“Leave behind sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts,
and all objects of sense and of intelligence, and all things
being and not being, and be raised aloft above knowledge to union,
as far as is attainable, with God who is above every attribute
and knowledge. For by an ecstatic restlessness from yourself
and everything, you will be carried up
to the superessential ray of the Divine Dark.”
~ Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology
spanning the darkness
At this time of year, darkness arrives earlier, absorbing horizons seamlessly, over longer spans of time. After enough years of turns around the calendric cycle, I shouldn’t be so shocked at the sudden loss of light. But this year I am taking note. Normally, I’d dismiss the change, much as I’d shrug off a routine decrease of a benefit or some rate increase to a monthly bill. Our adaptive nature may compensate for a continuum of absorption, but it does not regulate reluctance.
Regularly, my workplace phone greeting identifies my department, followed by the respective portion of the day, such as good morning. Often, as I pick up the phone, I look at my watch, to verify whether the moment precedes or has come after transiting the meridian. Late in the day, I check the window. My tendency is to judge between afternoon and evening by sensing the strength of light. The other day, I heard myself say, “good evening,” while answering the phone and looking to the window; my watch read 4:30 in the afternoon.
Lengthened darkness is surely noticeable while on the road. With earlier sunsets, an evening’s navigation resembles a midnight drive. Beyond my headlights’ reach, the surface ahead, left and right, as well as the sky, have identical textures. Medians and guardrails dissolve into the same crepuscule. Shrouds of darkness can be as forbidding as they are compelling. Philosophers of old referred ambiguously to the symbols of the abyss and the labyrinth. The abyss represents groundless unknowing, a gulf without comprehensible perimeters. It also represents limitless expanse, uncharted potential. The labyrinth symbolizes constraint, rigidity which cannot be transcended, yet still uncertain of the destination. Conversely, guidelines symbolize the certainty of terra cognita and the safety of conformity. Borderless darkness identifies with experiences of both the abyss and the labyrinth. Expanse and narrowness accompany the night voyager, testing whether being rests upon belief.
Being a torchbearer amidst reduced visibility demands strength of vigilance. Strength is easily taken for granted, and we use it without much thought or notice. Waking from sleep is simultaneous with physical reaching. But strength is indeed cultivated coordination; it doesn’t happen by itself. Vigilantly, we can be more than our impulses. Describing his philosophy of being, in the context of historiography, Ortega y Gasset observed in his poetic plainness:
“Life is given to us; we don’t give it to ourselves, rather we find ourselves in it, suddenly and without knowing how. But the life which is given us is not given us ready-made; we must make it for ourselves, each one their own.”
Carrying the light across the trackless dark requires a supply of healthful provisions of the spirit. Creativity combats monotony. Keeping a constructive course is a balance of exploration and expression. For me, this means continuing to learn and to reflect. Reading and writing have been tandem nutrients, and I’ve found the one needs the other, or both skills will suffer. To pursue studies and the writer’s adventure means persevering as an inquiring observer. I’ll also say, as an observing inquirer. Writing in this spirit is as one keeping watch, making note of the light- especially as it may turn to increase, ever so slowly.
Expectation is a vital provision, and it is strengthened by an available sense of remembrance. Remembering lights and blessings past has helped me through arduous traversals. Alongside remembering events and gestures is knowing to call upon learned survival skills. I’ve seen sharply-focused routes benefited by healthful diversions that lift the spirit and remind me of the larger context within which my life is actually a small part. Having many artistic and intellectual interests provides various points of reference to distract the natural tendency that dwells upon one perspective. As the popular adage goes, at the occasion of seasonal time change, we “fall back to spring ahead.” Through standard time, a daylight’s savings might help during spells of depletion. The long-range hope must continue to be faith in emergence from obscurity.
Light sources needn’t be limited to short days and lamps. As in any embarkation, knowledge of resources is essential. That means discerning the present and knowing what is needed. A cultivated sense of direction helps me to stay on course. But navigating is no passive thing. When protracted darkness remains unilluminated, the aspiring soul must know to be lit by the night. Saints and sages of old teach us to unrelentingly reach for the Divine, come what may. Dionysius wrote of God as the Hidden Dark, above all things manifest, and above thought. Our thoughts are, after all, limited to dealing with what is differentiated and related. Yet although God cannot be fully known, continued Dionysius, we can nevertheless reach and experience the attributes of God.
Truly a torchbearer in the darkness of the 9th century, Johannes Scottus Eriugena was known to say, “there are as many theophanies as there are saintly souls.” Eriugena was the remarkable scholar brought from Ireland to the royal court of France, to translate classical philosophical works from Greek into Latin. Among the manuscripts he translated were those of Dionysius. His crowning work was the astonishingly innovative Periphyseon, a complex work that was widely appreciated centuries later. Eriugena built brightly in the shadows of his times, explaining how Divine manifestations are understandable to us as processions. He wrote that God may be comprehended as darkness, due to God’s transcendence. This darkness is actually lux excellentiam, the ineffable light which simply appears dark because of its transcendent intensity. Creation, observed Eriugena, is a paradox, as the original darkness of God, which is no-thing, becomes light; it becomes something. Eriugena inspires readers to sense the similarities between source and destination, between creation and regathering. He preserved sources, while producing sources based upon his experience and learning.
One wonders if thinkers such as Eriugena considered their own times as “dark ages.” Apparently, their greater efforts were invested in pedagogy and preserving knowledge; they may not have thought to editorialize in writing. Perhaps the greater work was to persevere, to keep on going. Carrying light through darkness, even discovering luminous mysteries by darkness itself, is incidental. Perhaps it happens as we persist, as we endure without losing sight of transcendent holiness, holding fast to what is good. But “holding fast” mustn’t be mistaken with inactivity, or clutching as we might hold on to objects. Endurance manifests as something productive, as forward progress. A life’s pilgrimage is a human’s longterm project. What is needed, in order to find light amidst undefined darkness? What is the proper equipage? That is itself a mystery, wrapped in mystery. More concretely is the vitality of encouraging and comforting others, aware to receive encouragement and comfort from others. Maintaining essentials in clear view needn’t depend upon available light, considering its unpredictability. Deep within the crucible, as I see it, is to be consistent and close to the Source of life and goodness through the unknowing.