduces our ability to see clearly.” And implores each of us to stand in a place where we can receive light. I don’t see anything wrong with these points. Of course the sun is beautiful, necessary and life-giving. Of course, we need light to see clearly. We all appreciate the sun rise after a spell of darkness. As Jimmy Hendrix sings from “Are You Experienced”:

If you can just get your mind together
then come across to me
We’ll hold hands an’ then we’ll watch the sun rise
from the bottom of the sea

And you can see that point in Hendrix’s song. In darkness, we aren’t totally ourselves. If we can just “get our mind together” then we can “hold hands an watch the sun rise”.

But I can’t help thinking as I listened to these talks that they are missing something beautiful and necessary about darkness. Mormon theology can be very binary. In the second chapter in the 2 Nephi of the Book of Mormon, Lehi describes an oppositional theology that drives modern Mormonism:

11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

That something is either filled with light, goodness and righteousness, or darkness, misery, and evil. We are implored to seek the light and oppose the darkness. This doesn’t ring completely true in my lived experience. At a minimum, it needs to be supplemented with a bit more complexity.

For one thing, the eclipse itself is an interesting metaphor here, because I don’t think people view the actual eclipse as something we need to endure. In fact just the opposite actually happened. During the recent eclipse, thousands of people traveled miles to be within the geographic band where the total eclipse could be experienced. Thousands of people sacrificed time, money and convenience to have a two minute experience in darkness during the middle of the day. They experienced a drastic temperature drop, the stars came out. Many were inspired by the experience. Some may say they found God in darkness. They felt God in the eclipse.

Some of my most sacred experiences have happened camping in the woods in the darkness. I can think of night hikes in the moonlight or nights deep in the woods away from light pollution, able to see the night sky clearly to witness what the sun obscures, a literal innumerable sea of stars. I felt a sense of awe and wonder realizing the scale of the universe and my tiny place within it. In this sense, I was only able to really see clearly in darkness. In this sense, the sun’s light made it difficult for me to actually see some things.

Recently, my son spent a week in Camp Geronimo. I went up for the last day and with him and the other boys, enjoyed the last night campfire. The pounding of the drums as we walked down quietly and reverently toward our seats, made more solemn and humble in the darkness.

I think there’s some things that are both beautiful and important that can only be experienced in darkness. And at times, light itself can be the problem.
Tucson, Arizona passed an ordinance in 1972 to limit artificial light pollution “in order to conserve energy and to preserve the crystal clarity of the dry desert air, which has drawn professional astronomers for more than a century. ”

And there’s something about night that affects the way a person thinks. The thoughts one thinks at night are not the same thoughts that occur in the daytime. Perhaps we’re a more unrealistically ambitious at night? A bit dreamy and visionary? I read “For Whom The Bell Tolls” several years ago, but the passage that stuck with me is the frantic thoughts of the hero of the novel as he compares one’s thinking in the daylight hours with those of the night.

But your plan stinks. It stinks, I tell you. It was a night plan and it’s morning now. Night plans aren’t any good in the morning. The way you think at night is no good in the morning. So now you know it is no good.

There is no question that night time is hard. I know I have a hard time sometimes just going to sleep. But there is something democratically egalitarian about sleep itself. The poor, those in prison, the rich, the single and the married all slumber in the same way. And there is something deeply tragic about those who aren’t physically able to find a good night sleep.

But darkness and night is at the core of the Christian experience. Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward” is a deep dive on how one can only really find God in the darkness. It’s only when we fall are we truly saved.  In the introduction of the book:

In legends and literature, sacrifice of something to achieve something else is almost the only pattern. Dr. Faust has to sell his soul to the devil to achieve power and knowledge. Sleeping Beauty must sleep for a hundred years before she can receive the prince’s kiss. In Scripture, we see that the wrestling and wounding of Jacob are necessary for Jacob to become Israel (Genesis 32:26-32), and the death and resurrection of Jesus are necessary to create Christianity.  The loss and renew pattern is constant and ubiquitous that is should hardly be called a secret at all.

These dark nights of the soul experiences are necessary, essential. We can spend our lives resisting them. Or we can lean into them and experience the beauty and learn the lessons that can only be found in darkness.

The entire time writing this post this song kept playing in my head and so I think it’s the theme of the post. Enjoy.

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