Night Vision:  An Advent Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Dec

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Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.  Anne Frank

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.  Edgar Allan Poe

This reflection is dedicated to Robert Aspeslagh, perhaps my greatest mentor, who passed away this fall in Amsterdam.  Robert was a thoughtful student of humanity and our always messy and sometimes mean-spirited politics.  He was also a painter who, like great Dutch artists of the past, explored the wealth of human wisdom lodged in the metaphorical spaces between darkness and light.

There are many reasons why Advent is my favorite liturgical season, coming as it does near the end of what in many years is a dark, gloomy and wind-swept fall.

Advent conveys the seasonal obligation to prepare for a Christmas celebration that is hopefully about more than conspicuous consumption and strained family relations.  It also expresses a strong and pervasive longing – calling out to Emmanuel for relief from fear and despair; dreaming of that time when peace is finally welcome to permeate our hearts and define our politics; doubting and then overcoming doubt that we can right our collective ship before it becomes permanently disabled on rocks of our own making.

The image that I have always carried around with me during Advent is that of a young adult, female or male, sitting with some sense of urgency on the edge of a cliff on a crisp, clear night, moon and stars casting light both subtle and mesmerizing.   There is vast darkness in this image, but also spectacle; the spectacle of the “heavens” we rarely bother to seek out any longer, an awe-inspiring display that provides a soft but sufficient light once our eyes figure out how to adjust to its peculiar intensity.

Of course, there are many fall nights — even in biblical lands — that are crisp but not clear; when clouds hover, blocking out the spectacle and leaving the cliff sitters in a veil of darkness that, even in those times, must have been highly uncomfortable.   A darkness that most of us “modern” folk can barely relate to, an enveloping presence for which there is no candle, no flashlight, no outlet for devices: for us a bit reminiscent perhaps of a long walk down a dark and lonely path with little to guide your steps or protect you from the unexpected.

This is the darkness that suspends all of light’s gifts  – the ability to navigate space, to pinpoint danger before it seizes us, to orient ourselves in a world of constant stress that trades off satisfaction for the (not always cheap) thrills of modern complexity.  To be in an enveloping darkness is akin to being lost in a deep swamp (or the deep woods) where potential dangers lurk but where there are no signposts of safety.   We cannot “see” threats that might be lurking, dangers both real and imaginary, those that might attack our person and, much like the monsters allegedly hiding under our first childhood beds, those that stoke fantasy-driven fear and helplessness.

But there are dangers with the light as well.  Where there is light there is also distraction, an almost relentless seduction by everything in range of our senses, an exposure to the world made uncomfortable through its ability to behold you as well as you beholding it.   Our lives are now so “bright,” our world so fully (and artificially) illuminated.  Sunlight may indeed be the best disinfectant, as noted last century by US Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, but the light we manufacture, the clutches of which we can barely escape, is as likely to cause sickness as alleviate it.

As many of you recognize, “light pollution” is a term now used to describe the consequences of what for many of us (especially in cities) are our excessively indoor lives, dominated by artificial illumination for which even copious amounts of Vitamin D cannot compensate.  Especially this time of year, our encounters with natural light are often reduced to fleeting glimpses of sun or moon. Indeed, even if we wanted to, there is so much artificial illumination in our world (before and after sunset) that most of us can no longer find a seat at the cliff to behold the galactic encounter that inspired and absorbed the first Advent longings.  Our obsession with masking the powers of darkness robs us of exposure to the greatest spectacles and deepest wisdom that darkness is best suited to reveal.

Sometime before the dawn of the computer age, I used to run a program at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York known as “Nightwatch,” named in part after that famous and expansive Rembrandt canvas which, along with other Dutch masters of the light in the Rijksmuseum, I was privileged to see with my dear friend Robert on several occasions.  The idea of the Cathedral program was to give groups of teenagers an opportunity to abandon at least some of their distractions for a weekend, to experience this grand sacred space in a manner unlike what they would likely be exposed to elsewhere.

As I recall, the pre-Christmas programs were the most popular, despite the relative lack of seasonal warmth and sunlight. But the “darkness” they experienced at the Cathedral was mostly safe, even in that (at the time) mostly unsafe neighborhood.   The Cathedral’s walls mostly though not completely rebuffed the noisy, illuminated chaos coming from the outside.  The lighting inside the Cathedral itself was carefully modulated (by me) to accentuate the shadows in that great space, but the subtle volume and intended object of that light (an altar) seemed to bring a comfort and even calm to many.  There was just enough light in that vast, dark space to inspire awe in those youth and create opportunity for reflection, but not enough to allow them to be distracted by those many objects that a stronger, more intrusive light would have revealed.

As our current group of UN interns has shared with me, there is much emotional content that can be attached to darkness, or at least regarding degrees of darkness that they have experienced in their lives.  On the positive side, darkness is associated with solitude and reflection, a break from the relentlessness of our excessively illuminated lives and the “flaws” and distractions such illumination exposes.  In that sense, darkness is rightly associated by them with both relief and focus, offering judgement-free opportunities to sit with themselves and examine their life trajectory, concentrating and comforting the senses in ways that daylight hours in UN conference rooms and their artificial illumination can make so very challenging.

We “all look better after dark” one recent television commercial proclaims.  We “look better” in part because the light surrounding us then is softer, more forgiving of the physical flaws and behavioral quirks we otherwise try so hard to conceal, the flaws that make us more interesting to others (also I suspect to God) but often – and so sadly I think — less interesting to ourselves.

Finding space to cultivate that ever-more elusive night vision is a key aspect of our Advent preparation.  Beholding light that can soften the darkness without robbing it of its powerful messages; light that focuses our attention while minimizing temptations to distraction; this is central to tapping the emotional content of this season.

In some metaphorical sense, and in part due to longstanding addictions to our overly (and artificially) illuminated world, many of us still prefer to “sleep with the lights on.”  This is the season to turn those lights off or, at the very least, lower the dimmer switch.

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