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Monday, December 20, 2010

Of Solstice and Fullness

For ancient agrarian cultures, the growing darkness signaled infertility, the sun standing still, the encroachment of uncertainty in the world around: the fallow fields beneath indigo skies, sleeping bulbs beneath frozen ground—no way of knowing what would come to pass.

Tuesday’s solstice comes with a full moon and a lunar eclipse. Wholeness and obscurity. A reminder that we, like the moon, are always full. We may feel empty or partial, a sliver of our total selves as we wax and wane. But at any given moment like the moon our fullness is there even when not apparent.

The poet Denise Levertov describes it this way:

Scraps of moon
bobbing discarded on broken water
but sky-moon
complete, transcending
all violation
Here she seems to be talking to herself about
the shape of a life… (The Great Unknowing)

Winter solstice with its womb of solar darkness birthing lunar light invites us re-imagine ourselves—to glimpse the forgotten truth of our wholeness as we daily unfold into our own re-making. The childhood that shapes us, accords us the tenderness and bruises we spend our adulthoods learning to recognize, and if we are lucky, heal, contains the seeds of fullness whether they fall on fertile soil or settle on arid land.

The novelist Darin Strauss, writes in his new memoir, Half A Life: “Things don’t go away. They become you. …We contain more than our understanding allows us, at a given moment, to understand.”

We see ourselves reflected in a moon that in turn reflects light from a source both distant and present. Thus we are beings able to achieve incandescence by reflecting and synthesizing light, be it solar or divine.

Perhaps that is why I love the line: We walk in all the light we have. For like the moon, we have moments of brightness that set snowy fields awash like the dawn, and moments of eclipse when darkness penetrates our core.

Yet eclipse like shadow exists only in the presence of light.
In Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, she writes: “Every now and then we enter the presence of the numinous and deduce for an instant how we are formed, in what detail the force that infuses every petal might specifically run through us, wishing only to lure us into our full potential.”

Several years ago, when I volunteered as a chaplain in a county jail I encountered a man I’ll call Tom who felt victimized by a system that was out to get him. I listened sympathetically for many weeks. After Tom got sentenced to the state prison, I went up to visit him, along with another fellow I’ll call Bob I also met in the county jail. Unlike Tom, Bob took responsibility for his actions and blamed no one else. I visited with Bob first, mentioning my intention to see Tom. That’s when Bob told me that Tom had worked for him in a community-based treatment program for sex offenders. According to Bob, Tom had shown no remorse then for the poor choices that had led to his dismissal, just as he showed no remorse for the sex offense he had been convicted of.

Bob’s information took me by surprise. I let my visit with him run so long so there was no time left to see Tom. I reconsidered whether to answer Tom’s letters. Apparently, he had misrepresented himself and the truth.

But in that way that grace appears, I remembered the other line that instructs me: it is only in an uncondemned state that any of us can change.

This is, of course, a story of my stumbling in the darkness, not Tom.
It was not my role to judge him, but only to detect his light and reflect it back.
I decided to answer his letters and over the years I saw the shift from blaming others to expressions of remorse. Tom had enough light to take responsibility. He owned his offense. He recounted his therapy, named his addictions. Recognized his shadow and more remarkably, his light.

The darkness of eclipse is but a testimony to the hidden moon.
The former poet laureate Billy Collins writes:

The moon is full tonight…
It's as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby's face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth's bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

And if you wanted to follow this example,
tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

The long night with its full moon bright and then eclipsed, then re-emergent gives us a way to visualize the interior process of spiritual journey. The way we each travel a path or blaze a trail in order to return to our essence.

It’s easy to lose sight of the moon in the ambient sulfur glow of human-made light. So much of it we create to find our way out of the darkness when instead we are called to go in, to inhabit the darkness in all its fecundity. Yet how do we enter into the darkness if we walk in all the light we have and don’t wish to stumble or worse, crash headlong into something or someone?

If we take darkness as metaphor for the moments in our lives we lack awareness or necessary insight, if darkness represents the blind spots, the defenses that obscure our ability to see the needs or wants of others, or to recognize the deepest longing within ourselves, why seek to spend a minute longer in it?

Again a poet, this time Wendell Berry, provides an answer:

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

When I was a child after I had cut my eye and been told it was a miracle I had not lost my sight, I used to practice walking with my eyes closed, feeling for walls and doorways, my fingers splayed across emptiness. I spent decades trying to find my way back to that original wholeness we come from, that oneness with creation, or as I like to imagine it, the great tree of life. And in that search for connection, that yearning for spiritual intimacy I stumbled a lot. Not unlike Tom when I first met him, I too blamed the furniture someone had carelessly left in my way. I cursed the darkness instead of getting to know it.
The dark wings and feet scared me.

But that is the beauty and gift of solstice, the long night, the bridge of darkness that delivers us, if we are willing to inhabit it long enough to know the moon is there when we do not see it, to feel the light of our fullness in that dark.
When we can view ourselves with compassion, when we can reach out to the parts of ourselves that feel horribly broken, whether shattered by dysfunction, ambition or grief, and run our fingers ever so gently around the sharp edges, when we can embrace the wisdom of an ancient poet’s line—“My heart is broken in a thousand pieces. I would not lose one”—we enter into union with the darkness and whatever we conceive of as the divine. When we can hold ourselves in gentleness not judgment, even the sharp parts, we glimpse the entire moon in a silver crescent.

I realize now, when Bob first told me what he knew of Tom, it’s as if he cracked open a vial of darkness and spilled it over Tom’s light. For a few minutes in a prison visiting room, I let Bob’s experience of Tom eclipse mine. The light I thought I’d seen in Tom became a mirage. But the grace that blooms in darkness, as Wendell Berry writes, sang to me again the truth that we walk in all the light we have. Just as Tom could not yet see his fullness, or understand how life bends us into shapes not entirely of our own making, neither could I. What I could detect however, was that in reaching out into the dark uncertainty that was Tom, I splayed my hand once again to comb my own darkness. To brush against my own edges and unfamiliar forms. To recognize compassion leads us back to our essential selves.
I imagine us coming into existence as an orb of glowing light, and then dispersing as experiences split us open and apart.

It’s so easy then to deny our missteps thinking they lead us away from God or whatever we name the sanctity of deep connection with all that is. It’s easy in these days of self-help and pop psychology to pathologize or rationalize, to slip into the chasm of sinner or saint, lout or victim. But that is not what allows us to come into our fullness. Compassion does because it lights the darkness, because it hold us in the same precious love Julian of Norwich promised six centuries ago.

Compassion for our true whole selves, scattered or reconstituted, and compassion for the thousand pieces of everyone else is what makes it possible to “gather into your arms the sleeping infant of yourself and carry him outdoors… steady[ing] his lolling head with the palm of your hand.”

As we enter the darkness solstice brings, and let it inhabit us for a while, we too will see in

“scraps of moon
bobbing discarded on broken water
… sky-moon complete, transcending
all violation
… talking to herself about
the shape of a life”

born into wholeness, rising full.