"Darkness in the Desert"
As October comes to an end and the nights grow longer in the Western hemisphere, people everywhere gather together to celebrate the annual festival of “Halloween.”
Growing up as a boy I don’t remember Halloween being as big a holiday as it is today. The kids in my neighborhood used to dress up in some “home-made” costumes, go out for “trick or treat,” then we’d all return home to eat the candy and, for the most part that was it –that was all there was to “Halloween.”
But today, the Halloween festival has turned into a mega-holiday almost equal in importance to Thanksgiving or even Christmas. Stores and homes sport Halloween décor, there are parties and parades, haunted houses, and everyone seems to get dressed up for the occasion, not just kids but adults as well.
Tonight is the night when people frighten one another, a time to engender a fear of the night, a night full of vampires, zombies and cemetery creatures who come out to destroy living souls. Halloween: the scariest night of the year.
Interestingly enough the origins of Halloween can be traced back centuries to a festival of the ancient Celts who believed that this time of the year when the nights grew long was a “thin place,” a time when the veil between the world we can see and a world that is beyond our sight was very “thin and porous.” The ancient Celts gathered together during these longest nights to embrace the darkness not to fear it – the dark night was a mystical opportunity, a threshold for entering into a deeper experience of transcendence.
It’s interesting to me that in our own day, most people associate the spiritual journey with light rather than darkness. We talk about the “light” of faith or the “enlightenment” of wisdom; and yet when I look at the teachings of the great sages of history I discover that “darkness” may be a better icon for the spiritual quest than “light.”
Every great teacher of wisdom talks about the importance of entering into the darkness on the journey of faith. The more a person progresses on a path of wisdom the less one knows, as one progresses toward the truth, the light of “understanding” grows dim.
The 16th century mystic, Saint John of the Cross, talks about a Dark Night of the Soul that people inevitably enter as they progress along a path of wisdom in their quest for “God.” Many think that St John is saying that when you search for God, before God is found, everyone must first go through a period where they experience God’s absence. I actually think he means more than that.
We enter the Dark Night of the Soul when we walk the path of wisdom and come to a point at which we have run out of answers and clear definitions about God, when we are no longer able to explain or to “figure God out.” When that happens it’s a dark place, and it’s kind of frightening to be floundering around in the darkness devoid of all our glib answers and clear-bright directions; but when we enter into the Dark Night we often find that we are in a place where we can experience the deepest truth.
In her wonderful book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, offers this insightful commentary about the meaning of the Dark Night of the Soul:
When we can no longer see the path we are on,
when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us
or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are
then and only then are we vulnerable enough to surrender to God’s presence
This remains true even when we cannot discern God as being present.
I wake up every morning just when the dawn is about to break over the eastern mountain skies; but at this time of the year dawn comes later and so when I get out of bed it’s still too dark to even get a glimpse of daylight in the sky. So this morning, on this festival of Halloween, I went outside, opened my arms and embraced the night. The moon was brilliant and skies were blazing with a million stars illuminating the desert floor. The night was so bright that it seemed like day–such a “thin place.”
Saint John of the Cross once said:
On a spiritual path,
if you want to be sure of the road on which you tread,
you must close your eyes and walk in the dark