Canon Leanne Roberts - Canon Treasurer
I’m not sure that the pulpit is the place for confessions, but I have one, so here goes: when I was, I think, seven years old, I borrowed a book from the small selection available in the corner of the Sunday School I attended
I loved that book and, though I knew that part of being able to borrow it was the understanding that I also needed to give it back, I never returned it.
For reasons I still can’t quite understand – I read a great deal as a child, but was never in want of new books – it meant something quite particular to me, and I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with it. Nevertheless, I have periodically felt a pang of guilt about keeping it for myself. Perhaps this is my chance to give it back.
The book was called ‘The owl who was afraid of the dark’. It is a story about a baby barn owl called Plop, who is much the same as other owls except for the fact that he is frightened of the dark, which is quite a thing for owls.
Encouraged by his mother to venture down to the forest floor he has a series of encounters: with a boy waiting for a firework display, an old lady who find the dark her place of rest and peace, a black cat who comes to life when night falls. After listening to their various takes on darkness, Plop decides that dark isn’t necessarily something to be afraid of, and is able to leave his nest at night to go hunting with his parents and the other owls. He becomes able to do that which he was made to do.
Writing this, I still wonder why this book felt so important; perhaps because a sense of darkness, and the interior world has always resonated more with me than their supposed opposites of light, and life ‘out there’. But when considering John’s prologue, which we heard just now, his majestic, cosmic, crowded attempt to speak of the mystery of God – hard to think about, let alone claim to understand – and the incarnation of the divine creative force in Jesus Christ, there is something serious, I think, to consider about darkness.
This darkness which, despite the light of Christ which shines within it, is never completely eradicated. At the very beginning of our Scriptures we read that God created – in and through his divine word and wisdom – the night and the day. There has always been darkness, and there always will be. It is part of the created order of things. However darkness manifests for us, whether it be through grief, or depression, or hopelessness, or loneliness, or hardship, or war, or sickness, or fear, it usually prompts terror and uncertainty and a desire to escape from it to something… less dark.
But I wonder if we might be missing great riches hidden within the darkness? As John’s prologue tells us, before anything, there was God. All things are held together in and by his divine Word, which was shown to us most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. All things, including the darkness.
So I wonder if the darkness need not be so feared after all? What if darkness is the very place where God waits for us? What if this place of silence and unknowing, which resides deep within each of us, is the place of creative potential and profound encounter – not a terrible darkness from which we flee, but a receptive darkness, a place of hope and waiting?
We have been given this two-week window where we’re invited to make the transition from the light of Candlemas – which wasn’t without its darkness, too – to the journey through Lent to the cross. Might this be a time to trust ourselves with the light we’ve just been given, but trusting, too, the darkness that exists within and around us? Perhaps the way of manifesting our light, through Jesus, is less by talking and preaching about it, and more by occupying the dark corners of the world – and, as challenging, the dark corners of our hearts; and knowing, trusting that we can encounter the divine there.
This could be a time to seek God – attentively, patiently, urgently – in the darkness, rather than just shiver there and long for light, or flee from it entirely. This is the time, and the place, to engage fully with the dark, not least so that the gift of Easter, when it comes, can be properly felt and understood as the radical contrast it really is; the movement from dark to light, death to life, only has meaning when both sides, these seeming opposites, are experienced, felt, attended to with our whole selves. It is this feeling-full attentiveness that guides us in the darkness. The darkness that can strip away distraction, preoccupation, and indeed become dazzling with the presence of the Divine. A rigid determination to focus on light, through gritted teeth and determined avoidance of those dark places within us, is not the most integrated way to faith.
Entering into darkness, knowing that God is there even when we fumble around – blind, aching – is the way to freedom. Thomas Merton, the writer and Trappist monk, wrote a prayer before Midnight Mass in 1941 which speaks both to this darkness and John’s grappling with understanding of the divine nature. He writes:
“Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot
even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I
understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain that I know You, I am
crazy. The darkness is enough.”
So maybe there is something we can learn from my children’s story; maybe Plop the barn owl got it right: by confronting the dark, by engaging with it, and being attentive to its many facets, he realized he could be himself not in spite of the dark, but within it. That without it, we are less than ourselves, and less available to God’s Word and his call to us.
I’d like to end with something I came across recently that moved me deeply. The Scottish theologian and preacher Arthur John Gossip preached one Sunday the day after his wife had died. He had reached his lowest ebb, and was courageous and honest enough to show this to his congregation, and to realize that in his grief he had reached the core of his belief.
“You people in the sunshine might believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe
it. We have nothing else.”
Even in the depths of despair, the light that has been entrusted to us is not diminished, but manifests as acknowledgment, and honesty, and attentiveness. May this be true for each of us as we encounter the light, and darkness, that is held together by the One who created all things.