This is adapted from a reflection I gave for the Contemplative Leaders in Action‘s Boston Advent Prayer Service, December 1, 2016.
O come, O Bright and Morning Star, and bring us comfort from afar! Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light.
Darkness comes more naturally to me than light. I’m Italian, I tend to melancholy, I’m an Enneagram 8. I’m quick to critique and correct, I look first for pitfalls of any new idea, and sarcasm is my love language. Because I’m naturally disposed to negativity, I definitely understand the longing for light that characterizes the Advent season. The struggle of my life has been figuring out what friendship with light looks like for my particular personality and in my heart.
I have more than a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder, so these seasonal darkenings have always been poignant for me, reminding me of the passage of time and leaving me glum during fall and winter. One year the darkness settled in during October and took up residence. This was no longer my mild melancholy, but a deep true sadness I couldn’t shake.
I stopped wearing eye makeup because I cried all the time. I would often stop moving as I was walking through campus or working at my desk, and just not be able to get going again. Sunset was especially awful, casting an even darker shadow over my mood.
Through this whole time I went to daily mass and prayed. I didn’t believe that there would be some miraculous healing, but I wanted to at least show up and ask for the light I wanted back in my life. Light streamed through stained glass windows, glowed from altar candles, and even shone in the faces of those who prayed with me. For months I was dark inside but kept repeating “God, fill this hole inside me so that I can be free again. I’m ready, I want to be healed.”
I kept showing up, banging like the persistent widow on the door between darkness and light. Over time, that door showed some cracks and holes, light seeped back in, and eventually the darkness, if not quite gone, was at least balanced with a healthy measure of light. (This was aided, it should be said, by the good people in university counseling. When the darkness turns pathological we should take all the help we can get).
So these pleas for light resonate with me, and light is something I often ask for. One of the many reasons I love the liturgical calendar is that it calls us back to the same questions and themes every year, and makes it less embarrassing that for so many of these graces we have to ask, and ask, and ask. We don’t ask for light, though, just so we can possess it and feel good. When we cultivate the light of Christ in our hearts it allows us to be more merciful, just, compassionate, and kind, even in a dark world.
There is a poem I often turn to when I’m fretting about the darkness. W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939 was written as World War II was breaking out, a truly dark time in much of the world. His conclusion is written on my heart:
Relentless, under the night
Our world in stupor lies.
Yet dotted everywhere,
ironic points of light
flash out wherever the just
exchange their messages.
May I, composed like them,
Of Eros and of Dust
Beleaguered by the same
negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.
During Advent we pray repeatedly, as we have tonight: Come, Lord Jesus. We prepare to meet Jesus in our hearts, but also to meet Jesus in other people. Being a point of light, showing an affirming flame, is how I prepare myself to welcome others. This is where the rubber meets the road for me: having light in my heart is all well and good, but if I’m keeping it to myself I’m not fulfilling my call.
Christ comes to us not just in moments of prayer but through other people. In our reading from Zechariah and elsewhere in Scripture God promises to come among us, making us a people and a community. Welcoming others into our communities is part of being God to others. It doesn’t come naturally to many of us, and a culture that often glorifies individualism and self-protection doesn’t make it any easier.
The saints – the joyful saints, the grumpy saints, the sophisticated and the simple saints, even those who were living dark nights, flashed out their unique lights throughout their lives, offering consolation and inspiration to others.
In our daily lives this may mean slowing down and looking someone in the eye, truly listening when they speak. It may mean tending to the physical needs of others, both obvious and hidden. It may mean welcoming the strangers into our workplaces, churches and neighborhoods, or seeing the lonely and sad and letting them know they are not alone.
But you don’t need me to convince you of any of this. If you are here you are mostly likely already on board with sharing God’s light. You probably don’t need me to tell you that you should do it, but you may need someone to tell you that you can do it. Even if you’re busy, even if you’re grumpy, even if you’re a brooding, sharp-tongued Italian. I won’t say “just as you are”, but if not just as you are, than just who you are. As Thomas Merton said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
Everyone has their particular darkness that gets in the way of being a light to others: anxiety, fear, greed, recklessness, self-centeredness, rage, envy. I spent a lot of my life wishing my negative tendencies away, before I realized that the spiritual work of my life is turning those qualities toward the light.
I wished for a long time not to be impulsive before I realized that wasn’t going to happen, so I’ve trained myself to give hugs and greetings and compliments impulsively. I wished for a long time not to be loud, but instead now work to be loud with affirmations, cheers, and helpfulness. I even wished not to be moody, before I saw how futile that was, and learned to find the beauty in being so emotional. For me, to be a saint means to be myself.
We are not the source of the light, we are its prisms, and we allow ourselves to be used by God, just who we are. Tonight, this Advent, we pray Come, Lord Jesus. May we also pray Jesus, help us to be ready for you. Help us to see you in others, help us to accept our flaws and challenges so that we can worry less about ourselves and more about others. Help us find space in our heart to welcome you wherever we may find you. Come Lord Jesus, be light in us that we may be light for others.
Photo credit Robert Goulston.