There is a trick question which asks, ‘how far can you see with an unaided eye?’ The immediate answer would probably be about 30 miles. That is not the right answer, the correct answer being 2.5 million light-years as that is the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy which can just be seen on a clear dark night away from street lamps.
It is probably true to say that astronomy was my first real interest and from quite an early age I started getting to know my way around the night sky. Living in a semi-rural town with a reasonable garden I could safely spend hours stargazing – and so I was never really scared of the dark.
In the dark a different perspective comes into play. Distance seems to melt away as does our immediate awareness of that which is near us. Looking at a star cluster through binoculars can sometimes be a bit of an ‘out of body’ experience. The fear of the dark is largely anxiety caused by not knowing just what is near.
All of this, and more, was known and used spiritually by St. John of the Cross. He writes about the ‘Dark night of the soul’ as a spiritual experience we have to go through before the joy of mystical union with Christ the beloved. On the one hand it is disorienting, we cannot see the beloved as we look for him in the dark, yet the dark night is also the night of trust, love and intimacy that we may experience humanly as lovers (not for no reason St. John of the Cross drew so heavily on the Song of Songs).
The greatest dark night is death. Holy Saturday is the day of Jesus’ descent into the dark realm of death. This year – this Lent and Easter seems also to be like a dark night. We do not know how long the ‘lock-down’ will bar us from worship in our church buildings, it is disorienting, even a little frightening, all certainty dissolves. Thus the dark night. Yet here, in this dark night Christ harrows hell, Christ yet is near, his love ever present like the perfume of the honeysuckle at dusk. So we must not be afraid of the dark, Our Lord is ever near, and soon in the east the sun will rise and it will be Easter, and soon the lock-down will end, and once more we can rejoice.