Orientation in the Dark
Advent was invented as a spiritual journey through a time of darkness when we watch and wait and pray in preparation for the coming of the light.
This time of year is emotionally challenging for many people under the best of circumstances. Advent 2020 is excruciating for millions more who are affected by the pandemic and the glaring economic, racial and environmental injustices that it has only made worse. The usual comforts of the season are largely unavailable to us, making the darkness feel harder.
And yet in the wisdom of our tradition, as we enter the very darkest days, Advent gives us Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of Joy.
The easy and culturally popular approach to Advent is to practice denial of the darkness, focusing all season on the glittering lights and festive pleasures of Christmas. This is understandable, but it misses the central point of Advent and the transformative wisdom we need right now: joy comes not in spite of the darkness but as a result of our faithful journey through it.
The truth is that we live much of our lives in the dark. The beauty of the night appears only when our eyes have adjusted. Then we can see the stars behind the stars, and the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome.
Seeing in the Dark
It was drizzling. The little bit of snow was melting. It was two weeks before Christmas, a dark, dreary afternoon. I was worried about people I love who are suffering from severe depression. I was feeling depressed myself. It had been the hardest and darkest of Advents.
I drove around the bend in the dirt road and our mailboxes came in view, a collection of different shapes and sizes ranging from a shiny stainless steel replica of a sugarhouse to my own green-paint-over-rust veteran of many winters.
I gasped. Someone in the neighborhood had hung beautifully arranged evergreen branches with bright red bows on the two weather-beaten posts holding up the boxes.
A smile covered my worried face like fresh snow and the song “Good King Wenceslas” sprang from the darkness within me. I tacked up a note, “Thank you, wonderful neighbors!”
The intention, I later learned, was “to share some light and hope” in a dark time. It worked. I carried that joy all the way home and through the night.
It worked for the neighbors who gave me that gift, too. Advent leads us to the wisdom that acts of love and compassion toward others give us joy as we give joy to them.
The Wisdom of Joy in the Darkest Places
The wisdom of Viktor Frankl comes to us from his suffering in Auschwitz, one of the densest darknesses of the Nazi holocaust. He wrote, “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before….
“We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces…. I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Ex lux in tenebris lucet’—and the light shineth in the darkness…” (Man’s Search for Meaning p59f)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama echo Viktor Frankl in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
Tutu suffered with his people under the brutal violence of apartheid. His prostate cancer had returned as they were writing the book.
The Dalai Lama fled into exile as the Chinese invaded his beloved Tibet murdering many of his people and crushing their cultural and spiritual heritage. He has lived with the grief of continuing traumas for decades.
Yet both of these men shine a joyous light around them.
They credit the same wisdom that Viktor Frankl discovered in Auschwitz. One day the thought of Frankl’s wife came to him in a moment of intense suffering. He did not know that she had already died in another death camp at age 24. He knew she could be dead, but she was alive and vividly present in his mind. He wrote of that moment,
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest good to which [humanity] can aspire…. The salvation of [humanity] is through love and in love. I understood how a [person] who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss…” (p57)
The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu book on joy has a chapter entitled, “Nothing Beautiful Comes without Some Suffering.” The book has sections on fear, stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, despair, adversity, illness and death. These themes may seem strange in The Book of Joy, but both men insist that the darkness not only cannot destroy joy, but it provides a path to it.
They see that love is the key, in its many dimensions. Their “Eight Pillars of Joy” include humility, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity, as well as humor, perspective and acceptance.
The third and fourth Sundays of Advent traditionally are Joy and Love. The Taoist symbol expresses their relationship to one another, as it does the relationship between darkness and light, and also, perhaps, between a mother and the child in her womb.
Advent Wisdom from the Womb
Lisa Kutolowski of Metanoia of Vermont wrote a beautiful Advent reflection on her journey through the darkness of wanting a baby but being unable to conceive. She writes, “By fully entering the pain of my unmet longing, I received the ability to more freely love my future child. I am exceedingly grateful for this time of waiting. Its fruits are the greatest gift I can imagine giving to Anna…. I am certain that more months or years of waiting would have revealed more layers of attachment and with those revelations, more gifts.”
Lisa ends with this profound insight: “It is essential we are honest about the pain of waiting. Without this honesty, we will find ways to skirt around the pain – avoiding, distracting, deflecting. This attempt to escape feeling the pain almost always transfers the pain to someone else. We seek security, wealth, or pleasure at the expense of someone else and ultimately, millions of people’s unacknowledged pain leads to entangled systems of injustice. Additionally, if we can’t look our personal pain in the face, how can we take an honest look at the grave injustices and inequities in the world? If we can’t acknowledge the pain of our personal unmet longing, how will we ever be free to hear the cry of the poor and the disinherited?”
The Darkness Is Our Teacher
Lisa’s pain became her teacher. The Dalai Lama has said that the Chinese were his greatest teachers. This can be true of all our struggles. The darkness we pass through teaches us much about light that we could not learn to see otherwise.
The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
In that spirit, here are two Advent sonnets written from within my own darkness. I hope they lead you to compassion and lovingkindness for others and yourself, and to the joy of keeping faith with the Advent journey.
Advent’s Darkest Depths of Silence
The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah… Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John…. Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Luke 1:13-20
Old Zechariah, tongue clamped dumb from doubt—
at least he got to watch her belly swell.
He saw just how his crisis would come out,
how he would have a greater hope to tell
than ever he had dared to think or dream.
He saw the advent that his love was bearing.
He never wondered, are things as they seem?
The angel’s word, proved, kept him from despairing.
In my tongue’s drought, when words wilt, lifeless dust,
when nothing sprouts, no swelling of gestation,
I do my temple tasks, enacting trust.
I pray, write, preach, tend souls, my called vocation,
but get no sign of dawn or worth or child,
just darkness—doubt and faith unreconciled.
Advent of the Christ Self
What was in Mary just before the light,
the voice of Gabriel, the power of God,
came filling all of her—heart, womb and sight?
This morning I am hoping she was flawed,
and not the perfect vessel others claim.
I need to think of her as sad and yearning
for something she perhaps could not yet name,
an aching emptiness where she kept turning,
searching within the lightless void inside
and feeling devastation in the loss
of what she did not find. She prayed and cried
and felt forsaken on her longing’s cross—
sometimes self-loathing, sometimes mere self-doubt
until the Christ self filled her lost self out.
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder