As I sit here with a candle before me as usual, I am not gazing at its flame but at the darkness in the room that surrounds it. One of the advantages of using an I Pad to write is that it has an illuminated screen so I am able to compose this meditation without the benefit of an electric light above or beside me. Indeed, I hardly need a candle at all to see the keyboard.
Marcus, of course, all those centuries ago, would have had to resort to candles or oil lamps to write his own meditations. His own tablet would not have been lit from within as mine is! I am sure that, like me, he must have gazed into the darkness between writing down his sentences. Perhaps the darkness helped him to get his own thoughts together too. Alternately gazing at the candle flame and at the gloom, at the light and at the darkness, he was able to shape his thoughts into sentences.
One thing is certain: he would have been far more aware of the dark than we are. We never need to be completely in the dark with electric lights everywhere and TV and computer screens beaming at us, not to mention the little screens forever in our hand. With all these sources of light, we hardly notice the passage of the night hours at all unless we are unable to sleep for some reason. But Marcus would have been more aware of the night hours, the hours of darkness.
Perhaps he wrote because he slept little. I read in Mary Beard’s recent book about Rome, that the city’s inhabitants slept little at all, because of fear of fire and violence outside their dark and flimsy wooden dwellings. Perhaps Marcus’ legionaries enjoyed being free of that fretful city fear as they camped out in the stillness of the fields and plains, in those moments when they were far from the lurking enemy.
It is humbling to sit in the dark. It reminds us of our place in the universe, in the cosmic order of things; that there is a vast immensity beyond our own paltry private world of nagging individual concerns. Looking up into the night sky, especially in the summer when we can sit in the warmth of the evening to gaze up at the stars, can help us to appreciate this. But sitting in a room in the dark can bring this home to us too.
Technology in its myriad forms has, I think, made us proud and arrogant as if we are in total control and lords of creation and of course we are not in total control. News of a natural disaster is enough to remind of this. And our slapdash intermittent control of creation has resulted in disastrous results for our fragile and vulnerable Eco systems, which we are now only too aware of.
We are most aware of the dark in the wintertime because it creeps in suddenly during the late afternoon and is still there when we wake up in the morning. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Christmas is so wonderful: it is a season of light, of cheer, of conviviality; of bright lights and comforting company against the ever-encroaching dark. For we do all have that primal fear of the dark inside us. You only have to walk down a country lane with no street lights at night or across an open field in the dark to experience a twinge of that primal fear; to share that gut feeling those Roman city dwellers must have had at times. Especially if you are unable to get a signal on your phone!
A few days ago there was another attack by a lone terrorist in the London Bridge area. Darkness has suddenly crept into our lives again accompanied by that primal fear. Except it was the darkness within that terrorist’s soul that took over him and then his victims and so us. Darkness is always with us.
The future of our country is in the balance with an election looming and the ever-present uncertainty caused by Brexit. We are walking towards the future in the dark. But then we always are walking towards the future in the dark. We really do not know what is around the corner. Perhaps part of our anxiety or annoyance about this is because technology, as I mentioned earlier, surreptitiously makes us believe we have all knowledge at our fingertips, that we are omniscient, all knowing. Therefore we should know everything about the future and certainly the media and politicians want us to believe their version of it. But we need to remember that we are in the dark and to accept the dark and cherish what light we have.
I am now sitting in a room away from home. I am staying overnight in my old Oxford college, Pembroke. My room overlooks the chapel quad. It is one of my favourite views so I am so pleased that I have been allocated this room. It is night and very dark in the quad as I look out of the window but there are lamps shining in brackets from the walls.The walls were a biscuit brown in the winter sunshine when I arrived, but now they are a pale grey, not eerie but welcoming. From the darkness in my room, those lamps look so comforting, especially the one immediately opposite me, lighting the stairway to the Hall. It is no longer a lamp but a beacon in the gloom.
That is what we are called to be: beacons in the gloom, comforting each other and hopefully guiding each other. That is what the two young victims of the London Bridge attack, Jack and Saskia, were. They were beacons in the gloom; working on a prison rehabilitation programme to create a little light in the darkness of the lives of others. They were what the poet W.H.Auden would call ‘affirming flames’.
Darkness and light are incompatible. I am reminded of a quote in my first meditation over a year ago. It is by St Francis of Assisi: ‘All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light from one candle.’
Let us believe this in our dark times and like, Jack and Saskia, be affirming flames.
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