“My one companion is darkness”

The Psalms provide a rich resource of prayers and hymns to suit most moods, situations, and events in our lives; from desolation to celebration, every human experience finds expression there. It is no accident that the Psalms are the foundation blocks of the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office) of the Church, the two “hinges” of each day being morning and evening prayer. The purpose of placing so much emphasis on the Psalms – day in, day out – is to encounter God and so enter into eternity, even while rooted in the present with all the anger, awe, elation, fear, frustration, joy and sadness which make up the human condition. Life is a struggle between darkness and light, between life itself and the enemy who wants to extinguish it and make it empty and useless. While reading and praying the Psalms we may not be experiencing the same emotions that they express, nevertheless they have the capacity to draw us out of ourselves to contemplate what others may be experiencing.The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the whole Church, uniting us with all the baptised of every age, race, people, language and nation. St Benedict calls it the Opus Dei (not to be confused with a certain personal prelature), the “Work of God”. Through this encounter with God in prayer we open ourselves to be changed by the power of grace, and in the Psalms we hear of God’s covenant of love for all peoples and through all the ages.

So what tragic event in my life, you may be thinking, caused me to fasten upon the particular words from Psalm 87 (88 in the Vulgate numbering) which inspired the title to this article? The answer is simple: there wasn’t one. Which is not to say that there have not been times in my life when I have cried out with the psalmist, “My one companion is darkness”; there have been many, too many. However, this quotation became so fixed in my mind as I was about to leave home and spend the inside of a week on retreat, that I was determined to explore them.

In contemplating these words, which is nothing more or less than “listening with the ear of the heart”, I gradually came to grasp their significance for people known to me. In the days leading up to the retreat I had been made aware of the turmoil in the lives of several people which might cause them to echo the sentiment expressed in the words, “My one companion is darkness”. Two examples immediately spring to mind:
§ The wife of a friend had been receiving treatment for breast cancer over many months. On a visit to my home he had expressed his fear of ‘losing’ her and his frustration at not being able to pull her out of a deepening depression. His own faith was beginning to
fail in the face of what he described as his wife’s dry and immature grasp of faith in God; within five months of this visit she was dead.
§ A man whom I had known quite well several years ago
and who at the time had been a primary school teacher (he is now an Anglican priest), was at the time of retreat facing a Crown Court trial for alleged sexual assaults on a number of children, boys and girls, who had been his pupils three decades earlier. (He was subsequently cleared of all charges).

There are myriad other circumstances in peoples’ lives which might cause them to echo the words, “My one companion is darkness”. Our thoughts might turn to grieving those we have known and ‘lost’, or to those who mourn the death of a child, husband, wife, brother, sister, partner, etc in the wars that continue to afflict peoples around the world. The seemingly endless parade of coffins draped in the Union flag being carried from the rear doors of RAF transport aircraft and placed in a hearse never fails to move me; and the plight of civilians whose lives have been devastated by the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere should not be overlooked or go unmourned either.

Broken relationships or the loneliness that arises from an inability to form any significant relationships, bereavement, injury, sickness, the process of injury, sickness, the process of aging and death can all find expression in the words “My one companion is darkness”. Yet, paradoxically, it is from this same darkness that help emerges; indeed, within the darkness is the companion who has the power to transform darkness into light.

“Even darkness is not dark for you and the night is as clear as the day” (Psalm 138 [139]:12).

Writing these words as we prepare for the long winter nights reminds me of the many people I know who during this season go into decline, victims of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Interestingly, it is during these darkest days of the year that the Church celebrates the feasts of Christmas and Candlemas (Presentation of Christ in the Temple – 2nd February),
reminding us that Christ is the Light that has come into the world and has given it light when it was shrouded in darkness.

To be plunged into darkness is to be deprived of the sense of sight. In unfamiliar surroundings, menace seems to threaten in whichever direction we attempt to move. My instinctive reaction on being plunged into a dark place is always to close my eyes tightly and lower my head to protect my eyes, before reaching out cautiously with my arms and hands to try and feel my way out of the darkness.

This instinctive reaction to protect my eyes may, in the circumstances, seem ludicrous having been robbed in that moment of their use, but it suggests a belief, a hope, that the darkness is only a temporary blip and that my vision will be restored and my eyes must therefore be protected in readiness for such a
moment.

The mood in Psalm 87 is unremittingly sombre and desolate; it is perhaps the bleakest of all the psalms and the blame for the psalmist’s plight is placed firmly with God. All our moments of doubt, despair and anger are but stages through which we must pass as we journey towards God.

This journey takes us from the mouth of the cave, symbolising the external world, into the interior which appears to us as darkness. In the Greek legend of Aeneas it is represented as his descent into the underworld in search of his Father; in the Odyssey, as the return of the Hero by a long and hazardous journey home, where his wife awaits him. These stories are symbols of the same mystery of our search for God which at the same time is a return to our true home. It is often described as a new birth, a return to the womb, or entering the tomb from which we shall rise again to a new life. As Keats said, our life in this world is always to be perceived as a “perpetual allegory”; all has meaning only in so far as it refers to something beyond. Hidden in the depths of the soul, in the darkness of the interior, we encounter God. In effect we must pass beyond the images of the senses, of the concepts of the mind, beyond ourselves in order to find God:

“O send forth your light and your truth; let these be my guide. Let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell” (Psalm 43 [42]:3).

Note the contrasts: a journey that leads us from darkness into light, from the depths up to the very heights.

Psalm 17 [18] lends a voice to one who has been delivered from trials and tribulations, “You, O Lord, are my lamp, my God who lightens my darkness” (v 29). I sometimes think that it is easier for us to complain, to scream abuse, curse and swear when our lives (or the lives of those close to us) take a turn for the worse, than it is to offer thanks and praise to God when the storm  has passed. Even in the face of death – a death that comes unexpectedly, that of a young child or a youth, or death as a result of an accident, or one that occurs at the end of a long and painful illness – our hope is that what awaits our blessed ones is an inexpressible joy, welcoming their souls into the infinite, into a place of light.

ɶ Benedict Luckhurst

(Originally published in Quest Bulletin 64, Autumn 2012).

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