Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bright Darkness

"The People who walked in darkness have seen a great Light." --Isaiah 9:2
Orthodox Church Easter Vigil, Toronto, Canada

Several Staff Members gather with me each week to discuss the Scripture Readings and other aspects of the Sunday Liturgy. This upcoming Sunday has the passage from the prophet Isaiah which proclaims: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." The Sunday Gospel from Matthew quotes Isaiah in regard to Jesus as this Light. (Isaiah 9:2 & Matthew 4:12-16)
I noted that last Sunday, Isaiah was also read and light was mentioned: "I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6b) Also, I noted that next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord where Simeon says of the Child Jesus: "for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel." (Luke 2;30-32) And, interestingly, the Sunday following (on February 9) also mentions light again.
My group had an interesting discussion about the images of darkness and light in the Readings for this Sunday. We tend to think of darkness as negative, a symbol of evil, ignorance, and sin; light is positive, a symbol of good, enlightenment and knowledge, and being Godlike.
But God created the day and the night. Is darkness always negative? Biologically, most humans need darkness in order to sleep and rest. We would not see the stars except at night (and the darker the place one is, the more amazingly lighted up is the night sky by the stars). Our first nine months of life is in a dark, but comforting place: the womb!
Several of my group said that they don’t like when night is falling. I, however, like dusk. When the colors soften and the light begins to dim, it has some kind of comforting effect upon me. I like very much the Evening Hymn "Day is Done":
"Day is done, but love unfailing
dwells ever here.                   
Shadows fall, but hope, prevailing,
calms every fear.
Loving Father, none forsaking,
take our hearts of Love's own making
Watch our sleeping, guard our waking,
be always near."
(Listen to the Hymn HERE )
As I later privately reflected upon the darkness and light symbolism, which I am sharing about now, I remembered an interesting thing I read many years ago and had to research again to refresh my memories: it is the concept of "bright darkness" in Christian mysticism.
I had been reading the fascinating account written by a 12 century Benedictine monk, Abbot Suger, who renovated the French Royal Chapel of St. Denis in Paris and is credited with beginning the Gothic style of churches in the Middle Ages. Suger is also credited with using more stained glass in a church building than previously, especially cobalt blue. This wasn’t just because of aesthetic reasons; and curiously, blue had very little religious symbolism before Abbot Suger. However, light shining through the dark blue was a perfect physical manifestation of the mystical theology of a Christian write now called Pseudo-Dionysius: It created a vision of "bright darkness."   For example, Pseudo-Dionysius wrote "Let us enter into the divine darkness – the light so bright it cannot be seen – and lose ourselves in the presence of God "
Tim Blanning in a Book Review published in the Times Literary Supplement (21 September 2011) notes:
"Christian disapproval of the night is as old as the New Testament. Unsurprisingly, St Paul’s epistles equate darkness with evil, as does John’s Gospel – ‘I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness’. However, there was another albeit less obtrusive theological tradition advocating a path leading to God that was not brilliantly lit. Especially influential was Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the fifth-century Syrian thinker, who proclaimed: ‘I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light!’. Those words are taken from his treatise The Mystical Theology and in the early modern period, too, it was the mystics who valued darkness. To the fore were two sixteenth-century saints – Teresa of Avila (1515–82) and John of the Cross (1542–91). In his poem ‘Dark Night’, John praised his subject in language eerily anticipating the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: ‘Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!’."
This "bright darkness" in Christian mysticism cautions against trying to explain everything in the "light" of rational thought only. The period of history we tellingly call the "Enlightenment" (17th & 18th centuries) tried to do just that, and God and religion hardly had anything praiseworthy in the "light" of such rationalism. The Middle Ages got called the "Dark Ages." Reason was deified by the French Revolution. The Catholic Church was particularly seen as "benighted."
But God cannot be limited by our limited human understanding, as wonderful as reason can be. There must be room for mystery and the paradoxes of "bright darkness" and knowing God also through unknowing (sic). The early Church called baptism "enlightenment" and also as "initiation into the mysteries." Sometimes night and darkness are indeed at the service of God. Witness the Exultet, sung at the Easter Vigil, when the Church is in darkness and the Paschal Candle is brought in and our congregational candles are lighted; then is sung in part: "This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness!"
A Church in Pittsburgh
This photo from a church in Pittsburgh captues what the Gothic Church renovatators like Abbot Suger were trying to capture: a certain darkness illuminated at the same time. Most Gothic Cathedrals are dark, or would be so now without modern lighting, and yet there was a soft glow of light from the stained glass. 
Here is a photo of the night sky illuminated with stars. It, too, is a "bright darkness." 
Abbot Suger's Church of St. Denis, though much has been added since the 12 century. The bootom rows of windows behind the altar was considered revolutionary in his day.
One of Abbot Suger's original windows. Note the cobalt blue, considered a dark color in his time. Many of the stained glass windows at St. Denis were destroyed in the "Enlightment" French Revolution. The windows were later replaced.
"Let us enter into the divine darkness – the light so bright it cannot be seen – and lose ourselves in the presence of God "