Turning Darkness Into Light: And Is It True?

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
John 1:9-10

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.

“Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
“A great Shadow has departed…”

~J.R.R Tolkien from The Return of the King

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?


And is it true?
For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,


No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
~John Betjeman from “Christmas”

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
~Malcolm Guite “O Emmanuel”

The holiest of all holidays are those
    Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
    The secret anniversaries of the heart,
    When the full river of feeling overflows;—
The happy days unclouded to their close;
    The sudden joys that out of darkness start
    As flames from ashes; swift desires that dart
    Like swallows singing down each wind that blows!
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “Holidays”

And is it true?

Is it possible the darkness is set aside by His Light?

His flame springs from ashes, His wick quickened, the shadows banished.

It is true. It is true. The full river of grace overflows.

He is the Truth.

One for the star in the sky over Bethlehem
Two for the hands that will rock him to sleep
Three for the kings bringing gold, brining myrrh, bringing incense
Four for the angels that watch over his bedside
Blue for the robe of the sweet Virgin Mary
White for the dawn of the first Christmas day
Red for the blood that he shed for us all on Good Friday
Black for the tomb where he rested ‘till Easter

Lullaby, see Jesus asleep.
Angels and shepherds their watch on him keep
Lullaby he soon will awake
for the oxen are stirring and morning with break

One for the star in the sky over Bethlehem
Two for the hands that will rock him to sleep
Three for the kings bringing gold, brining myrrh, bringing incense
Four for the angels that watch over his bedside
And one for the heart, one for the heart,
One for the heart that I give as my offering to Jesus!

Shadows Move with the Sun

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,”
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

We are dealing and dueling with shadows,
our flawed imperfect darkness
rather than one another.
We write things on a screen that we would never
say to another’s face.
We assume motives, predict behavior, ponder reactions
but all is smoke and mirrors.

Such is the cost of feeling fear and distrust.

As the sun moves and time passes,
the shadows shift and play with the Light
from a different angle,
so shall we shift and pray.

Rather than holding the Light at a distance
while trying to wrestle shadows to the ground,
we’ll embrace it and make sense of it,
yearning for the illuminating hugs
we’ve been denied for so long.

Gladness to the Soul

Dry is all food of the soul
if it is not sprinkled with the oil of Christ.
When thou writest, promise me nothing,
unless I read Jesus in it.
When thou conversest with me on religious themes,
promise me nothing if I hear not Jesus’ voice.
Jesus—melody to the ear,
gladness to the soul,
honey to the taste.
~Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

The world, to our limited vision, exists as light and shadow.
Without shadow, nothing has depth or detail.
Without light, there will be no shadow.

There is no flower that blooms, no story told, no song sung, no food eaten that doesn’t bear the color and melody and sweetness of Jesus himself.

He infiltrates all because He encompasses all.
He is shadow, He is light, He is why we are at all.
Our eyes, our ears, our tongues fill with gladness whose Name is Jesus.

Help Me Push Myself Aside

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

~R.S. Thomas “A Bright Field”

The secret of seeing is, then the pearl of great price. 
If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever 
I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts

after any lunatic at all. 
But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought.

The literature of illumination reveals this above all: 
although it comes to those who wait for it, 
it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, 
a gift and a total surprise.

I return from one walk 
knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek

and the hour the laurel blooms. 
I return from the same walk a day later

scarcely knowing my own name.

Litanies hum in my ears; 
my tongue flaps in my mouth. 
Ailinon, alleluia!
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see
and my self is the earth’s shadow
that keeps me from seeing all the moon.
The crescent is very beautiful
and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see;
but what I am afraid of, dear God,
is that my self shadow will grow so large
that it blocks the whole moon,
and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God
because I am in the way.
Please help me to push myself aside.
~Flannery O’Connor from A Prayer Journal

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God…
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The hardest thing is to step out of the way so that my own shadow no longer obscures what provides illumination.  I am regularly so blinded by discouragement, busyness and distraction that I lose sight of God Himself.

Surprise me, dear Lord. Cram this common bush with heaven. 

Though I regularly lament in the shadows, help me lift my voice in praise and gratitude for your gift, the pearl of great price you generously hold out for me to take each day.

Better Than Any Argument

However just and anxious I have been
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet berries in a cup.
~Wendell Berry “A Standing Ground”
from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

This is an age of argument: silence is labeled violence so we’re induced to have our say and look for others to listen and support our point of view. Without mutual agreement, there is plenty of fodder for argument with a duel-to-the-death determination to win others over to our way of thinking.

Agreeing to disagree doesn’t seem to be an option any longer. Why can’t our debates simply settle down to get on with life and find a way to live alongside each other? Instead, if I don’t see it your way, I’m morally deficient or hostile or worst of all I’m not an ally, so by modern definition, I’ve become the enemy.

But I’m not the enemy and never want to be.

It’s enough to make one retreat from the fray altogether. Those of us who have been around awhile know: anger puts a match to feelings that burn hot inside and outside. Initially debate is energizing with a profound sense of purpose and direction, yet too soon it becomes nothing but ashes.

I refuse to be furious for the sake of fury and indignation. Arguments, tempting as they may be in the heat of the moment, don’t hold a candle to the lure of sharing sweet fruit of the garden and the cool shadows of the forest with those who need it most.

So come in and help me eat berries and cherries but leave your arguments at the door. You can pick them up later on your way out if you wish, but most likely they will have forgotten all about you and wandered away while you were busy living life.

Fickle things, arguments – they tend to fizzle out until someone decides to light a match to them again.

Give Me Your Hand

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” from
The Book of Hours

We were made for times like these: we feel things deeply, our awe and our fears, so much so we feel swept away.

Feelings are not the final say but they immobilize us.

God has told us not to back away from the shadow or the light – we will find Him if we long for Him enough.

Thought we may be lost, wandering, uncertain, He takes us by the hand and leads us through.

Grab hold and hang on tight.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Even Darkness Must Pass

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo.
The ones that really mattered.
Full of darkness and danger they were.
And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end…
because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was
when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow.
Even darkness must pass.
A new day will come.
And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Those were the stories that stayed with you.
That meant something,
even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.
I know now.
Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back,
only they didn’t.
They kept going, because they were holding on to something.
That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
~J.R.Tolkien
from The Two Towers

photo of the lone fir and rainbow by Bob Tjoelker

“Save me from all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared.”
~The Book of Common Prayer

It used to be that people feared a sudden, unprepared death,
because they feared meeting God sudden and unprepared.
Now, we only fear death —

because we don’t fear God.
Turn on any street corner, walk through any airport, sit on the edge of any hospital bed, and you can see the glorious wonder of it:
All the faces of humanity carry the image of God.
~Ann Voskamp from “A Holy Experience”

What is man that He is mindful of us – no matter who we are, where we are – we are His reflection.

His face is mirrored in ours: the old and dried up and wrinkled beyond recognition, or the mere floating conceptus, yet to implant and thrive.

When we are overwhelmed by the events of the world, when it seems all is in shadow, we must remember, whether old and feeble or as yet unborn, we are part of a great story and our plot progression is a mystery. We keep going because we are holding on to something better than any treasure.  

We are promised light and joy at the end, no question about it.  We will pass through the shadows and through His grace, the darkness will pass right through us, never to dwell within or surround us again.

This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Adazzle Dim

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Pied Beauty”

The unconventional and unnoticed beauty,
freckled, spare and strange–
helps me feel beautiful too. 
The interplay of light and shadow
within every moment of our existence,
some moments darker than others,
some brilliant and dazzling.

I try to find the sweet and sour,
knowing I’m capturing my own dappled essence – 
a reflection of the Fathering that loves us
even in our fickleness,
who possibly could know how?

There is no perfection outside of Him;
His reflected beauty has no uniformity.
We give Him glory in our imperfection,
the defects and blemishes which
only He can make whole.
Who knows why He does this?
Yet He does.

Glory be.

A Grand Center

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe
and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.
Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling
under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.
~Billy Collins “Grand Central”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
~William Butler Yeats from “The Second Coming”

At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;

at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.

Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. 

~T.S. Eliot from “Burnt Norton” The Four Quartets

Millions orbiting the center or the center orbiting its millions:
we’ve been to Grand Central Station, a relaxed rest stop compared to the moving hive we navigated at Shinjuku Station and Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo, a city four times the size of New York.

Try as I might to picture train stations constituting a “center” holding the city together, I feel these works of man have only a tenuous hold on those who come and go. There is no glue; things fall apart.

The center only holds when it constitute the Source itself-
the origin, the beginning and the end and everything in between. Starting from there, no matter how far from the Center,
you have no doubt about where and when you are.

That Witnessing Presence

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

~Denise Levertov “Witness”

Even on the days when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  In the off-chance that it might be visible if we took the time to drive up the highway to the foot of it, we did just that last night, risking seeing nothing but pea soup clouds at the higher elevation. Mount Baker remained behind its impenetrable veil, unseen.

A bit lower, at the foot of Mount Shuksan, initially massive clouds obscured it completely – invisible to us except the knowledge that we knew it was there as we had been in that exact spot before and witnessed it first hand. Yet due to powerful winds that blow in the Cascades, over the course of a few minutes Shuksan was exposed before our eyes in all its glory, first in shadowy profile and then crystal clear reality: it was there, movingly unmoved, a revelation of constancy.

No, it had not vanished overnight, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t always penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover, but it is still there. 

I know this and have faith it is true even when, within a few minutes, the clouds blew back over the mountain’s face and veiled it completely again.

Some days I simply don’t bother to look for the mountains, so preoccupied I walk right past their obvious grandeur and presence. Then they reach out to me and call me back.  There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there Baker is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

The mountains confirm my lack of witness and still stay put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and lift my own veil, just one more time.