A Flight into the Dark Night

Night_darkness

 

Many of us have had the experience of preparing for an overseas holiday. As the time for departure grows closer, there’s often a feeling of anxiety mixed with the excitement of anticipation as we try to tidy the house and garden, make sure the newspaper and other deliveries are cancelled, organise accommodation for the pets, pay the bills, purchase travel insurance, renew the passport and so on. On the day of departure, just before we’re leaving for the airport, we run around checking that all the appliances are turned off, all the doors and windows are secured and the perishables are thrown out of the fridge and pantry. Even as we board our flight we may have a sudden thought that we’ve left the iron on; but once that plane accelerates down the runway and then lifts its nose skyward and we feel ourselves leave the ground, we know there’s nothing else we can do about any unfinished tasks at home. We’re lifted into a “between” state of being – not at home, yet not at our destination, detached from a clear sense of place, and completely “ungrounded”. Yet, there is an accompanying feeling of freedom, of leaving the mundane behind and of going towards the exciting unknown.

            In some ways, this physical experience of being “betwixt and between” is comparable to the psychological and spiritual idea of detachment. The great 16th century Spanish poet and mystic, St John of the Cross, opens his beautiful account of the soul’s journey towards union with God with the following lines:

On a dark night,

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh happy chance!

I went forth without being observed,

My house being now at rest.

Here, the “house” is the body with all its senses that bristle and alert us and keep us connected to worldly concerns and emotions. In bringing the house to rest, in detaching from its concerns, John of the Cross regards the soul as liberated to soar into that dark night which he views as being an assent to live in total darkness with regard to all created things. Two centuries earlier, in the medieval period, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing described the detachment experienced during contemplation and meditation in a similar way: an intermediate state between two clouds – “a cloud of forgetting” below and “a cloud of unknowing” above, between the contemplative and God. The Cloud author further posed that darkness was not an absence of light but, rather, an absence of knowing [of God] and as, in his view, God cannot be known but only loved, darkness and detachment are desirable states in which to find oneself. More recently, and similarly, I have heard the Dalai Lama describe the concept of detachment very simply as being in a state of “nothingness: no-thing-ness”.

                        Some recent scholars, too, have described the “dark night” in psychological terms as the detachment of the ego, a letting go of the self and all its props. While letting go of illusions about ourselves can be confronting enough to plunge us into our own version of a “dark night”, perhaps we might usefully consider St John’s reference to the “happy chance”. That is, when those rare opportunities of bringing our “house to rest” present themselves, we should take them – for meditation or a walk in the garden, thus allowing ourselves to be more open to life’s possibilities, more open to an unplanned journey into a dark night.

 

A Wait Problem

L'Horloge de Sapience (the Clock of Wisdom) from about 1450

As a society, we Australians are not very good at waiting. Being at the end of a long queue in the supermarket, or at the petrol station, or the ticket office is enough to send us into an agitated frenzy. Trolley rage, road rage, crowded train rage – you name it, we rage about it. Busyness is considered a virtue and anyone who is not ‘flat out’, head-down, tail-up’, ‘haven’t got a minute’ is obviously not pulling their weight in this country with some of the longest working hours in the world. Recently, a Sydney University study showed that one in five Australian workers puts in at least 50 hours a week while, overall, full-time employees work an average of 44 hours per week, placing us near the top of the hours-worked pile among the OECD countries.

Last year, Australians clocked up over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime. The situation has reached such a fever pitch of activity that, for the past several years, The Australia Institute has nominated a day in late November as National Go Home on Time Day www.gohomeontimeday.org.au . And guess what? Today is the day – 22nd November, 2017.

Of course, once we get home, there’s little likelihood that we’ll be any less busy than we are at work as we rush to complete household chores, to fulfill social engagements and family commitments. Yes, we know what we should be doing: taking time to smell the roses; being aware; living in the present moment

But just what IS a ‘present moment’. Some of the great mystical writers of the Middle Ages sought to quantify the notion because they were concerned with entering wholeheartedly into a contemplative state. They recognised that merely being IN the world was to be in a state of constant distraction, so many of them chose to separate themselves from the distractions by seeking out isolated places where silence could surround them. Others acknowledged that unavoidable and constant distractions were part and parcel of being alive and so tried to work within the limitations. The fourteenth-century Cloud of Unkowning author* took a more lateral view, advising his readers that the work of contemplation was “the shortest work that can be imagined”. For him, that ‘shortest’ time was “no longer or shorter than one athomus”.  To the medieval understanding an athomus was the smallest quantity of time, indivisible and almost incomprehensible. It was approximately equal to one-sixth of a second and, therefore, the Cloud author is speaking of the attainment of the Divine as being virtually instantaneous. It is our modern-day equivalent of finding and experiencing God/Peace/Love in the absolute present, in every moment. The Cloud author further reminds his audience that “[we] shall be asked how all the time given [to us] has been spent … [for] nothing is more precious than time. In one little moment, heaven may be won and lost … [and] time is made for man, not man for time.” That is, the Cloud author stresses the importance of time, the necessity to use it effectively, and the infinite possibilities that time offers in each and every moment.

So, don’t forget to go home early today and, when you get there, take an athomus or two to appreciate all the possibilities of the moment.

 

*The actual author of the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing is, ironically, unknown; hence he is usually referred to as “the Cloud author”.