Grateful for the dark

Grateful for the dark

We need to be a faith that is talented at companioning ourselves and others in the mysterious, the unknown, the small hours of the night.

Photograph of a silhouetted person walking out of a brightly lit area into the darkness.

© Alessio Lin/Unsplash

© Alessio Lin/Unsplash


A few years ago, the media was awash in stories about segmented sleep. Do you remember? NPR, National Geographic, the BBC, the New York Times, they all ran stories about the academic research and myriad of sleep studies that revealed what many of us had known on a cellular level for some time: We don’t sleep well.

OK, so maybe that revelation wasn’t new. Everyone from neuroscientists to parents has been lamenting our poor night’s sleep, and the many causes, for quite some time. It’s too much caffeine, it’s too little exercise, it’s too much stress. We’ve been bombarded with tips for getting “a full eight hours” for decades, recommendations that are supposed to send us blissfully off into an uninterrupted night of dreaming.

What those reports did show, though, is that there is a good chance that most people aren’t meant to have eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Yes, most people function best on approximately eight hours of sleep a night—just not all at once. Many of us were likely designed for segmented sleep.

Historians pointed to medieval manuscripts that mention first sleep and second sleep. First sleep began shortly after sunset and lasted until around midnight. At that point, people would experience a period of wakefulness for a few hours. It wasn’t a fitful, tossing and turning kind of wakefulness. It was a time when people would wake naturally and pray, reflect, read, have sex, whatever struck their fancy. Writers of the time speak of this as a rich and contemplative time. After an hour or two of this natural wakefulness, people would begin their “second sleep,” which lasted until sunrise. This phenomenon of segmented sleep has been studied in other pre-industrialized cultures from around the world as well. Modern scientists have found that subjects in sleep studies naturally revert to this same segmented sleep pattern once they have satisfied their sleep deficit. So what changed between then and now?

What happened was the light bulb.

With the advance of artificial light, the beginning and end of our days was no longer dictated by the sun. We could illuminate our homes to near day-like brightness at any hour. Businesses could stay open past sunset. Factories could operate around the clock. And those of us living in the industrialized world haven’t slept naturally since.

I’ve been thinking about this abundance of physical light in our lives. About how the sun never really sets anymore on what we can do, what we can accomplish in a day. I’ve been thinking about segmented sleep and what those few hours of contemplative, quiet wakefulness offered our ancestors. I’ve been thinking about our relationship to light and darkness, and how they have never been about just those physical descriptions. There is cultural significance and baggage associated with both when used as metaphor. I’ve been thinking about the great need in our world for the message of Unitarian Universalism and also about how in order to be the people the world needs us to be right now, we must be a faith capable, talented even, with companioning ourselves and others in the mysterious, the unknown, the small hours of the night.

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor begins to unpack the problematic identification of light with good things and darkness with difficult, uncomfortable, or evil things. She describes a “full solar spirituality” as “spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention.” Members of full solar churches, she says, “strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”

I have seen this full solar spirituality across faith traditions—it seems that every religion has its own version, including Unitarian Universalism. The messages are all similar: “Trust in God’s plan.” “Do not grow weary, you will not be given more than you can handle.” “Allow only positive thoughts into your life. You control your reality. The negative can only enter in if you allow it to.”

There is some value to this kind of spiritual outlook. A great deal of good comes from trust. There is courage to be found in endurance. There is healing and growth that comes with a positive and grateful attitude when approaching life. These are important spiritual values. But spirituality runs into real trouble when it begins and ends there.

Just as our natural sleeping patterns have been disrupted by the advent of so much light, our spiritual lives can be disrupted by too much full solar spirituality. In addition to the racist implications of embracing the light as good and rejecting darkness as bad, full solar spirituality leaves us without the resources we need for navigating the times in our lives when we are weary, frightened, broken-hearted, bereaved.

Taylor describes her own “lunar spirituality” in which, like the moon in the sky that is constantly changing, “the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.” This is the kind of spirituality that speaks to me. A lunar spirituality that celebrates both the light and the dark. A spirituality that does not force the waxing or resist the waning. A spirituality that trusts that there is value in absence as well as abundance. A spirituality that values unknowing as well as knowing. We can rely on the cycle. We can learn from the darkness as well as the light. In fact, we need both.

And what better time of year to attend to this needed balance? The Winter Solstice has been a sacred time of honoring the mystery of darkness in our lives since we’ve had the language to talk about such things.

There are two religious concepts that may help us escape the dualism and racist implications of lightness and dark: cataphatic and apophatic thought. Though often used in discussions of Christian mysticism, these ideas are used in nontheistic philosophies and religions as well. Cataphatic thought describes ultimate reality by what it is. Much of Western religion, including Unitarian Universalism, favors cataphatic thought. But apophatic traditions say that we can only speak of ultimate reality in terms of what it is not. Apophatic traditions are often filled with the unknown and unknowable.

Like our ancestors, we crave the resources needed to be able to navigate the unknown. We don’t just need the ability to withstand hard times, to persevere, although these are vital skills. We crave the resources to explore the mysteries in our world, in our lives, and in our own hearts.

Mystics and teachers from across centuries and traditions have written about arid times on the human spiritual journey. They do not write about an experience that must be endured and then triumphed over. The “dark night of the soul” wasn’t an unfortunate event, it was a transformative imperative. It is the epitome of apophatic experience. This is what I think we are missing from much of our modern discourse. If we contend that all that is not pleasant is to be avoided, or, if avoidance is not possible, that it must be overcome then we are missing the vital transformative aspect of these dark nights of the soul. I am not speaking here about the necessary resistance to injustice in our world. I am speaking about resilience that is born from learning from hard times, not ignoring them.

It is vital in these times that we develop spiritual depth and resiliency, as individuals and as faith communities. We are being called to not turn away from our discomfort and fear but to advance into the challenges of the world, learn from them, and be transformed by them. We are being invited into a place of uncertainty, where hope sleeps, and where new possibilities are born.

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