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Category: longest night

longest night: the blessing of december’s darkness

prayer for new year

amid the darkness, this flickered in this morning’s dawn. it’s a gift for the turning of season, winter’s solstice, the longest darkest night, when we need to look deep to find the light within….

“Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. And, in the northern hemisphere, December’s darkness invites us inward. A lesson in wonder, an elegy for light, and a call to pay attention for the unbroken darkness of a December night.”

so begins the gift i stumbled on this morning, one i share with you here. the words above are the introduction to an essay i wrote on the blessing of december’s darkness…

and here’s a bit of the back story: a couple weeks ago, i wrote here about my quivering knees as i was about to get up to a squawky microphone in a glorious downtown chicago old-guard club, the union league club, to say a few things about the gifts of the darkness, december’s darkness. ever since, i’ve been wanting to bring to the table the words i spoke on that first friday of advent. but i’ve been patiently waiting. i’d been given an inkling that a wish might come true, and those words might be posted online at OnBeing, the home of blessed krista tippett, and glorious trent gilliss, who fill the NPR airwaves and cyberspace with wisdom, and contemplative truths. they ask big questions, and mine the landscape searching for answers, or lamplights, along the way.

this morning, with some measure of astonishment, i found the essay, indeed posted in the public square that is OnBeing, the words beautifully draped in breath-taking images. you can find the words and pictures if you click on the link to the essay they’ve titled, “The Invitation of December.”

or, you can read along here, where i’ve unfurled the essay. (i say click the link, because OnBeing has made it so very pretty….)

The Invitation of December

By Barbara Mahany (as posted on OnBeing, the blog)

There is something about December, all right. And I call it a gift.

It might be my ancient Celtic roots, or maybe it’s my monastic inclinations, but give me a gray day, a day shrouded in mist and peekaboo light. Give me a shadowed nook to slip into, and I wrap myself in the cloak of utter contentment.

It’s dark all right, come December, month of the longest night, when minute by minute our dot on the globe is darkening. Today, December 21st, darkness shrouds all but nine hours — give or take a few minutes and seconds — of mainland America’s hustle and bustle.

Yet darkness to me is alluring; it calls me to turn inside, to be hushed, to pay attention. And mine is a lonely outpost.

December, most everyone else complains, is unbroken darkness. And they’re grinding their teeth when they say it. The way I see it, though, maybe the saddest thing is, we’ve blinded ourselves to the darkness. Cut ourselves off from the God-given ebb and the flow of darkness and light. It’s poetry, the rise and the fall of incandescence and shadow, measured in lumens per square foot. But, mostly, it’s lost on us — bright lights, big city.

Fact is, we live in a lightbulb world: LED, CFL, halogen, fluorescent — blaring, glaring, blinking 24/7, especially in modern-day December. When’s the last time you tiptoed out your kitchen door, or onto a fire escape, and took in the sky show? It’s there every night: the stars and the moon, waxing or waning, a night-after-night lesson in fractions. Lesson in wonder.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, the intellect and the imagination.

Consider how attuned you are to sound and touch and danger when it’s late at night and you can’t find the light switch, and you’re groping your way up an unfamiliar staircase. Or, you’re out in the woods trying to clomp from sleeping bag to gosh-darned outhouse without falling into the brambles — or the icy-cold creek.

The truth is: Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.

At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled ‘round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counter-culturism, and do not succumb.

Plug your ears the next time you hear Muzak Jingle Bells. Instead, fill your iPhone with Gregorian Chant or the 12th century symphonia of mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Be in the cave. Away from the crowd.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday. Look to Jesus, for starters. Bread and wine, everyday agrarian foodstuffs, he made into the most sacred sacramental feast.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Ditch fast food. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

A dear friend of mine laughs about being a person of “smells and bells,” and by that he means a certain affinity for the burning of incense and chiming of carillons. The candle, the tintinnabulation of the bells, it sets off a deep-down stirring in a Catholic or an Anglican of certain age, it echoes of our not-so-distant past. And what I love about the coining of that phrase, “the smells and the bells,” when I pause and really think about it, is that it reminds me that deep in the heart of our spiritual DNA, we are hard-wired to respond to the liturgical, to pulse with reverence at a life lived sacramentally, slowly, marveling at the magnificence, yes, at each and every turn.

Maybe we’re most purely and purposefully alive when we turn our backs to — press against — a guzzled-down life that pays no attention, that goes with the flow, that “kills a few hours,” that takes it — all of it, any of it — for granted.

And why? Why are we screeching the brakes, dialing down all the noise? Why are we ardently not joining in on a December punctuated by office-party folderol, and speed-dial shopping, and holiday cards canon-balled out of the printer, without so much as a touch of the human hand?
Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. December is God whispering, “Please. Come. Closer.” Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg — finally —to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the Great Horned Owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I.

Maybe, so do you.

And December, at the cusp of winter, season of fury and stillness, December demands our attention. It is a month draped in myth and legend. It is a month that rings with the power of the simplest story, the one we wait for — childlike, rapt, noses pressed to the window, scanning the heavens for bright and shining light.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths in which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath.

glories bush at night

when the phone rings in the night

nowhere in the manual, the one they forgot to send home from the baby hospital, does it mention that 5-year-olds on a road trip for the very first time might wake up in the middle of the night, in some faraway motel room, and start breathing in short little puff-puff-puffs that further in the manual might be diagnosed as hyperventilating.
well, children don’t follow manuals, forgotten or otherwise.
children, when they’re non-fictional, toss and turn, according to the one who dialed the phone in the middle of the night last night, until finally they call out in the darkness, proclaim that their head is hot, and their tummy rumbly, and they want to talk to their mommy.
and so, at 2:38 a.m., the phone rings.
your dream, in which you are chasing baby chickens around your city-girl friend’s apartment–hmm, paging dr. freud, paging dr. freud–is interrupted.
you are, in those murky first few seconds of a middle-of-a-dream phone call, scrambling the synapses in your brain like some combination bicycle lock where the numbers must line up in just the right sequence, trying to figure out, of all the possible things that could be wrong, just what one it is that is precipitating someone to call you when the clock quite clearly is flashing 2-3-8, with a colon there between the 2 and the 3.
then, you hear it. you hear the pathetic little whimpering, muffled through the static of a cell phone, a cell phone far away.
but you are the mother of that whimper, and you’d know it anywhere. you know it now. even in the dark. even bounced from earth to heaven, back to earth, or however it is those dang phones get the whimper to your ear.
you get a minute or two of explaining, deep background from the dialer, and then the whimperer takes phone in hand and holds it back no longer.
suddenly it is 2:42 a.m. and you are hearing no words really, just the sound of sadness. supreme sadness. supreme i-feel-crummy-and-i-am-in-a-comfort-suite-in-the-middle-of-south-bend-indiana.
and you, now wide awake like a mama bear who hears a rustle outside her cave, you are ministering to what ails him, but really you are talking to a silver plastic box, a box with little holes punched in it.
you are not cheek-to-soft-pink-cheek with the little one you love. you are not stroking his brow, the way you always do, the way your mother did to you.
you are doing the very best you can but there are two hours, at least, of city and cornfields between you and the so-sad boy.
and even if you could, even if you jumped in the car right then and there, it would be nuts to head out for the motel just off the interstate, in the middle of a strip mall with a starbucks planted right next door.
so you pretend you are right there. you use your words to fill in the empty space between you and the phone and him. you are clear, and you are full of promise. you get him to slow his breathing, to get a little sleep, and then come home. he whimpers yes, to all of the above.
but, like waves of tummy flipping that will not be quelled, the calls keep coming. updates from there at the faraway sickbed. 2:53, they are moving to the couch. 3:07, it was better now it’s worse.
then, at last, at 3:19, a call comes, telling you the little guy is fast asleep. on the couch. wet washcloth to his head.
and you too, the caller says, should try to sleep.
but you’re a mother, and you’ve been roused, and it might not be so easy to get back to chasing chickens there in your dreams.
the last thing you expected when you laid your head on that old pillow was that you’d be shaken from your sleep by a little boy all knotted in his sheets 110 miles away.
but, really, that’s the part of being a mama that takes your breath away. it is a roller coaster ride without a seat belt. it’s full of yelps and whoops, and heaven only knows what’s around the bend.
it’s messy business. it is groping in the dark. fumbling for the phone. it is, since it comes without instructions, making it up as you go. bumping into walls, but somehow putting one foot in front of the other. at least on a good day.
and the whole time, we are led by one fat muscle that will not stop. will not stop its lub-dub squeezing, letting go.
we mother by heart. and whatever graces are stocked in the pantry by the MotherGod who keeps us from running out of what we need, before we can get back to the store where they sell these things.
we mother, too, with history. lying there, fully awake, i begin to connect the dots. i think of just a week ago, in a tent in the woods, the same little guy was crying for his room. i remember how the summer before first grade can be a little bumpy.
i know, because this is a bend i’ve been around before, that there will be bumps. and even a little guy who, by day, can play a sword-wielding super hero, by night can put down the shield, can bare his tender side.
i think back to all the nights when, as a baby, he went to sleep nestled between his mama and his papa. i think that world will always be the safest, surest thing to his little tiny soul.
and i understand how his world feels topsy-turvy when he’s with his papa but not his mama. and he’s in some air-conditioned motel room. and not the little room at the top of the stairs where the lake breeze blows in.
and so i wait for the sound of the car pulling up to the curb, so i can wrap him in. so i can hold him in my arms and make his world not so wobbly anymore.
is that not the most amazing super power? and i can do it without a sword.
that’s what happens when the phone rings before the light comes.

tell your middle-of-the-night phone-call stories. do you remember longing for your mama in the middle of the night in some faraway unknown bed? do you remember being longed for? how did you make it right? how did you set the world back to where it didn’t feel so wobbly?

and a most blessed birthday to the two girls who both were born to two of my dearest longest-lasting friends. sweet veronika and molly, happy happy happy. to the woods of vermont, and the wilds of chicago, i send the sweetest birthday wishes.