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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

10 November 2023

Stirred by Auden, Malcolm Guite looks for resources to encounter the darkness

AS THE nights draw in, and the days are so often cloudy and overcast, we have come, once more, to the dark time of year, and the season evokes different responses from all of us.

For children, and the child within us, there will be the excitement, and fear, of going out and coming home in the dark, the thrill of night skies lit up by fireworks, the half-ritualised fear of Hallowe’en bogies. For some of us, as adults, there will be a sense of new warmth and community as we come closer together, do more indoors, gather in pubs round roaring fires, making up for all we lost in the Covid years, or spend longer evenings at home with one another.

For others, there will be inward, as well as outward, gloom, a sense that the dark evenings, the bleak days, the sun lost or formless behind hostile clouds, are more than just outer weather, but an expression — perhaps a cause — of emotional and spiritual darkness, too.

And, given the news that assails us morning and evening, we may feel as Auden did in 1939:

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives. . .

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies. . .

That poem, “September 1st 1939”, returns to haunt us; and yet, for all its bleakness, it ends with the line “Show an affirming flame.”

What resources for encountering darkness might we find in the tradition and mystery of our faith, so that we, too, in our generation, might “show an affirming flame”?

Simply to light a candle on the altar is, by its very nature, and in all its accumulated meaning, “an affirming flame”; and the lovely order of liturgy, the setting of the psalms of lament to beautiful music, the ritual naming of pain in intercession — all these are, in themselves, acts of resistance against chaos, saying to the darkness: “I beg to differ.”

But, even when there is no candle to light, and the darkness seems total, our tradition can speak to us a word of hope. The Christian mystics all had deep encounters with darkness, both outward and inward, and have rich and helpful things to say about it. There is always something fearful about darkness, but, in the mystic tradition, darkness is both fearful and fruitful.

“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you Which shall be the darkness of God. . .” So writes Eliot in the Four Quartets, echoing St John of the Cross in “The Dark Night of the Soul”. We should not be afraid to go into the dark; for we all came out of the dark, out of the womb itself, and, before that, out of the great womb of non-being into the world we know.

We were not hidden from our loving Creator when we were woven in the secret places; nor shall we be hidden in darkness when he calls us home, however dark the road may seem to us; for the darkness is not dark to him, but the night is as clear as the day.

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