Light and Darkness

“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” This is one of my favourite lines from the poetic songs of Leonard Cohen. To me, it suggests that in the midst of the experience of our limitations, our vulnerability, our mortality, there emerges the light of meaning and of hope. As I have often expressed it, our sacred worth is not taken away by our wounds, but even revealed and shines through these wounds. For example, we come closer to people, not when they brag about themselves but when they are open about their struggles.

A striking sight for me is when, driving before a cloudy sky, rays of light shine through the openings, the cracks, in the clouds, and stream down to earth. Another obvious occasion is when we see a rainbow flowing from light shining on rain clouds. The dancing movement of the Northern Lights is still another example. We likewise need to drive well outside areas of dense population to find sufficient darkness to be able to see the light of millions of stars or the milky way.

If you drive before sunrise early in morning, everything is very still and silent. Then, as the light begins to appear, there is often the movement of a light breeze, the birds begin their daily song, and animals begin to stir. It is like an awakening, an opening up.

We are now around the time of the winter solstice, when the night is longest and the days being slowly to lengthen. Darkness slowly recedes and light starts to expand. The cold of winter gradually gives way to the warmth of spring.

There is a beautiful folk-like story by Oscar Wilde, called The Selfish Giant . The giant discovers a crack in the walls he has built around himself and his garden. Children come in through that opening and, with them, the new life of spring. This experience leads the giant to break down all the walls and give free access to the children. The episode suggests that unless we have cracks in the walls of defensiveness, cracks of vulnerability, so that children can come through–that is, new life, new thoughts, new images–then we shall remain bleak and cold and dark and desolate inside. We tear down rather than build our walls through creative, life-giving, generous, even sacrificial compassion, caring, and love. At a point in the story, the giant does comment of the seasons of our life. “He did not hate the Winier now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.”

While we tend to see light and darkness as opposites and to see light as positive and darkness as negative, there is perhaps more a sense of complementarity. As we have just said, it is the darkness that allows us to see the light of the stars. Astronauts have commented on the sheer darkness of space, which nonetheless highlights the beauty of our blue planet. It is also from the rich dark soil that the new life of plants and flowers emerge.

Benedictine monk and Zen master, David Steindl Rast observes: “The universe is an immense house, as it were, with transparent walls. But outside, it is night. Beyond the transparent walls lies the darkness of mystery … And as human try to understand the mystery in which the world is embedded, they begin to project images onto the walls of glass behind which lies the night of the Great Question.” Our human loneliness, he adds, leads us to become focused only on these images so that we no longer look through at the night. He concludes. “There can be no vision without acceptance of mystery.” In a similar vein, theologian Karl Rahner says that if we enter into the silence of solitude, we may notice that everything is surrounded by a kind of “nameless remoteness,. .. like a silence whose stillness cries out.” He then invites us to trust this silent darkness: “it is not emptiness.”

Loreena McKennitt sings of what has been called the dark night of the soul, a term that has referred to an experience when all the ideas and images upon which we have relied fall away and the mystery of ourselves and of life and of the universe penetrates and envelopes our soul. Yet she sings: “ Oh night thou was my guide, of night more loving than the rising sun.”
We have previously noted how Einstein speaks of the invisible energy of love as the dominant force in the universe. I recall as well the experience of a friend who was groping his way to his car on a cloudy winter night, when the moon emerged from behind a cloud and shed a pale light over everything. He said that his overwhelming experience at that time was that he was loved.

It seems that the core of all this imagery of light and darkness is that they have many layers of meaning. Whatever is of light is surrounded by and emerges from darkness, just as words emerge from silence. Our best words seems as well to come from our deepest silence. The famous conductor, Leoplold Stokowski puts it in these words: “A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”

Rumi says “What is the light in the centre of darkness inside your soul.” “Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested… That’s where the Light enters you.” Rilke also speaks of the “deep innerness of all things.” which is with great difficulty and never successfully put into words.

May any darkness you experience be the rich soil of new life; and may any “cracks” you experience be places where the light gets in and also shines forth from within you.

Norman King
December 26, 2021