The Close and Holy Darkness
"We are bathed in mystery…That will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” ~Carl Sagan
“I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.” ~Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales
During this season when so many holy days are celebrated, many of us draw closer to mystery and awe than at any other time. The air is infused with songs connecting us to rich tapestries of cultural and religious history, to stories that house both hope and existential longing, a reaching for something sacred and profound like that distant star calling us forward towards the endlessly unanswerable questions of life. As we follow these trails towards truth each year, in music, in contemplation, in rituals like gift giving, we know we will never entirely grasp the import, or contain and exhaust the significance of a tradition, and yet this insufficiency holds allure rather than discouragement. It produces reverent awe.
I follow the Christian tradition and have always been enthralled by the thought of the Bethlehem star burning more brightly than the rest, leading worshippers to the Christ child through the enveloping dark of ancient Middle Eastern nights. Could a star really stop over a single location? Stars do not really stop, do they? Some recent, scientifically-backed theories support the idea that a star could appear to stop over a single location due to retrograde motion. This potential validation of the star of Bethlehem is heartening to a believer, and I am grateful to the mathematical calculations and scientific knowledge that have made this understanding of the phenomenon possible. At the same time, I prize the way that there remains an element of unproven speculation, retaining the mystery of the event. Therein rests some of its most exquisite beauty. It is not unlike poetry: allowing so much open to interpretation, leaving things left unsaid and unexplained. For those who appreciate poetry, that is a large part why we read it. We want to live with the tension between perception and that which lies just beyond our apprehension.
Perhaps it is a reverence for the way many sacred traditions, like poetry, elude exactness that is behind my love of the final line of Dylan Thomas’s glorious, evocative extended poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The main character, a young boy (presumably pre-teen) and representative of Thomas himself as a child, climbs into bed at the end of glittering, memory-laden Christmas, a day of swelling joy, festive food, and childhood mischief. As he prepares to drift off to sleep, we’re told he “said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then [he] slept.” The close and holy darkness. So often we associate holiness with light. I love this compelling intimation that there exists a holiness in the darkness, in the stillness found there, in its opacity, in the way that we must respect the darkness because it is the realm in which we can never clearly make out all shape and substance. We have to live with some mystery; we must make peace with some unknowing.
In this time of the pandemic, many of us have never had to make quite so much peace with darkness. We have had to come to terms with the paucity of our knowledge and to accustom ourselves to “only enough light to see our next steps.” As unmooring as that has been, I think it has done some of us good if we have learned how to be at rest despite the uncertainty. We cannot control everything, and we needn’t. We cannot understand absolutely everything. While I love nothing more than to learn and to understand, I also enjoy that there are things I never can and never will perceive with utter precision. Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest, writer, professor and theologian wrote:
The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the
dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for
the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go.
Let’s rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all
Accepting the unknown creates fertile ground for awe. “Awe might be our most undervalued emotion,” writes Deborah Farmer Kris in a recent, wise article from The Washington Post (November 30, 2021). Kris quotes psychologist Dacher Keltner who writes, “How do you find awe? You wander. You drift through. You take a walk with no aim… You slow things down. You allow for mystery and open questions rather than test-driven answers. You allow people to engage in the humanities of dance and visual art and music.” Kris expounds, “Unfortunately, today’s highly structured, competition-oriented child-rearing culture is largely a ‘failure in awe,’ Keltner says. If every hour is filled with activities, pressures and obligations, then children will have less time to wonder, wander or tune in to their emotions and surroundings.” We have to allow time for curiosity, for speculation, and give room for the imagination. Without this, children, and adults too, have little opportunity to ponder mystery and experience awe.
This season, how can you bring your attention to the mystery inherent in so many of this season’s traditions and stoke up awe within you? How might you slow things down to contemplate the expanse of our unknowing beside the pleasure of perceiving truth like golden threads? We cannot see the whole brocade. But we can follow a gilded thread towards the center, find where it meets substance, and perceive its suggestion of form and meaning. That intersection between what we know and what we can just partially discern, the flickering glimpse of some part of the whole as it retreats back into mystery: I’d wager this is what Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke is getting at as he stunningly captures the ineffability and emotional power of awe, writing, “What was it - that burning , that amazement, that endless insufficiency, that sweet, that deep, that radiant feeling of tears welling up? What was it?”It is what makes us quietly gasp, raises goosebumps, makes the tiny hairs on our necks prickle. These encounters with awe take us out of the material, the efficient, the concrete world in which we live out most of our lives, and remind us there is something larger, something grander and far more stunning of which we are a part.