Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beating the Clock

It is no longer summer, fairly soon it will be no longer autumn either and the winter will be upon us. People prepare for the change in seasons in various ways and I, perhaps like you, give such preparations a deal of thought. It is not the coldness of winter that I think about (though in our old stone-built Victorian house, coldness is very much a fact of life every winter), as much as the darkness. So, as well as getting plenty of logs chopped and providing protection for the overwintering plants, I take trouble to prepare myself. Winter clothing for sure but also I need to dust off my light-box and stock up with 5-HTP and St. John’s Wort. Winter for me, as you might have guessed by now, means the almost inevitable return of ‘SAD’ (Seasonal affective disorder).

Please, don’t think that I am going to relate my symptoms to you or describe in any way the effect that it has on my life, because I’m not going to do that at all. Neither am I going to theorize about why I, and millions of others, suffer from this (except I do blame my Scandinavian ancestors fully). I only intend to mention it as one reason why the change in season is so important to me and how I live. Once I worked and lived in a city and the changing seasons meant something to me, but now I live and work in the countryside and the changing of the seasons means so much more.

Darkness starts to creep into my life from mid-September and, by the end of October, its effects are very obvious. In the UK we do something strange at the end of October - we ‘put the clocks back’ as a method of reversing the daylight saving time of summer. I know in North America you do this a little later – into November. What this means is that ‘early wakers’ like me find themselves roused from sleep in the early hours of the morning - and thus tired out by early evening – it takes me several weeks to settle into a new pattern. Add to this the fact that various children and animals around the house and garden all get hungry an hour earlier than they are due to be fed, and get ‘tired and emotional’ from late afternoon onwards. I have met people that claim to hardly notice the effects of this tampering with time, but for me, it is hard.

This gets me to my real point – it is about that darkness. As far as I’m concerned, you can forget that ‘hello darkness my old friend’ line. If we read material from the days before electric lighting, we find that light becomes all important. In religious writing, terms like ‘lighten our darkness’ and ‘light of the world’ are charged with an emotion that our modern ways may well have divorced us from. Poems, hymns books and paintings all stress the importance of light to us humans. Has that importance really been overcome? Are we somehow kidding ourselves? Does clicking on our (energy-efficient) light bulb when we enter a dark room really provide us with the kind of light we need? Is artificial lighting any kind of substitute for one of the most wonderful things in the world – the pure bright sunlight of summer?

Darkness is imposed upon us; it stops us doing what we want when we want, it stops us growing the kind of crops we want to grow and generally gets in the way of our free-flowing existence. The industrialization of the world depended on that fairly simple device, the light bulb, being developed. Of course we are thinking of darkness that is outside us - a simple lack of light - but there is also an inner darkness which has just as profound an effect on our existence. No light bulb can help with this one – it is pitch black and it doesn’t only affect us at night, nor only in winter. Loss, pain, disappointment, grief, betrayal, poverty and lack of hope all contribute to this inner darkness and many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by its ability to block the light from our lives, even when the sun shines.

It is unusual for a ‘Quaker blog’ to quote Richard Nixon (can anyone guess why?), but that is just what I am going to do. At the very dark time of Nixon’s leaving of the White House he said in his resignation speech, “only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be at the highest mountain”. Could we reasonably draw from this the idea that without darkness we can never ‘see the light’ and does that stand for internal as well as external darkness?

Quaker Elizabeth Watson wrote;
"Darkness is no less desirable than light. It is rather, a rich source of creativity… First there is the darkness of the earth in which the seeds wait all through the winter. Second, there is the darkness of the womb in which the young mammal grows into sufficient viability to be born and take its place on earth, as a separate being…. And third, there is the darkness of night, when the garish sun has gone down and the things of earth are blotted out, and we may glimpse the vastness of the universe of which we are part…

We say that God is the Inner Light, but I want to affirm that also the Inner Darkness, and I do not mean desolation or evil, but a quiet waiting and creativity. 'The darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to thee*.'"

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011

*Psalm 139:12 'Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.' King James Bible.


  1. Thank you for writing bout darkness in a positive way and as a place to, sometimes, be and explore. It' isn't always easy to discuss among light-loving Quakers, yet it is a fact of life. I love your connections to the seasons and how artificial light has changed our view of darkness. Happy gardening.
    -- Cathy

  2. And for this reason, "The Dark Night of the Soul" described so succinctly by John of the Cross is, in actuality, a time of deep, spiritual growth, the "darkness" felt by the limits of human consciousness, not, then, reflective in any way, of the actual and tremendous movement occurring within that we cannot access or feel in our usual ways. The struggle for the person experiencing a "Dark Night" is precisely that it cannot be managed, altered or stopped no matter what spiritual practices are applied; none of the old ways work, our usual approach, our patterns or prayer and living our spirituality simply don't bear fruit and we are left in the dark, waiting, while a new and different seed of the Spirit embeds and grows in us. Indeed, I think that the "Dark Night" is experienced more often by those who struggle, at some level, to control their lives (and Spirit) such that the deepest work, the most profound spiritual change, can only happen if hidden away, lest the person themselves have access to it far too soon and at a point when their own interference in the process, perhaps out of fear and anxiety, would disrupt the process before it had done its good work in them.

  3. Cathy.

    Thank you. I do follow your blog and can recommend it to all.

  4. Michelle,

    Your words are always important to me, thank you so much for your comments. For those readers that have not seen your blog I can say that it is truly inspirational and worth repeated visits;

  5. I commend to you the book by a Japanese Zen monk: In Praise of Shadows.

    Blessed art thou oh Yah, Spirit of Life in all the worlds, that gives us dark days and rain so that we may appreciate the sunny days even more!

    1. Thank you Pablo ~ I'll certainly try it.