Back in November, I convinced my mom and brother to run a 10K with me at the Whitewater Center in Charlotte. This wasn’t just any 10K. A Shot in the Dark, as it’s called, is a nighttime trail run. Runners are required to have a flashlight or headlamp as they navigate the narrow paths littered with rocks and tree roots.
The race was more than a little terrifying at times. As you run, you are surrounded by a wooded darkness interrupted only now and then by the headlamp of another runner. Your own light illumines just a few feet in front of you at a time. Falls are common, and I was surprised there weren’t any serious injuries.
My mom did not enjoy A Shot in the Dark, but I loved it. I was anxious at first—after all, I had never done a trail run, even in daylight, and here I was attempting one at night—but about halfway through, my fear faded into exhilaration.
Running in the daytime on the sidewalk, you can zone out to a certain extent. You might have to dodge a trash can or a child on a bike, but for the most part you can rest assured that your feet will come down on level ground without too much help from you.
But on a trail in the dark, every step must be carefully placed to avoid roots and rocks you can’t see until you’re right on top of them. And although this made me nervous at first, I came to embrace it. Never had I felt so present to my surroundings, so attuned to the immediate, so grounded in what was happening at that moment that I didn’t have time to dwell on the past or the future.
Darkness can be limiting, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes light can make us lazy—we don’t have to look or listen very hard. At night, our senses engage on a different level; we have to pay closer attention; we must trust our surroundings more.
One of my favorite places in the world is Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. To get there, you drive north from Santa Fe for an hour, then take a 13-mile dirt road deep into the Chama River Valley. Here, Benedictine monks live their lives in the rhythms of prayer and work, committing themselves to obedience, poverty, and simplicity.
At Christ in the Desert, when the sun goes down, so do you. With limited electricity and a prayer schedule that begins at 4 a.m., there is no holding back the darkness. Sunset is not to be fought or feared; the darkness is embraced as a time of quiet reflection and rest.
It is no secret that the darkness is not entirely safe—I’ve spotted snakes and tarantulas near the guesthouse, and the sounds of coyote screams echoing through the canyon are common in the pre-dawn hours. But the monks do not act as though the darkness is dangerous. The dark is to be respected, but not feared.
In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor tackles our fear of and aversion to darkness. Through remembering childhood experiences and making new memories of watching the moon rise and exploring the profound darkness of an underground cave, she invites the reader to embrace the dark rather than run from it.
She reflects on the fact that although we miss many things at night because we can’t see them, there is also so much that we miss during the day. Though the sun illumines many things, it blinds us to others. She says this:
“During the day it is hard to remember that all the stars in the sky are out there all the time, even when I am too blinded by the sun to see them. While I am driving to the post office to pick up my mail, a shooting star could be flying right over the hood of my car. While I am walking to the library to return an overdue book, Orion’s Belt could be twinkling right above me. It is always night somewhere, giving people the darkness they need to see, feel, and think things that hide out during the day.”
When I read that paragraph, I immediately thought of the magi. Although the star they followed was especially bright, it seems unlikely that it was bright enough to be seen during the day. The sun would have erased the sign that the magi followed. Their journey would have to take place at night.
One of my favorite things about Christ in the Desert is that the things that stay hidden during the day come out more brilliantly at night than they do at home. I am talking, of course, about the stars. There is nothing like seeing a night sky full of stars when you are out in the middle of the desert, miles and miles from any artificial light. We praise the light of civilization and prosperity for the opportunities it gives us that we didn’t have before Thomas Edison made his signature invention, and we are quick to forget the stars we lose because we so seldom see them anymore.
In Christianity, we often play on the contrast between light and dark. It usually breaks down pretty simplistically: light equals good, dark equals bad. And indeed, darkness is used in the Bible to symbolize evil and separation from God.
But being too dualistic about this contrast can be dangerous. It gives the night over to the forces of evil and acts as if God only has power during the day. It has the potential to shame people experiencing the darkness of grief, depression, fear, and suffering. People of color hear the negative use of the word “dark” and cannot help but wonder about the meaning of their own dark skin.
Even the Bible is not as simplistic about darkness as we are. Darkness shows up in the second verse of Genesis, before light. And it isn’t a threatening darkness; while darkness covers the face of the earth, so, too, God’s spirit is hovering over the waters. It is in darkness that Jacob dreams of a ladder extending to heaven and in darkness that he wrestles with God at Peniel; it is into a dark cloud that Moses goes to receive the Ten Commandments and out of that darkness that God speaks to God’s people; and in 1 Kings 8, Solomon says, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.”
We often associate darkness with doubt, with fear, with the absence of God. But sometimes, darkness is, in fact, a sign of God’s presence. We flee from darkness in part because what it holds is unknown to us, but isn’t it true that there is so much about God that is also unknown?
Barbara Brown Taylor asks this question: “[W]hen we run from darkness, how much do we really know about what we are running from? If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God?”
Darkness may hide things from us, but it may show us things, too. Darkness can be clarifying. Darkness takes away our illusion of control and forces us to feel in our bones just how much we don’t know. Darkness can be clarifying.
In the 16th century, St. John of the Cross meditated on what he called “the dark night of the soul.” It was a time of pain, doubt, and, of course, darkness. But John did not try to escape that night. For him, the dark night of the soul was not something to be avoided but something to be embraced. It was a necessary time of stillness, reflection, and drawing closer to God.
Taylor says, “There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with all your language for calling it to your aid, which is not above using darkness as the wrecking ball that brings all your false gods down.”
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke meditates on this idea in a poem where he imagines God’s presence in the darkness—not a God he can see or describe or explain away, but a God who, like darkness itself, holds all things. He writes:
You, darkness, of whom I am born--
I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.
But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations—just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
Darkness can be not only a sign of God’s presence but also the place where new life is born. Just as creation happened in the dark, so too did the most important moments in the Gospels: the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. The mystery of what happened in the womb and in the tomb went without witnesses, shrouded in a holy darkness.
You may be wondering when we are getting to the part about light. After all, yesterday was Epiphany, the day when we celebrate God’s love shining forth, the day when we remember the magi following a bright shining star to visit the baby Jesus. Our passage from Isaiah is all about shining and light and brightness. So what gives?
Think about the experience of turning off the lights. When they first go off, the darkness seems complete and impenetrable—you can’t see a thing, you feel suddenly blinded. But if you give it a minute, the darkness softens. Our eyes adjust. We begin to discern the outlines of objects; we notice the bits of light through windows and doorframes that we didn’t see before.
This is thanks so something called rhodopsin. I learned about rhodopsin at a science camp I went to as a kid, and for some reason, I’ve always remembered it. Rhodopsin is a light-sensitive receptor protein in the human eye. When exposed to light, it is immediately destroyed. It takes about 45 minutes of darkness for rhodopsin to fully regenerate.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that we have a low tolerance for darkness, both literal and metaphorical. The moment the sun goes down, we flick on the lights. And the moment we feel the first twinge of sadness, doubt, fear, or pain, we race to treat or reassure or punish or distract ourselves. But dealing with such things requires practice and patience.
Just as it takes time for rhodopsin to regenerate, allowing us to see a little better in the dark, so it takes time to work through the more difficult parts of our humanity. James Bremner says that literal darkness can actually help us face our metaphorical darkness, particularly the darkness of fear, and particularly in children.
He says, “Courage, which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous.” Darkness, as it turns out, fits the bill perfectly.
There is another familiar passage in Isaiah about light and dark that says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Note that the people walked in darkness—they kept moving through it; and we don’t know whether the great light they saw banished the darkness or simply shone in it a light like that of the star that guided the wise men to Bethlehem.
Saint John of the Cross sat through his dark night of the soul without succumbing to very natural fear and anxiety. The monks at Christ in the Desert embrace the darkness with peace and tranquility. And I ran down the trails at the Whitewater Center long enough to break through my fear and feel more alive than I had in some time.
All of this is possible because the night is not the end of the story. Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” If we can walk through the night, we are sure to walk out of it, into the joy of morning.
Several years ago, a bad reaction to some pain medication landed my sister’s boyfriend in the hospital. At 26 years old, Shane went into a coma after suffering 8 strokes. At first, he was not expected to survive the weekend; then, doctors said he might live a long time in a coma. But slowly, he began to make miraculous progress. Today, aside from a tendency to get fatigued easily and the occasion glitch in his memory, Shane is mostly back to normal.
It was a long recovery, and during his months in rehab, we got used to him saying things that didn’t make sense or getting confused about where he was. Shane was and is an avid golfer, and sometimes he would go to the nurse’s station to request a tee time.
One evening, my sister Grace was visiting him in the hospital, and Shane got up and announced that they were going golfing. Grace patiently reminded him that it was dark outside. He retorted, “I know, I’m waiting for it to clear up.” Puzzled, Grace said, “Shane, it’s nighttime. It’s not like clouds; darkness doesn’t just clear up.” Shane looked at her and said, matter-of-factly: “Don’t you know about morning?”
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”
We do not need to fear the darkness, for to God, the night and the day are the same; and darkness is not dark to God. We do not need to fear the darkness, for the darkness can show us things that the light can hide. We do not need to fear the darkness, for we know about morning. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell