Paul Vallely:Why people need the darkness

18 November 2009

Light-pollution is hiding a religious truth from town-dwellers, Paul Vallely suggests

My NINE-year-old son was pretending to be blind. He walked along the street with his eyes shut. He tried to pretend it was an exercise in trust, asking us to call out when he neared an obstacle. But it was an exercise in exploring darkness. He cheated: as he neared a street-sign, he veered out of its way. But then we all cheat when it comes to darkness.

Galloway Forest Park in the Scottish lowlands has just won an international award for the quality of its darkness. The nearest town, Dumfries, is 40 miles away, which makes it one of the best places for stargazing in the country. You can see 7000 stars in the night sky there, compared with the paltry few hundred most of us urban dwellers can glimpse.

Last time I was on Iona, I was struck by the quality of the darkness. I remember walking one moonless night after evening worship at the Abbey, and being unable to see anything around me, not even the hand in front of my face. The night was as dark as tar, and the air like cool, black, enveloping velvet. But the darkness was alive, with the indistinct sounds of sheep, or something else.

It was an odd experience for anyone who lives in the permanent light-pollution of urban Britain. There the orange glow of sodium street-lights creates an unending residual light, which has corroded our senses to the point where The Darkness is primarily a moribund glam-rock band, and the stars are people we read about in celebrity magazines.

It may well be that the pervasive spread of artificial light has some kind of connection with the decline of the religious impulse in modern society. In the past 50 years, we have created masses of light where it was once dark. We now rarely see the stellar glory of the heavens that made our forefathers and -mothers wonder at their place in the universe. The stars were a nightly reminder of a reality outside themselves, and religion was one of a number of attempts to come to terms with that.

Today, the absence of darkness has even infected our theology. Of course, there has always been a negativity to the night: it is a time of shadows, of evil, of fear. Darkness was the penulti­mate plague in Exodus, and the place in Matthew’s Gospel into which the worthless will be thrown, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But an over-emphasis on the theology of light has led us into what the Franciscan priest Fr Richard Rohr has called the nadir of funda­mentalism — in which the ego craves certitude, explanation, clarity, order, and structure, even when those answers are not sound. He contrasts this satisfying untruth with the unsatisfying truth in which darkness is the greater apophatic teacher.

The day of the Lord in Joel is a day of darkness. It is the thick impenetrable cloud into which Moses entered on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. It is the desert landscape of Gregory of Nyssa, one of the first Christians to develop a theology of darkness, into which we are continually lured by God, through increasing levels of obscurity and vulnerability. We enter into the shadow, into the pain, into the dark side, groping our way to a deeper knowledge and love. But in this utter darkness God is present, and the way to the light can be perceived.

We have forgotten so much of that. If unceasing light disrupts the circadian rhythms of sleep and wakefulness in the physical body, what negative impact has it had on our souls?

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