Right about now, as the countdown to Christmas accelerates, I always find myself scrambling. Baking, shopping, parties, family gatherings. All the cleaning and wrapping and decorating… it seems as if there aren’t enough hours in the day.
Indeed, at this time of year, the hours of daylight are few. December 21st is the winter solstice, the ‘darkest evening of the year’ and the days are short, the nights long. One of the functions of our winter holiday season is to distract us from the darkening days and long nights. And, for many of us, it works. Despite the franticness of the ‘getting ready’ time, Christmas, Hanukah and other holidays of light do lead us to a brighter place.
But what about that other darkness, the darkness that few speak of during holiday times, the darkness that can, indeed, strikes at any time of year. When are days are anything but “merry and bright” because of the all-too-human, all-too common, tragedies of life — the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a fire, a traffic accident, a cancer diagnosis, mental illness. These and so many other tragedies can afflict us, plunging us into a metaphorical darkness that rivals the darkest of days.
Virtually every one of us has experienced a loss so painful we don’t think we can bear it. Perhaps, if we are young and fortunate, we have yet to face life’s hardest losses. And yet none of us will escape. Loss and pain are part of the human condition. Grief over our loss is powerful, crippling, seeming unbearable.
Clinical depression often occurs or is exacerbated during winter. Some of us may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorders, literally starving for light. There is yet another kind of darkness that some experience, what some have called ‘The Dark Night of the Soul.’ The dark night of the soul is not situational depression caused by loss and grief though the one can mimic the other. The dark night of the soul is not a biological depression — one caused by a change in the biochemistry of the brain often treated by medication and counseling.
A dark night of the soul is an extended period when the grounding that gave our life meaning gives way and we find ourselves abandoned and alone. Like depression, this may also be triggered by job loss, betrayal, serious illness, or the death of a loved one.
But the dark night of the soul is a spiritual condition — a place of meaninglessness and confusion. Some of us found ourselves in this kind of darkness when we first personally concluded that there was no deity, no creator, no heaven or hell.
Some of us reach this state of confusion when we are forced to change our image of God and could no longer believe in a benevolent presence watching over us and protecting us.
The dark night of the soul is real — as real as tragedy, as real as grief, as real as clinical depression, as real, and as human, as our lives in this place and time.
So what do we do with our grief, with our depression, with our spiritual crises in this time in darkness?
I think we do what human beings have always done: I think we reach down and we reach out. We reach down. When you and I face the darkness, this is when we most need to reconnect with the source of life deep within each of us. We need to remember our source, our core, and our truest self. Some call that love. Some call it our inner light. Some call that God. Some feel no need to name it anything. It is alive and deep within you and within me.
There are many ways to reach down. Religious traditions all recommend some form of deep, silent reflection. Meditate. Feel the life within you longing to go on. Feel your breath. Feel how good it is to let your lungs fill with air and to let it out. Pray. You need not believe in a traditional God to pray. Prayer, like meditation, is a way of getting in touch with the force of life, with what we treasure in being alive.
Reach down. Connect to life. And reach out. Reach out. We in this congregation are truly blessed; we are surrounded by people who are deeply compassionate. Each of you here is loved. None of you are alone — not one of you — you are surrounded by a network of care and compassion. Reach out. Talk to someone. Call a friend, call Rev. Bill, or call me.
The circle of care embodied by this congregation can hold you when you are sinking down, but you need to reach out so someone can take your hand. You and I can never avoid life’s tragedies. They are part of living. We have suffered. We will suffer again. Yet our darkness will not last forever. Suffering is part of life, but there is so much more to life than suffering! There is love, and joy, and beauty. After winter comes spring. After the dark, long, cold night comes the dawn. Reach down, way down. Touch the part of you that loves life. Connect to the life within and around you. Love it again. Embrace it with all your might.
And yet may I gently suggest that if you, or someone you love deeply, is deep into their own dark night of the soul, don’t be so quick to leave. Sometimes we need to sit in the darkness to find ourselves. Sometimes we need to journey through the darkness. The darkness holds us and nurtures us. The darkness restores our vitality and empowers us. The darkness comforts us, renews us, provides the canvass upon which to envision our dreams. The darkness can transform us in ways we never imagined.
May you be blessed and find your way again to the light.