Holy Darkness

Holy Darkness

When I was in fifth grade I went camping with my Dad. Camping was always special for us. Camping trips with my dad are among the happiest memories of my childhood. This one camping trip I remember for a couple of reasons. First, we ate the largest can of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli (the finest ravioli there is) I have ever seen. Second, I just recently had my tonsils removed thus it had to be a more low-key weekend adventure as to avoid dislodging clots and bleeding to death (or something like that). Third, unlike most of our camping trips, which we took in the summer, this one was in December.

At night we walked down to the shore of the lake, which had frozen early that year and was covered in snow. It was a moonless night and being December the Milky Way wasn’t visible so the only light to see by came from the thousands of stars that shone weakly in the sky. They gave the sprawling field of snow in front of us a deep blue hue. The windless winter night was silent—no sirens, no car engines, no insect noises, no rustling leaves.  And I clearly remember feeling, in that darkness and silence, that I was experiencing something profoundly holy. I didn’t have that specific word for it at the time.  I just felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for the temporary elimination of things that so often amuse me and attract my attention, yet hide His sacred whisper which waits just beneath it all.

Sometimes I play a really strange game in my head. I say, “If I were Satan I would…” This isn’t my idea so I should get neither the credit for its ingenuity nor the blame for how weird it is. My little mental and spiritual exercise is in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which you should read if you haven’t, followed by Peter Kreeft’s Snakebite Letters). This exercise helps me to discern some of the invisible forces that influence our world. A number of years ago I came to this conclusion: If I were Satan, I would never permit darkness or silence. TV, smartphone, tablet and computer screens would never go blank. Lights would never go down low enough to allow the heavens to declare God’s glory. Noise would be ceaseless, whether music (good and bad) or the ceaseless hums, buzzes, beeps, chirps, and whirs of modern life. Incessant chatter about nothing and constant gossip would fill in any quiet pauses. There would be no time for peaceful contemplation—the kind where we might hear Jesus speak deep within.

I think this is exactly what Satan has done, and it is working. Our world is so often full of “noise and fury, signifying nothing,” that we can barely hear our own thoughts, let alone hear the still, small voice of Jesus in our hearts. The world is blinding and loud. Compare this map to this map and you can see what effect this has on our ability to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit within us. Sometimes I wonder if we could halt and reverse the western world’s flight from God and religion by shutting off the electricity for one night every few years. That’s unlikely, and our aim as Catholics shouldn’t be to find God by shunning modern life but to find Him in the midst of it.

Advent is a season of darkness and silence that ushers in a season of light and joyous celebration. Without the former we can’t fully appreciate the latter.  By embracing silence at times we can hear what we otherwise would not be able to hear. When Katie was pregnant, she felt Caleb moving within her long before I could feel him outside. In silence we can feel the Holy Spirit moving within, even when the world tries to tell us otherwise. In darkness our eyes adjust to see even the faintest stars. In the darkness of Advent the eyes of faith adjust to see the light of Christ that shines in the darkness—the Light that the darkness cannot overcome. I pray you find time in the remaining days of Advent to be immersed in holy darkness and sacred silence as you prepare your heart to receive the Light of the World.