Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Spirituality of Solstice: Wintry Thoughts from the North

It's the winter solstice. Here in Northumberland, on Latitude 55 degrees north, the sun rises a full half hour later than it does in London. Today at the destined time of 8.32am, it was barely light. Squally rain was tipping out of a gunmetal sky as I waited at the church door for morning prayer. Arduously, the day succeeded in climbing clear of the long night, but at what effort. For a while the sun emerged, its horizontal light irradiating the valley to magical effect. (Which is why photographers love winter - the light is so much more magical than the glare of high summer.) Then the rain returned once more. By turns it's been bright and it's been sombre. And each has its different kind of northern beauty.

This year's solstice brings a change to the weather. Gone are the quiet high pressure days of the past week or so. You can tell that meteorologists don't care for calm weather when nothing much happens, however well that suits the rest of us. We have one in the village. He is also a retired priest. He takes daily readings of maximum and minimum temperatures, precipitation levels, cloud cover and wind speed, and issues a monthly bulletin to villagers who are interested. He admits that he likes eventful weather. And have you detected the glint in the eye of TV forecasters now that storm Barbara is on her way, just in time to blow away the festive travel plans of millions of people across the country?

But back to the shortest day. "'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's" wrote John Donne in his famous midwinter elegy (at the time he was writing before the reform of the calendar, the shortest day fell on St Lucy's Day, 13 December). Church of England people will know that in the Book of Common Prayer, the winter solstice day 21 December was observed as St Thomas's Day. Famously the doubting apostle, his themes of knowing and unknowing, certainty, questioning and faith seemed ideally suited to a day when darkness ruled. And though the season turns and the days grow longer again, it is so imperceptible to start with that you wouldn't know it - not for a week or two, anyway.

Painters call this chiaroscuro, the interplay of light-and-dark that masters like Caravaggio excelled at. The accentuation of contrasts often gives a painting or a photograph a strikingly dramatic quality (compare the genre of film noir which has given the cinema some of its greatest achievements in the era of black-and-white). But drama isn't what the technique is fundamentally about. Look at the dark areas of a great painting and you'll see that the darkness has as much vitality as the light with its attention to detail, its subtle treatment of muted colour, its "negative" response to the shapes that are illuminated, and as often as not, activity that is far from obvious that you wouldn't notice if you didn't stop to give your full attention to the canvas.

This gives me a metaphor of religious faith that I particularly prize in midwinter. It seems to me that "doubting" Thomas is the disciple who dares to inhabit chiaroscuro, is not afraid of the difficult or challenging truth that may emerge when you study the darkness carefully. That's true of our own personal darkness or "shadow" in particular. At the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare has Prospero say of Caliban, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine". It's a profound line that can be read at many levels. The misshapen, unlovely Caliban has plotted Prospero's death. And no doubt Prospero partly deserves it - he is no saint in this great play. But he has thrown away his staff and renounced the power of illusion. This recognition scene is the moment of truth-telling. In the same way, if we banish our fantasies and illusions and start telling the truth of our condition, if we recognise and acknowledge - even befriend - the darkness that is "mine", we find we are on the road to recovery, transformation and healing.

Spirits can sink low at the solstice. I'm not so much thinking of the affliction called SAD - seasonal affective disorder - brought on by too little light. It's more the spiritual ennui that can set in when hope is at a low ebb. This year, as 2016 comes to an end, it's easy to lose heart. We wonder what has become of our world, our nation and ourselves when there is so much bitterness, hatred and contempt around, and apparently, so little compassion to act as a life-giving antidote. It doesn't always help to quote too quickly Mother Julian's great saying "all shall be well". That's true, but it may not address the immediate present. In times of struggle and conflict, what counts I think is simply to know that we are not alone. To enter someone else's darkness and be present to them without the need to speak is perhaps the greatest gift we can bring them. In dark times, words, even the best words, can run out. But the touch of compassion - "suffering with" - never loses its capacity to make a difference.

It would take a St John of the Cross to do justice to the spirituality of chiaroscuro. But here's a solstice insight that helps me. On this shortest day, the meteorological outlook is full of stormy threats. And though I say it with a heavy heart, this seems just as true of the outlook for our world in 2017. Yet as we contemplate the future and possibly feel afraid, we also know that from now on the days are getting longer. We don't see it for a while, yet we know that it's true as an astronomical fact. Equally, to stop us taking things for granted at midsummer, we know that as the days grow warmer and holidays beckon, the nights are already drawing in. Winter's lightening-in-darkness, summer's darkening-in-light: this is chiaroscuro. It mirrors the light-and-darkness of our human lives. It helps us recognise the ambivalence of who and what we are. Above all, it stops us rushing headlong towards light when all along, God may be more present to us in the dark.

Henry Vaughan has a great poem, "Night". The last stanza makes the extraordinary claim that "there is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness". Earlier he has painted a picture of faith in this way:
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,

Did at midnight speak with the Sun.

I don't pretend to have grasped the paradoxes of this way of believing. But it rings true to my experience. And, I guess from what we know about him, St Thomas's too. So at this winter solstice, I want to acknowledge the truth that lies hidden in the questions and doubts that feel so real and compelling. Sometimes I can't even be sure if it's my own personal despondency that I'm experiencing, or whether it's an empathic aspect of being part of a world in pain that any human being who feels anything knows only too well at times like these.

Into such a world an Infant was born. He came to give us back the lives we had lost. The Holy Child comes to us today as Immanuel, "God-with-us". That's the meaning and the promise Christmas gives to the solstice. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" said the prophet in words we treasure in Advent. For if he is present among the dark wastelands we have made of our world, and if he is alongside us in own darkness, then our hearts can be strangely warmed, and our spirits begin to sing again.


  1. 'Above all, it stops us rushing headlong towards light when all along, God may be more present to us in the dark'.

    On the nail.

  2. Beautiful, thank you. In Maes Howe, in Orkney, the dawn of the day of the solstice shines through the door and illuminates the back wall. That phenomenon persists for two weeks. Surely that is about resurrection? But, interestingly, the sunset will get later, even though the sunrise does not at first get earlier.