And this is the judgement:
the light has come into the world,
and men loved darkness rather than light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come to the light,
lest his works should be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
This is an off-putting passage for night owls and melancholics — or admirers of Caravaggio.
Darkness may only be the absence of light, but in our experience, and in our language, it bodies forth its own presence. It lends beauty to things that might otherwise seem banal. Like fresh snowfall, the dark lets us see the world in a different guise, and helps us escape our natural tendency to treat our daytime mode — its calculations and demands, its bright surfaces — as absolute.
What are the dangers of the dark?
On a literal level: what are the habits of mind and attitude I nurture when I spend time in the dark?
Darkness brings emotion closer to the surface. To have habitual recourse to this by staying up late or lying around with the lights off is to train myself to be motivated and even controlled by my emotional states. I wait to get into the right mood to do my work, to pray, to call a friend, to go out on a walk — and the right mood may never come.
In the dark, no one can see me. From here it is a short jump to: in the dark, not even I can see me. Our ability to live as divided selves, which is an inescapable and often fruitful part of human life, can become an acute vulnerability. Whatever mature integration we have achieved in the light, surrounded by the eyes of others, is not so solid here.
Part of what is so enchanting about the night is its unfamiliarity: the house, the neighborhood by day is not the same place where we are now. One of the (many) affective states understood, at different points in history, as characteristic of melancholia is a kind of dislocation of self, from which we can’t feel the right things for the world in its ordinary goodness. If the familiar has lost its affective power over us, we seek the strange. So we might cultivate a kind of aesthetic habit, seeking out those viewpoints from which familiar things seem strange: a mixed longing to reenter the familiar and a desire to linger there on the outside, seeing something, beautiful or sad, as if for the first time. The world in strangeness, at night, is at least a world we can fully enter.
The flip side of this world-translation is that you can no longer even imagine the world of light. This is really why nighttime fears are so impossible to shake off, once they find you. Nothing, nothing except turning on a light, can convince you that the room is safe. You can’t even remember what safe looks like.
Darkness is blindness: blind to who we are in reality, whether good or bad. While they say blindness sharpens all our other senses, in our spiritual darknesses this is rarely the case. Our eyes may adjust, but, really, this is more like pulling the light down to our level. Whether the version of myself I conjure up in the darkness is my own ideal or my worst nightmare, I won’t easily get traction on the reality of myself, the way I can in the light of day, or through another person’s gaze.
In the daytime, dark is hard to believe in, too. It’s incredible that we can be so subject to a change in surroundings that happens every twelve hours, and has happened since we were born. Yet no amount of logic can touch that middle of the night terror when our daylight criteria for reality fall away. Being temporal makes us fragile.
The thing about the dark is that it doesn’t really exist. Certainly night doesn’t exist. Pull out your planner and tell me where you record something that happened in the middle of the night. Were you still awake? Did you wake up early? Where has the night gone if you stay up until sunrise? The most basic marker for our experience of time as static and measurable can disappear. Whether this registers as disorienting or liberating might depend on the day.
When I was in high school and college, I stayed up late for the release of being in liminal time. The “second wind,” the endorphin rush, that stayed-home-sick snow-day feeling: free time! What I had procrastinated on all afternoon I was sometimes able to finish — or rather, that work I had spent all afternoon hoping I would be able to do in the dark, I sometimes did — simply because the day was over. The day’s obligation was transferred to the next day, and, by that logic, whatever I did at night was voluntary, and much easier.
Sometimes. Other times, with the yoke of daily work at an end, my mind rediscovered its joy in every book or idea or project around the corner, and I spun happily from each to the next, leaving everything barely begun. It’s night — who cares? I shied away from tasks in the daytime because the excitement wasn’t there, yet waiting for night meant that I often wasn’t able to complete anything at all.
The freedom of the dark can make us slaves to avoidance. The loosening of the daily grind is so good we might always want it, and try to live there all the time. After a while of this kind of life, the darkness loses its power to refresh and its other sweetnesses: silence, solitude, safety.
And finally, flung back on ourselves by the unfamiliar, we particularly seek out something other than solitude in darkness. It is the place of intimacy, where we might be most ourselves and most connected with another. Sight is less important: in fact, gets in the way. How many conversations in the dark that you can’t have in daylight? And if the opportunity doesn’t present itself, the dark is easily as fertile a ground for counter-realities that keep loneliness at bay. How much more room for reliving some past warmth? How many times might you check your texts? The dark is when we go to sleep, and that is somewhere we can only ever go alone. Together with someone else, maybe it will happen and you won’t even notice. Maybe you can be seen all the way down, and never have to face yourself by yourself, in the flickering light of whatever love you can offer.
I haven’t mentioned death: but it is darkness, too. How are we supposed to stand it, seeing that real blackness under the door? And what if death poisoned life from the beginning, and you have to one day see it: wouldn’t you rather know now? If being too comfortable with darkness is really a symptom of bitterness or despair, imagine how that could eat away at you, as you sit late into the evening, dreading the coming day. When grief, which is the hatred of death, comes for you in the dark, what last defense will you have against the emptiness of the world?
I confessed my loneliness once in college — not really something to confess, I admit, but not unrelated, either — and I’ve always remembered what the priest said. “Loneliness is part of every human life. It comes and goes. Try to take it as a gift, for now; a gift that you can be alone with Jesus.” I didn’t know then how to make solitude that kind of a gift.
I just hit about the year-mark on one of the most light-filled times of my life so far. It came after a time of darkness deeper than I’d had since I was much younger. This, the light, is a version of myself I didn’t even imagine could exist; I’d lived so long in one shade of evening or another. So I hate to feel I’m giving advice, especially if it’s advice I received from others, and repeated to myself, for a long time, without seeing any lasting difference. But I don’t ultimately attribute the change to anything I did, at least in terms of a daylight obligation met and handled: in fact, I think of it as something I literally did in the dark. I found some silence more silent than my own, and a solitude nourished by someone not myself.
I leave it to Augustine, from today’s Office of Readings:
Those who have been freed and raised up follow the light. The light they follow speaks to them: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness. The Lord gives light to the blind. … We are of Adam’s stock, blind from our birth; we need him to give us light.
We shall be in possession of the truth when we see face to face. This is his promise to us. Who would dare to hope for something that God in his goodness did not choose to promise or bestow? We shall see face to face. The Apostle says: Now I know in part, now obscurely through a mirror, but then face to face.
John the Apostle says in one of his letters: Dearly beloved, we are now children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. This is a great promise.