A core memory from my Hebridean childhood is located in winter’s depths. Whilst dashing out to play after our evening meal, running up the garden path, breath frosty on the clear cold air, a glance at the pitch dark sky stopped me dead. A magical swirling dance of colour was washing the Northern sky with translucent radiance. I held my breath, friends forgotten, gazing for a long time at the wonderful display. Gradually, inevitably, it faded and vanished.
This first experience of awe has remained etched on memory. It imprinted on my soul, at a very young age, a deep intuitive sense that there is a sublime mystery at the core of the interplay between light and dark.
The Northern Lights
Subsequent adult reading provided a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of the aurora borealis. But science cannot explain the sense of wonder and awe which the Northern Lights has evoked in countless numbers of us since our remote ancestors scanned the skies, seeing the Divine in natural beauty, and eventually in its predictable rhythms. Knowing that the Moon, for example, had its pattern of waxing and waning enabled our ancestors to plan the best times for planting, travelling, and timing their religious rituals. But the Moon’s guiding light could only be accessed in the dark of night.
We need winter. We may not like it much, especially in the frequently wet, grey dreariness of the West of Scotland at this time of year! But we need it, and the darkness that goes with it. A long rest refreshes the earth, revitalises it; new life quietly germinates in the dark, bursting forth in the miraculous renewal of spring.
We need the dark. Within the year’s natural cycle, the diurnal alternation of light and dark brings restful silence at night and the restorative power of sleep, without which all creatures including us would burn out and die before their time. We are in danger of forgetting this – at our peril – as an increasingly technology-driven culture sweeps the world, creating the illusion that we can live sustainably and healthily in defiance of the ancient rhythms set by the great cycles of nature.
One snowy winter’s dusk, I failed to return home from primary school. A snowstorm was blowing up with a fierce gale. Worried, my mother sent out a search party. I was found, in a state of some distress, almost white with snow, pinned against a fence. A slight child, I had been blown and held there by the wind. Where I grew up, we didn’t need to read books to understand the fierce destructive power of nature as well as its unearthly beauty.
From those childhood experiences on, I have walked the well trodden path underlying all faiths which seeks ways of affirming connection with that vast Power which runs nature, the Universe and everything, reconciling dark and light, going way beyond time.
Whilst reflecting on the profoundly mysterious and paradoxical relationship between light and dark, with which we humans have always wrestled in one form or another, the phrase ‘dazzling darkness’ came to mind. It persisted for days, until eventually I located the source.
It occurs in a fascinating article, which I had first read in 2002, titled
“A RELUCTANT MYSTIC: God-Consciousness not Guru Worship” by John Wren-Lewis. (1)
The author describes how, at the age of nearly sixty, retired and with a distinguished career as a scientist behind him, he had spiritual consciousness “thrust upon me….without working for it, desiring it, or even believing in it.”
It was 1983. Wren-Lewis was in Thailand, in a hospital bed, hovering between life and death, having eaten a poisoned sweet given to him by a would-be thief. What happened next, a ‘near death experience’(NDE), he describes as follows:
“I simply entered – or rather, was – a timeless, spaceless void which in some indescribable way was total aliveness – an almost palpable blackness that was yet somehow radiant. Trying to find words for it afterwards, I recalled the mysterious line of Henry Vaughan’s poem The Night:
‘There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness’.”
His return to life, as the medical staff gradually won their battle to save him, was not in any way accompanied by the typical NDE’s classic sense of regret or loss at having to go back to the world of the everyday. It was, in fact, “nothing like a return….more like an act of creation whereby the timeless, spaceless Dark budded out into manifestation”. Furthermore, the experience was “indescribably wonderful.”
In Wren-Lewis’ own words “I now know exactly why the Book of Genesis says that God looked upon all that He had made – not just beautiful sunsets, but dreary hospital rooms and traumatised sixty-year old bodies – and saw that it was very good.”
Moreover, this heightened awareness did not leave him. A permanent shift, without any effort at all, into what he calls “God-consciousness” caused him to do further reading and research beyond accounts of NDEs into the “once-despised world of mystical literature and spiritual movements”. But he rejects the notion held by experts in many religious traditions that the path to God-consciousness, or Enlightenment, or Nirvana requires years or even lifetimes of intensive spiritual effort. After all, he’d been handed “the pearl of great price on a plate” without ever seeking it, and found God-consciousness to be quintessentially ordinary and obvious – a feature emphasised by many mystics.
I was so intrigued by Wren-Lewis’ startling account that I re-read the great Victorian psychologist William James’ classic book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” for the first time in nearly thirty years. This confirmed what I had already known but forgotten: a great many people who have profound religious or mystical experiences have them in nature.
I felt grateful then for that brilliant encounter with the Northern Lights, so long ago but still clearly remembered, which affirmed my need for ‘God consciousness’ before I could ever articulate it.
We need awe: it points our vision towards the sacred. So, readers, embrace the darkness if you can, these winter nights – you never can tell what wonders may reveal themselves ….
(1) from Self & Society Vol 29 Number 6 Feb-March 2002 (pp 22-24)
(published in ‘Magnificat’ magazine (UK) winter/spring 2007 )
1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008 and 2011
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