Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Night Office: Loss, Darkness, and the Practice of Solidarity

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Night Office: Loss, Darkness, and the Practice of Solidarity

Article excerpt

A dark stillness envelops everything. Slowly, carefully, I make my way along the path, mostly by feel, one step, then another. I know the way. I have walked this path many times. But its more difficult at night. Much more difficult, especially on a moonless night like tonight. And I have forgotten my flashlight. I raise my hands and wave them in front of me-an awkward, slightly comical gesture that I employ to keep from running into trees. I take a few more tentative steps forward. Still, 1 feel disoriented, all sense of depth and direction and dimensionality gone. Where to put my foot next? I have no idea. I stop to listen: the sound of the creek rises up from below and a little to the left. Good. I am still on the path. I continue walking. My eyes begin to adjust and, looking up, I can just make out the faint outlines of oak branches overhead. Beyond, somewhere in the deeper darkness, are the giant redwoods. I cannot see them. But I sense their presence.

I am making my way, slowly, haltingly, toward the night office at Redwoods Monastery, a small community of Cistercian nuns in Northern California. In a few minutes, I will (I hope) enter the small cinder block chapel and take my place on one of the simple pine benches that comprise the monastic choir. But for now, I am making this passage-from the open meadow into the inky blackness of the woods and, with luck, out into the clearing beyond where the monasteiy chapel stands. It is not far. And I am certainly capable. But in this moment, I am a scared child groping in the dark, wondering: how am I going to find my way?

I smile to think of this now-at my own foolishness (bring a flashlight next time). And at my irrational fears (of running into a tree, or falling into the creek). But while it is happening, I am not smiling. I feel strangely agitated, bewildered. My usual confidence in being able to put one foot in front of the other, to get where I am going, to make my way through the world, is suddenly undone. And my fears, I begin to realize, run much deeper than what might happen to me tonight in these woods. Still, I cannot easily name or understand them. But in my momentary disorientation and helplessness, they come rushing in. I feel lost.

What I am describing here, I realize, may seem utterly insignificant. And in a way it is. A small hiccup in the night. Or simply an overactive imagination, like those awful moments in childhood when monsters lurking under the bed made sleep impossible. Yes, we smile at these things knowingly. They were never real, those monsters. And the soothing words of our parents (which we now speak to our own children) eventually brought us peace. In time, we outgrew these childhood fears. Still, years later, as adults, we lay awake at night struggling with other monsters. And we realize (something we always knew) that they were always real. And that they never really disappeared.

Encounters with the night often have this character: an abyss opens up before you. The way forward appears closed, or at least closed to you; you wonder whether you are going to be able to find your way out of this impasse. Your sense of bewilderment is no longer an aberration, or an occasional shadow cast across a sun-drenched landscape, but the very world you inhabit, who you are. This darkness is all there is.

Sometimes it is possible to name and identify the source of this bewilderment, but not always. Often it is hidden, unseen: something vast and mysterious, something which most of us, if we are being honest, prefer to keep at a safe distance: the night itself, all that is and must remain unknown and unknowable, beyond language, beyond concepts, beyond any understanding. Suffering is part of it, but it is more than suffering. It is the stark sense of the void, the deep reaches of the abyss, the murky underworld, the dark margin that shapes our lives, maybe existence itself. Oblivion.

None of this is new. We have long struggled with the night, long wondered whether we could find a way to resist its awful power, or perhaps learn to live within it. …

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