Some Amazing Silent Prayer
Our reading this Sunday was, “A Poem on Hope,” by Wendell Berry.
When have you experienced light and darkness striking a balance? Joy and sorrow? Contentment and want? I ask this knowing that for many religious and political progressives these days, there is a very real imbalance. And not just in the wider discourse our country is experiencing. Perhaps that imbalance is in your personal life as well.
But I will ask again. When have you experienced this balance? Think long and hard on those moments. Have you forgotten them? Has the year been far too unkind to you that memories of days past are no longer as present to you? Perhaps dig a little deeper and you will find an example. Maybe you’ve never forgotten.
Today we pause to remember the winter solstice – a day that is all about taking note of the ebb and flow of light and dark, life and death, and the bittersweetness that is our being conscious of our mortality.
In three short days, this Wednesday, we will see the longest night and the shortest day. The sun will barely climb into the sky and nightfall will consume it readily. It is a day that religions and philosophies have pondered over, a day that the ancient peoples before us etched into stone, scribbled onto papyrus, and told grand stories about. It is a day of opposites. As the southern hemisphere welcomes the longest day, the day of the coming summer, we stop in the cold and the dark to greet winter fully.
This single moment in our year has been celebrate and observed for millennia. Throughout human history, human beings have wondered at the lengthening nights and shortening days, with a fear in the back of their minds of this leading to the sun never returning and the cold remaining.
I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with winter and the darkness. I grew up with bitter cold winters – and I sort of always expect them to be that way. In a weird way I welcome them, even though I complain about them endlessly.
And while you will never catch me long in a dark basement, I could stand out on a cold clear winter night looking at the familiar winter constellations for hours if you let me. There is a beauty to that darkness.
And in those moments, I feel a sort of primal connection. On those crisp, clear and often bitter starry nights I wonder about all the human beings that have ever lived who have paused to look up in the cold and the dark to find points of pale light piercing through the night.
I imagine the sorrows that are far greater than any I’ve ever encountered, the joys I can only pretend to understand, the myriad emotions of those people long gone and, perhaps, the people joining me in that very same moment, looking upward. Looking for those points of light. It is, perhaps, me at my most sappy. My most maudlin. But I feel there is something to be said for trying to conceptualize such a connectedness to your fellow human beings.
We all have our fears, we all have our worries and sorrows, we all have our joyous bright moments – and we all have our moments of imbalance. And I say all intentionally – those points of pale light shine down upon your enemy and your friend and the cold of winter makes no distinctions.
We are all looking for balance in this one life we have. Looking for sunrise and sunfall, moonrise and moonfall, looking for a rhythm that gives space for us to live and fulfill our dreams all the while grappling with the peculiarities of being mortal in a mortal world.
And it is one thing to say we need to find balance or that we are all looking for it. Balance can be such a neutral word. More often than not what we need in any given moment are the vehicles for that balance: hope and wholeness.
Hope to bring us out of the darkness or, better yet, to remind us that not all darkness is a terrible thing, and wholeness, to round out the edges of our lives and living so that we may remember that the light, too, is not permanent and not always good.
I don’t know about you, but I could use a little more hope these days. The earth is warming, the tired and broken are finding no solace, unrest and unease are dominant states of being for many in our world, and I wonder where is the hope? Wendell Berry’s words come crashing into memory when I ask that question. “It is hard to have hope,” he writes, “for hope must not depend on feeling good.”
Like the people in the story of light and dark, how often do we assume that which we hope for will makes us feel good? Often hope does bring about that feeling. But how much do we want to hold on to forever? Will days of unending brightness truly make us feel good, or will they make us lose sight or make us numb to what we have?
I feel that that is the central teaching of that story we heard and the poem Wendell Berry wrote for us. Our hopes cannot be for only those things that bring about pleasure. Our hopes must sometimes rest comfortably in the longest nights and the coldest days with distant points of light as our solace.
Hope, then, is bittersweet. It isn’t completely satisfying. And it often does not bring about the dawn when we want it. But Wendell Berry goes further. He tells us that our hopes must be on the ground beneath us. Not just in sweet thoughts and prayers for all the darkness to go away, but on the richness of the soil, on the firmness of rock, on all that is this good earth.
There is a paradox, ultimately, to any definition of hope. To any seeking of balance. To any peace we make with the light or with the dark. There is no universal equilibrium that we know of yet. Sometimes our very contentment means someone else is suffering.
Sometimes I can stand here and tell us all about balance, when I know the city of Aleppo is being erased from the earth. Sometimes the cycle of night and day is so rapid in humanity, that it is hard to know which is which. What I mourn, others find cause to rejoice. What I believe, others find appalling. And so too with all of us.
Hope is a complicated thing. And perhaps our current political situation piled on to so many other things is making us wonder where it is. An orthodox Jewish friend of mine recently reminded me that her people have suffered greatly in their history. Their suffering was immense, drawn out, and often had the feeling of being constant.
She reminded me that they got through it. They learned to find the stars in their darkest moments, they still sang songs, danced, laughed, all the while lamenting and fighting the urge to despair, still resisting the oppression they were experiencing. They learned to look for those simple moments that gave them an enduring hope.
Wendell Berry speaks to this hope in another poem of his, adapted by the composer Malcolm Dalglish in his work the Hymnody of the Earth: “Gazing out into the skies, on the eve of the longest night, here we dream with open eyes, on the eve of a holy night. Choirs of stars high in the air, sound like some amazing silent prayer. The earth is still and clam, everyone can hear the psalm.”
What dreaming is possible for us even if we feel the longest night is here to stay? What choirs of stars are singing their amazing silent prayer and where else can we find those silent prayers – those sparks of hope – in our lives?
These are questions we need to be asking ourselves. We can still mourn the world we inherit every day, but we need to look to those small acts of hope – or, more appropriately named, those small acts of resistance that will guide us through the uncharted and the fearsome. You need only look to populations with a long history of resisting to know that it is possible. That we need not be afraid of the dark.
What amazing silent prayer is creeping into your life in this moment? Even with all that has happened, all that is happening, all that will happen? What is your act of resistance against those who would use our longest nights as weapons against us? Is it being sure to keep smiling, keep dancing, keep singing, keep kindling fires in your heart?
Is it being generous with your time and money with organizations that will most definitely need our helping hands once January comes to pass? Is it shouting a message of hope from the rooftops and on street corners and sharing it with all you encounter?
We must ask ourselves these questions. We must ask them no matter who the next president is, no matter what crises the world chooses to ignore, like what is happening in Aleppo. No matter what, our work is to show people that in the darkness, there are those points of pale light. But they are there. Not all is lost on the longest night. May it always be so. Blessed Be. Amen.