Daily, the sun blinks out of existence in the late afternoon. The winter solstice nears. Darkness expands, reaching, grabbing, emptying the world of light like a short-tempered man taking out the trash. I loathe this world, this current darkness. And given how many lights people are putting on trees and poles and railings, in windows, dangling from gutters, it seems like everyone else itches to escape the darkness too.
It’s the negative space, the place between the lights, that’s the problem. And no matter how much we may feel lifted by Christmas carols or swanky, commercial jingles, the sky is more dark than light, more night than day. Those spaces between the pin-head sized points of light are vastly greater than we can imagine. The darkness goes forever and in every direction. And isn’t that our biggest fear? We are afraid of nothing. Or, perhaps better stated, we’re afraid of the nothing we came from and the nothing that’s everywhere – the nothing, our fear tells us, that we are headed back towards – the eternal darkness that ticks away, recycling the timeless nothingness. Tick, Tick, Tick.
I am wandering around Topsail Island. Its late and no one much lives on Topsail Island in the wintertime. For every house that’s saturated with the warmth of LED lights, ten or more houses seem empty, vacant, abandoned for warmer, more populated places. Coastal North Carolina is a strange place in the winter. We can enjoy temperatures in the 70’s one day and the very next day it may threaten snow. But the darkness is indifferent to warm and cold. Tonight, the wind pierces through layers, my breath exhales clouds. The darkness, the darkness imbibes into my inner crevices.
I roam around, pulled out of dark stretches to lit patches like an iron filing drawn towards a magnet. I confess I don’t get it: these Christmas trees and wreaths and spotted lights that turn a perfectly good brick home into some sort of swirling holiday plaid. And the more I stand around and photograph them, the more I start to look on them as an anthropologist or a visiting foreigner.
I think of all the energy and “holiday spirit,” whatever that is, it takes to put a blow-up Santa Claus in the front yard. Envelop trees with stringy cords. Climb ladders. Go to the hardware store three times in one day. My neighbors apparently get it. Their houses are a variable display of festive moxie. My house, well, when my wife asked if we could give away our Christmas tree to someone who needed one, I excitedly said, “Yes.”
I don’t want to get your hopes up. If you’re expecting me to segue into an essay on “the real meaning of Christmas,” I’m not. This isn’t that kind of essay, and I’m not that kind of Christian – as if there is single meaning of Christmas or a theological necessity for flying reindeer. Besides, that’s the wrong liturgical season anyway. Advent requires the darkness. It requires a brood of vipers and wrath to come and an ax lying at the root of the trees.The Messiah is coming, and he is bringing a baptism of fire. What part of this leads people to decorate their houses with manger scenes and garland and tinsel? I don’t know.
There’s an angel on the side of the road between Surf City and Topsail Beach. I pull over to take a picture. I wish the angel would speak to me. I wish the angel would say, Do not be afraid. I wish it would say, I am bringing you good news of great joy. Maybe it would if it were Christmas Eve, but tonight all I hear is a stray car pass by and the quiet hum of the street light above. The angel is, of course, another decoration, another reminder that there is some light in the darkness. But it also reminds me that all of these lights in the darkness are artificial.
I love the summer when the sun only begins to fade around nine in the evening. Now it is dark before dinner time. Darkness is a sad, remorseless certitude. Darkness is the true condition of the universe. I know the bible verses: The light shines in the darkness… Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.
“The light of life?” I confess that between wrestling antidepressants bottles and practicing my breathing to stave off a panic attack and campaigning against the noonday devil and resisting laced siren tonics – tie me to your mast, oh Lord, tie me up! – the light of life is hard to see. As the lights in the heavens, one by one, over hundreds of billions of years, extinguish themselves back to the nothing they once were, darkness will be all that is left. That darkness, that inevitability seems a more apt analog. Isn’t the journey of life nothing more than seeing through the darkness?
I drive down a bit further and end up standing on the beach. There is nothing here. Nothing. In every direction there isn’t a hint of humanity except the lights on a distant fishing pier. At my feet is an out-of-place granite rock, the kind that is used for jetties or lawn decoration. I don’t think about how it got there. Instead I think about the slow movement of the Earth’s crust that will slowly pull the rock into the ocean and down into the abyss. I think about millions and millions of years the journey will take, how over the course of that journey the stars in the sky will reposition themselves and how there will be no trace of humanity’s existence left.
The ocean waves, how many have been counted? How many more are still to come? I wonder if there is any meaning to it at all unless I think about it. Does my thinking about it, this marvelous consciousness, give meaning to the universe? Does contemplation give rise to existence or is the other way around? Does the rock and the waves and even the earth itself birth some undetected consciousness, a relational emergence that goes undiscovered much the same way my body is connected with my soul? I don’t know. But I do know that the answer can’t be found in the darkness. The darkness, this negative space, houses unanswered questions.
I know God is in the darkness. Like a half-asleep insomniac banging into a wall, I bump into God all the time. God never apologizes for being in the way; God simply steps aside and follows me into the bathroom. God is in the hand of the beggar who reaches for daily bread. God is in the prisoner scouring the Bible looking for the reason of his fall from grace. God is in the eyes of the man who is ashamed to ask for a favor. God is everywhere beyond the grasp of comprehension and attainable knowledge. God is the nexus, stitching scraps and swatches of humanity into the tapestry of humankind, and, all the while, God is completely transcended, other, unknowable. God is everywhere so much so that we mistake God’s light for darkness. This isn’t the absence of light but true light’s excess.
I want to know, I want to comprehend that true light: the light of the first day when God said, Let there be light. Creation can keep the light of the fourth day, the two great lights – the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night – and the stars. The only way out of this kind of darkness is with that one eternal light, that God is light, that Christ is the light of the world, that the Holy Spirit enlightens. The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light.
It’s too cold to stay on the beach dreaming up derivative fantasies. I put my foot on the granite rock and take in the absence. I absorb it, breathe it. I know I am part of the darkness. There is a kinship between my internal mind, my dark interior, and the dark external world. The inside of me, the thinking part, the feeling part, my interior castle is shadowed by darkness. And maybe this is the greatest insight I will ever have: if God can be both human and divine, God’s light is too much and that too muchness of God keeps me in God’s holy darkness.
Don’t we all live our lives too much outside of ourselves? Maybe I can raise my tolerance of darkness by not judging what is beautiful through a camera lens. Maybe God’s darkness turns to the light of life by connecting what is externally beautiful to the beautiful darkness within.
“I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late! You were
within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I
fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of
this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You
called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me, your radiance
enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight.” – Augustine.