Sunday, 17 March 2013

A Meditation on Night

As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me; night is coming when no one can work. (John 9:4)
There are a number of verses in the Hebrew Scriptures (The Old Testament) about night, and some are purely descriptive, as for example this saying:
As long as the world exists, there will be a time for planting and a time for harvest. There will always be cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night." (Genesis 8:22)
But there are a number which explore the pain and depression that people face, how they despair, the raw, naked emotions. How someone who is depressed can be unable to sleep properly, how the whole world is hard for them to face. It is a matter of perspective, but these are surprising modern perspectives.
That shouldn't perhaps surprise us; the human condition has not really changed much for thousands of years. But it is still striking how they capture it. There is a degree of poetic analogy, as for instance in this description of insomnia brought about by despair:
Human life is like forced army service, like a life of hard manual labour, like a slave longing for cool shade; like a worker waiting to be paid. Month after month I have nothing to live for; night after night brings me grief. When I lie down to sleep, the hours drag; I toss all night and long for dawn. (Job 7:1-4)
And grief can also provide a night that is without sufficient sleep. Anyone who has been bereaved, and lost someone very close knows the way in which grief takes over. These are cries from the heart, cries of despair:
I am worn out, O LORD; have pity on me! Give me strength; I am completely exhausted and my whole being is deeply troubled. How long, O LORD, will you wait to help me? Come and save me, LORD; in your mercy rescue me from death. In the world of the dead you are not remembered; no one can praise you there. I am worn out with grief; every night my bed is damp from my weeping; my pillow is soaked with tears. (Psalms 6:2-6)
And through it is a current of calling to God, and God not answering. There is a silence. This is very much what C.S. Lewis experienced on the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, the feeling of being abandoned, of doors closed and shuttered and bolted from the inside against entry:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? I have cried desperately for help, but still it does not come. During the day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer; I call at night, but get no rest. (Psalms 22:1-2)
There is also the crisis of belief. The routine, the rituals, carry on, but they seem empty, devoid of meaning. Doubt creeps in. Is God there? Is he, after all, too weak to act?
I cry aloud to God; I cry aloud, and he hears me. In times of trouble I pray to the Lord; all night long I lift my hands in prayer, but I cannot find comfort. When I think of God, I sigh; when I meditate, I feel discouraged. He keeps me awake all night; I am so worried that I cannot speak. I think of days gone by and remember years of long ago. I spend the night in deep thought; I meditate, and this is what I ask myself: "Will the Lord always reject us? Will he never again be pleased with us? Has he stopped loving us? Does his promise no longer stand? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has anger taken the place of his compassion?" Then I said, "What hurts me most is this--- that God is no longer powerful." (Psalms 77:1-10)
And probably the most nihilistic book of the bible, that of Ecclesiastes mentions night again, the sleepless racing engine of the mind, unable to do anything, unable to sleep:
You work for something with all your wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then you have to leave it all to someone who hasn't had to work for it. It is useless, and it isn't right! You work and worry your way through life, and what do you have to show for it? As long as you live, everything you do brings nothing but worry and heartache. Even at night your mind can't rest. It is all useless. (Ecclesiastes 2:21-23)
This is not, of course, the whole story. The last note is not one of despair, because meaning, and colour and light can and do come back into the world; the writers often end with a hymn of praise.
They have been stripped bare emotionally, and the house built on poor foundations has been swept away, but it is because of that they find themselves, not where they were, but building anew, and differently.
But there is no clear explanation of how this happens, how the shift comes from lamentations and despair and sleepless nights, to praise and joy. I think the secret is that it is not something intellection. There is no rational way out of despair and depression. Sometimes, tragically, there is no way out, and people kill themselves; they can't go on.
Here, the writers keep faith despite the despair, despite the loss of meaning, the empty rituals, the meaningless work, and at some point, the experience of doubt is passed, and meaning comes back. The world slowly changes from a drab black and white photo to a bright colour one.
But it is not a question of faith bringing them out of it, but of clinging to the wreckage of a shipwreck, until they are washed up. Psychotherapy may help, but it's not the cure. The human mind has to find its own way out of that dark place, in its own time. The one ray of comfort in reading these verses is that it has happened to other people. Across the millennia, there is the same existential angst, and they did come through it in the end. The last word is not the darkness of the cross, but the dawn of the new day in the garden.

No comments: