Respecting the unknown by illuminating what we can


Where there is darkness, light;

One of my favorite aphorisms is the advice to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. This has always made sense to me, although I sometimes forget to do it. Many wisdom traditions teach that we are, or we contain, light as the fire of consciousness. In my imagination, I can interchange light with energy with spirit; somehow this means that we are the stuff of the universe, we are light energy, animated stardust. The word, light, shows up in our language in so many ways, any one of them could be the basis for a whole journaling session.

We are said to be lighthearted, enlightened, to take things lightly, to shed light on a problem. Some people light up rooms, others may feel lightheaded or light on their feet. We have light in our eyes, so the phrase “lights out” refers to more than bedtime, as you know if you’ve ever had your lights punched out. A great leader is a guiding light. We “see the light” or “see in a new light” when we understand something afresh. Near death experiences often describe moving to a bright light. Revelations “come to light,” or we might see the “light at the end of the tunnel” after a long project or struggle.

Darkness is as familiar to us as light. After all, it’s a condition of life on this planet that half our time is spent in darkness, usually when we sleep, and so we equate darkness with unconsciousness and light with conscious awareness. This condition binds us to the physical realities of life here and also reveals our poetic response to the mystery of the dance between inner and outer, between spirit and matter.

Visions tend to include, or be made of, light. I’ve had the experience of the veil of physical normality being ripped away, immersing me in a globe of yellow light, which I understood to be a glimpse of the energy, the life force behind everything we see in our normal day to day world.

Tending my own inner light takes many forms, starting with lighting a candle at my pre-dawn writing table, where I record my dreams, review the day before, and listen for the day’s guidance. Movement of any form, often yoga, helps me to stoke my inner fire and align my body’s energies. During the day, I tend to focus more on the light of the mind: being curious, encountering new ideas and information, working with people on projects. I do not currently have a good evening practice, which is a clear invitation experiment with something grounding to ready me for the darkness.

As with all of these pairings of St. Francis’ prayer, we would do well not to take this too far, to deny the darkness altogether. In our modern world, we have light in many forms available to us 24/7. From candles to lamps to the operating-room levels at the grocery store, to streetlights, flashlights, smart phones, and television. New York, as the song goes, is the city that never sleeps. What is the price we pay for this forced awakeness, this constant consciousness? Neglected, even negated, the unconscious stirs. Our inner darkness demands attention, and it always finds a way: through dreams, sudden emotional outbursts, irrational behavior, vicarious entertainment, madness and illness.

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ Carl Jung

Jung’s observation conjures the image of a seeker entering an unknown cave, lantern extended in a trembling hand to light the way, hoping to find a clear stream from which to drink.

St. Francis was wise. I doubt he would advise the utter banishment of darkness. I think he would let it alone and give it its due. His choice to sow light, both within himself and in service to others, was surely made with full knowledge and acceptance of the presence of darkness. Lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness is a form of respect for both the unknown realms of mystery and madness and the brightly lit realm of consciousness.

Links to consideration of previous lines of the prayer can be found at the end of this page.

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