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Seeing in the Dark

By March 16, 2005 No Comments

My father has been negotiating some dark passages of late. He’s in his mid-eighties now, and the edges of life are starting to pinch in. He has lost much of his eyesight, thanks to macular degeneration; the peripheral vision that remains is showing signs of weakening, despite recent cataract surgery. And now his wife and soul mate of nearly sixty years has been taken from him, slipping helplessly away down the long, ugly slope of Alzheimer’s.

A few months before Mom died, I spent an afternoon with the two of them in the house they shared for half a century. Dad and I talked for awhile about his struggle to discern what was best for a loved one he could no longer hope to care for on his own. I tried to say something supportive, as always, and Dad responded, as always, that he was content to live one day at a time. “We know where we are going,” he said, “we just don’t know the exact route we’ll be taking to get there.” He was referring to the progress of the disease, but we both knew he had much more than that in mind.

Dad has confessed a belief in the Resurrection all his life, and now, as the lights around him start to wink out, that confession has clearly become his compass. Open Tomb He understands, I think, what it means to live in the Resurrection. “We know where we are going; we just don’t know the exact route we’ll be taking to get there.” As for me, the son with the Ivy League degrees, what I know is that I still have a lot to learn from him.

I can recall standing outside my parents’ house one spring night back in the late Sixties, when my own world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The church I had grown up in felt increasingly alien, the questions seemed to make more sense than the answers, and though I was still going through the expected motions I wasn’t at all sure any of it was really worth the effort. It was one of those wonderfully clear nights we don’t see that often in western Michigan, clear enough to lose count of the stars. I can remember standing there in the dark, just a few feet from hearth and home, and being gripped by the sort of feeling Pascal must have had in mind more than three hundred years ago when he wrote, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” I recall thinking to myself, “So, this is how it is: just darkness and cold stars and emptiness. There is nothing out there, and it goes on forever, and you are absolutely, utterly alone.” It felt like a moment of truth, and I felt chilled to the bone.

I also recall another spring night almost twenty-five years later. It was an Easter Eve, Holy Saturday, and I was thousands of miles from home, attending a midnight vigil mass in a thousand-yearold- cathedral in Mainz, Germany. I was a fellow-in-residence that spring at a nearby research institute, and I had gone to the service with two of the other fellows from the institute–Chris, a Methodist from Boston, and Piotr, a Russian Orthodox from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in what until a few months earlier had been the Soviet Union. The Easter Vigil liturgy begins where Tenebrae services traditionally end, in almost total darkness. The light from a single candle, symbolizing the risen Christ, was a bare pinprick in the vast Romanesque expanse of the cathedral. But as the flame from that Christ candle passed from person to person until each of us had a lighted candle–there must have been two thousand of us or more–that pinprick grew into a glow so rich and warm and golden that it felt almost anticlimactic when the electric lights eventually came up. So there we stood, Chris and Piotr and I, a tiny Orthodox and Protestant archipelago in a sea of German Catholics, with incense billowing above the altar and Gregorian chant echoing off the stone walls and twining into harmonies with itself, and as we passed the peace to each other and those around us I remember thinking to myself, “This is how it really is: choirs of angels, nothing empty except a tomb, and a cloud of witnesses from every nation and tongue. I am a part of this; this feels like home.” The stub of that vigil candle traveled back across the Atlantic with me, and I kept it on my dresser for years.

Most of the time, I guess, I find myself living somewhere between those two nights, somewhere between bleak doubt and grateful conviction. I expect I’m not alone in that. Part of me is always ready to give in and accept that there is really nothing but emptiness and silence, nothing but dead matter that doesn’t matter, and that all the rest is just graveyard whistling to mask our terror of the dark. The particular world I study as a historian, after all, has a black hole at its center called Auschwitz. I can understand why the theologian Richard Rubenstein, a learned and deeply humane person, could have concluded at one point that all we can really hope to have is the “sad knowledge that no power, human or divine, can ultimately withstand the dissolving onslaughts of omnipotent Nothingness, the true Lord of all creation.”* My own inner demons say Amen.

And yet. Every time the logic of the tomb threatens to become compelling, something keeps rolling the stone of doubt away and drawing me back toward that vigil flame. I wish I could say exactly what that something comes to, but I can’t. In theological terms this is of course the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit blows where and how it wills. What I do know is that, like my father, I can’t escape the pull of a confession I’ve been encouraged to make all my life. However much I may resist at times, I always seem to end up where I started, with the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Christ’s, and my own.

When I reflect on all this, two themes come immediately to mind. One is that resurrection draws me, us, into community.   That pinprick of light grew into a glow so rich and warm and golden that it felt almost anticlimactic when the electric lights eventually came up.   As an industrial-strength introvert who always gravitates toward solitude, even when it frightens me, I confess I don’t find this entirely congenial. But I think my strong sense of belonging, that Easter Eve in Mainz–in a church not my own, with people I didn’t know and whose language I barely spoke–testifies to the way the Resurrection bridges the divides that separate us both from the One who arose and also from each other. In the often-quoted words of Saint Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” Teresa, I am told, was writing to a community of sisters; that “yours” of hers is both singular and plural. We are all in this together, with Christ and in Christ. Even in the darkness.

That leads to a second theme: resurrection sheds light on the darkness. The Resurrection invites me, prone as I am to pessimism and despair, to invert my instinctive view of things. The poet Dylan Thomas famously urged his dying father not to “go gentle into that good night,” but rather to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” My own father, schooled in resurrection, knows better. Night, after all, is not the end of the light but the beginning. In creation, as Genesis 1 reminds us, “there was evening, and there was morning,” and the Resurrection is the down payment on a new creation. With apologies to Eugene O’Neill, what we find ourselves on is not a “Long Day’s Journey into Night” but a “Long Night’s Journey into Day.” The night is here and now, as my father well knows, and it means suffering and struggle and terrible loss. But these signs speak not of the dying of the light but of its dawning.

One of the high points of the Easter Vigil is a glorious hymn called the Exsultet, an almost ecstatic expression of thanksgiving for a “night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth and we are reconciled to God!”–a night that brings the rising of the “Morning Star which never
sets…Christ, that Morning Star who came back from the dead” and now “lives and reigns for ever and ever.” I think one of my own challenges, as I pick my way through the shadows between doubt and conviction, is to develop a keener eye for all the little resurrections, in liturgy and in life, that point me toward and prepare me for a dawn that will be both the end of all things and the beginning of all things made new. Dad has been honing that vision for a long time. “We know where we’re going; we just don’t know the exact route we’ll be taking to get there.” I may not be as clear-sighted as he is, but I trust his sense of direction, and I’m working at the rest.