This ‘Heavy” time, which is ours, is nothing more than the long while in which nothing speaks to us . . .
Advent IV: One of Donne’s Holy Sonnets begins, “What if this present were the world’s last night?” It’s a thought that can be entertained without the heavy overlay of Donne’s piety. I have great respect for that piety, though there is much piety I have to admit to myself I have no grounds to respect. And this year, especially this year, I need to think past Donne’s images of the crucified Christ to ask this question: as the late year empties itself into darkness, what if the darkness proves all-encompassing?
I have no real doubt that I shall write again about the political issues that have moved me since last August, but when that time comes I think I shall face a moral emptiness that will shape my thinking in uncomfortable and strange ways, strange to me at least. That a majority of my fellow citizens apparently approve agents of their government torturing alleged enemies so darkens my moral horizon that I fear the light may never return. And adding to that concern is the growing pushback from police all over the country against the possibility of any constraint upon their behavior.
And what if there is no dimension to my question that reaches beyond this historical moment? This is not to ask what if there is nothing beyond history. That question remains unmeaningful to me. The fact that I don’t understand what I sometimes think of as the world, sometimes the cosmos, sometimes the system of the heavens, sometimes a great economy like Wendell Berry’s doesn’t mean that these metaphors signify an absence. They are rather ways of imaging something that is constantly present.
Or maybe not.
Recently, I found myself in a discussion of hiraeth, a Welsh word for a kind of ontological homesickness, at Facebook. The discussion devolved into thoughts about homeland landscapes. I didn’t contribute much because I was almost immediately cast into my own nostalgic mood, a mood whose objectifications vary, have varied, in my life; and with which I have been familiar since I was pretty young. This year, a year in which I have surprised and been surprised by the antique character of many of my habitual resorts, I not only ponder the growing darkness around me, but also search the emerging future for some source of light whose vitality I haven’t used up.
Donne will not serve. Perhaps no antique eloquence will serve. “Work for the night is coming,” says an old hymn—a night in which no one can work—thoughts attributed to Jesus in John’s gospel. But if the coming night is a moral nothingness in which work and other human actions lose all meaning, then what? What if the darkness is total? That’s the awful possibility that my country’s present flirtation with totalitarianism opens up for me. Or to put it another way around, what if the darkness of our present American history so obscures the cosmic that contains me that I become blind to it and desensitized to its mystery. Then too, at my time of life there is another concern.
I know that one day, rather sooner than later, the world will wink out and be gone from me. Advent has always asked me to look into that darkness. This year my response to facing it is a certain apprehension, partly because I am aware of being closer to it than ever before. I have no confidence in my religion’s myths of eternity. They remain metaphorical for me, ways of imaging an ontological awareness in an epistemological void. For many years, however, I have been confident of the essential goodness of life, what Reynolds Price has called the unaccountable worth of the world—but that confidence is historical. The thought of losing it is what troubles me this year.
Last night my beloved and I trimmed our Christmas tree as we have for all the years we have been together. Afterwards we sat in our living room, whose front window is always open to the street outside, with all the lights out except those on the tree. I thought that even if my confidence in the unaccountable worth of the world were to shrink to the size of this room and the small warmth of my own hearth, that would still be something. But I am more blessed than that. When I was senior warden of my church we built a new set of rooms for our growing multitude of children. It was the windows of those rooms that were broken the night my church served as a protest sanctuary not long ago.
Now those windows are being repaired, and on Christmas Eve we shall celebrate the return of light as an extended family large enough to include even my atheist beloved, who will endure joking admonitions from friends that it really wouldn’t hurt her to take communion. We are all blessed, singly and severally, and though I approach the altar alone, as I will one day approach that final darkness, a hand will be in mine that I trust will one day close my eyes.