The British are creatures of habit. Every year we do certain things and we buy certain things and we say certain things. When the clocks went back recently you can guarantee someone said ‘The nights are drawing in’ and ‘Oooh, isn’t it getting darker at night?’
It soon becomes noticeable as August gives way to September and October that the hours of darkness are getting longer. Suddenly I find myself getting up in the dark. One of my habits is to photograph the sunrise and the sunsets on my phone as I make my way to and from London. I know when the days are starting to get shorter as the photographs become geographically further apart.
I’m writing this on a beautifully sunny day – one of those crisp mornings which reminds you that autumn is truly here and showcases all that’s best about it. The sun is warming up my dining room and my cat is happily toasting herself in its rays. The trees in their oranges, yellows and bronze colours positively glimmer in the sunshine and remind me of why I love the autumn in this country. Last night the sky was glowing with the sunset for some time after the sun itself had actually left for the day and the stars sparkled and twinkled in the indigo-coloured heavens.
But the night i
s coming. Those days when you go to work in the dark and you come home in the dark with not much change in between. The hours of daylight will get shorter and we’ll all find it that bit harder to engage our enthusiasm for getting out of bed. The darkness can become all enveloping – highlighting the slightly depressing orange glow of street lights which (however hard they try) don’t really light our way and warm our hearts like the sun does.
It is no coincidence that Christmas is held in December. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, the idea of a festival to break up the darkness of the season does bring cheer even if it only lasts until the credit card bills arrive in January. One of the Doctor Who Christmas specials from a couple of years ago described the winter festival as a celebration of having got halfway out of the dark and I can understand why people might feel that way.
However. Halfway out of the dark still means you’re in the dark. It’s not surprising that we fear it as children and sometimes as adults. There’s danger lurking in every shadow, scary monsters in the dark space under our beds and the bad dreams that sometimes shake us out of sleep are made worse by the blackness of the night. We associate the night with bad deeds and the long shadows they cast.
It’s no wonder that the ancient service of compline or night prayer has these words in it – ‘Lighten our darkness,?we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.’
The perils and dangers of the night are made worse by its darkness. I suspect when Jesus describes himself as the light of the world it’s deliberate. A reminder that we need the light to offset the scariness of the darkness of the night.
When I worked for BBC Wiltshire as faith and ethics producer, one of the outstanding moments was interviewing Terry Waite. I asked him if I could ditch what we were supposed to be talking about and instead talk about hope. ‘Of course’, he replied enthusiastically. It was one of those interviews where you find yourself gripped by the answers. This after all was a man who spent nearly five years as a hostage and four-and-a-half years of those were in solitary confinement. This was a man who had learned first hand about how discipleship can cost. And this was a man who would know just how important hope can be and how it sustains humans when all else seems lost. Hope is a small word but a massive promise.
Terry talked about words. Words which he had learned as a child in Sunday School and as a chorister. The words of the Psalms, the words of the Prayer Book. But it was those words of compline that had really resonated with him. ‘Lighten our darkness’ had tremendous significance for him in his years as a hostage, he said. When you’re in a room with shutters that are closed night and day the darkness is always with you. But there were gaps in the shutters and a tiny beam of light would creep through and eventually illuminate the room as a powerful reminder he said, that light is stronger than darkness. As he painted the picture I could see in my mind’s eye a single beam of light cutting through that darkness resolutely and absolutely. I listened to that interview again today before writing this and saw in my mind that shaft of light permeate the darkness again.
In the power cuts of the 1970s I remember reaching into the cupboard in the hall by the front door for the candles kept there for those moments. And I vividly remember the way one candle would turn the stairway of our house from terrifying blackness to the more familiar place I called home. And as autumn turns to winter, I’ll light more candles around my lounge – not because I really need them but because I associate them with warmth and light, reassurance and being in that place I call home.
Many of us have experienced tough months, weeks and even years when the darkness seems almost overwhelming at times in its bleakness and there are no easy answers, neither do I want to offer trite reassurances that will hurt rather than help.
All I can say is that as I now reach for the candle in the cupboard of faith in my own power cut of darkness and light it, it may flicker and almost seem to go out at times but it never quite goes out and it always casts a beam of light however tiny that light might be. It might not be much, but it still throws light into dark places, showing it up for what it is, because the darkness will never defeat this tiny flickering flame. The candle will never quite go out even when in my fear and anxiety I accidentally blow on it. The tiny flame, the tiny spark, the tiny glow does lightens my darkness.
The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has NOT overcome it. Take the light with you and hold it and shine it into the darkness. Not just halfway out of the dark with the prospect of more to come but determinedly shining on and on through the blackness and defying the bleakness of the shadows with its tiny flame of hope until the sunlight floods in once more…