Befriending Darkness

By Brianna Lantz
Feb 12, 2020

“Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!”

– St. John of the Cross

It was a Monday evening in the depths of a Northwest winter. I had just visited with my friends at the immigrant detention center, knowing it would be our last conversation before their pending deportation. I could not shake the thought of the violence and persecution that would meet them in their birthplace, a land as foreign and unfamiliar to them as it was to me. Rattled by uncertainty and choked by fear, I felt the righteous anger of a girl I used to know rising inside of me. 

Growing up, I was a precocious kid, so sure about the world and my place in it, certain that my straight A’s and tidy theology would shape me into someone who would change the world for the better. I saw everything in black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. Little did I know that suffering — the world’s, and my own — would not elicit such definitive answers. As I grew and moved through grief and loss— of family, of friends, of faith— I became well-acquainted with the gray. Since then I’ve longed to become its friend, to dance in the liminal space between the numinous and the mundane. That threshold feels something like the space between me and my friends when we’re separated by a double-paned window and connected by a failing corded phone, when there are no words that could possibly bring comfort to their despair.

“The act of sitting in silence does not come easy to me and my anxious mind, but I have welcomed it into my spiritual practice in an effort to become a better friend, a better listener, and a better student of suffering.”

In her book about journeying with the dying, hospice chaplain and writer Kerry Egan speaks intimately to this feeling of powerlessness. “When someone tells you the story of their suffering, they are probably still suffering in some way. No one else gets to decide what that suffering means, or if it has meaning at all…We do not get to cut off someone’s suffering at the pass by telling them it has some greater purpose. Only they get to decide if that’s true. All we can do is sit and listen to them tell their stories, if they want to tell them. And if they don’t, we can sit with them in silence.” 

The act of sitting in silence does not come easy to me and my anxious mind, but I have welcomed it into my spiritual practice in an effort to become a better friend, a better listener, and a better student of suffering. In walking through the “dark night of the soul,” I’ve come to embrace darkness and night as a teacher and a companion for the journey. 

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a peculiar fascination with monks — particularly early European monks who were “men of the night.” These Christians who were most deeply entrenched in a light-oriented theology actually held their longest offices of prayer and meditation in the depths of darkness. Of the liturgical offices, Nocturns was the lengthiest of all, and was conducted each night in dark, unlit churches. These marathon prayer rituals were a focused expression of the call in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to pray without ceasing, the epitome of monastic life. This office was less about anticipating the approaching dawn and more about engaging with the cosmological void that preceded creation, where divine power in its infinite depths became something more tangible and near. 

“Meditation during the day is, of course, good; but that at night is better . . . with worldly occupations put aside and the attention undivided, the whole man, at night, stands in the divine presence,” said St. Nicetas of Remesiana, fifth century bishop and composer of liturgical verse.

Scripture is full of accounts of communion in the dark. Jesus retreated to the mountainside to spend all night in prayer (Luke 6:12). After God spoke to Samuel his regret for making Saul king, Samuel cried out to the Lord all night (1 Samuel 15:11). When Paul and Silas were imprisoned, it was midnight when they prayed and sang hymns of praise (Acts 16:25). And Lamentations 2:19: “Arise, cry aloud in the night / At the beginning of the night watches / Pour out your heart like water / Before the presence of the Lord.”

In the New Testament, we find some of the most pivotal events of Jesus’ life happening in the dark: the nativity, the visit of the Magi, the miracle of walking on water, the transfiguration, the last supper, the betrayal in Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the resurrection.

The Biblical accounts of night indicate a certain holiness to the dark. It’s as if the all-enveloping, all-consuming, sourceless mystery of darkness gives rise to the all-enveloping, all-consuming, boundless nature of the limitless love of God. In darkness, our perception of forms and boundaries dissolve, and the immediate and mundane makes way for the transcendent and numinous.

In a culture that is so fixated on light — i.e. being a light, shining a light, “bringing light to dark places” — do we dare to welcome darkness as a friend? Can we stand to imagine that the Holy Spirit is never so near and present as it is in the dark night of the soul? Can we let the boundlessness of darkness, propelled by the infinite love of God, erase the boundaries that divide us?

“In darkness, our perception of forms and boundaries dissolve, and the immediate and mundane makes way for the transcendent and numinous.”

How might we heed the call to sit in silence? How might we learn to sit in solidarity with our suffering neighbor, to sit in the limitless void that feel-good platitudes cannot fill? Darkness, for me, is an exercise in embracing discomfort and becoming a student of holy stillness. 

Befriending darkness may look different for everyone. Maybe it’s as simple as resisting the urge to scroll on your phone before you lay your head down for the night. Maybe it’s following Jesus’ lead and praying through the night in solitude. I’ve found great rest in Compline, the service of night prayer and the last of the seven canonical hours of the divine office. In fact, it was a Compline recording that met me in my grief that winter night after leaving the detention center, its methodical chanting a balm and benediction for my weary soul. May the opening words of that eve’s psalter hymn serve you likewise, and may they meet you in your own dark hours:

The people who in darkness walked

have seen a glorious light;

the heavenly dawn broke forth on those

who dwelt in death and night,

who dwelt in death and night.