The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
-- Isaiah 9:2 (NRSV)
April is the cruelest month.
-- T. S. Eliot
I used to go crazy in May. It was a kind of seasonal affective disorder. The opposite of the kind so well-known. Too much light.
For the greater part of my life I lived on the academic calendar. The year began in September and ended in May. The Autumn, when nature dies and falls, was my time of new beginnings, virtuous intentions and clean slates. The Winter, when the poets say nature sleeps under a white blanket, was my time to work, accomplish much, and put my ledgers in the black. Summer, when nature outrages with productivity, was my time to moan and suffer. But Spring, when nature wakes and stretches its limbs, was death for me.
Too much light. In May everything is finished, and the weather is mild, there’s perfume in the air, and it was all far too easy. Everything is done now, the people you did it with are dispersing, and you can’t remember why it seemed worth your effort to do it. You’re losing your grip, but also losing the things you had gripped so fiercely. It’s all coming apart, integrity dissolving, and the members of this body may never be regathered. You’re dying.
In Spring, they say, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, but there’s nothing light about that turning. One may go mad with love. Or with its lack. The Spring of the Year, according to The Historian, is when kings go out to battle,* but David stayed behind and played those games with Bathsheba that so cursed his family.
Too much light. When I was so young that my parents read bedtime stories to me, the change to daylight savings time was fearful. Shocking that they would put me to bed while the sun hung over the horizon, casting brilliant shadows into my bedroom. How could I sleep amidst such clarity? In a child’s book meant to tell me what kind of thing God was, the illustration was of children running over a hill, under a yellow disc of sun. Framed in my window was that disc. Was that disc God? Was God looking at me in my bed? It seemed a bit much, asking me to sleep under such circumstances.
My bodily economy was set to Winter. Cold and darkness slapped my face in a way that I knew how to refute. So the sun’s retreat was always a joy to me, for I knew that the sun extinguishes all candles. The first Autumn evening when the sun set before I got home from school was a promise – that a time was coming when lights could shine because the Light had disappeared. Those dark evenings were my home.
Now my body chemistry is changing. Experience may override a youthful reflex with history: I know I have survived more than sixty Springs, though some of them I thought I would not. The balance of hormones, nature’s fancy chemicals, changes with age. And I suspect that one of my now daily medications has altered my emotional topography.
I no longer fend off madness as midsummer approaches. But in November, as I see the dark advancing on the day’s routine – the time of leaving the house, the time of boarding the train, the time of shutting down my work, the time of return – I may notice as I climb the steps that I have carried doom as my companion through the day, and the dark outside that window seems a wall. Then I ask myself, what doom is this, and what am I confined to? And there is no answer, because there is no actual message in these images, just a mood induced by chemicals.
In this I have become like many others, who find the time of Advent difficult to bear. I have learned what it is to walk the narrow passage of a Neolithic tomb, into a chamber where the sun will find us only on the day it stops its flight and promises to come back, the day called solstice. In that chamber we learn in a tangible way what the prophet imagined – that the light doesn’t shine everywhere. It shines on “those who lived in a land of deep darkness.” If you don’t find your place of darkness, the light won’t find you.
They won’t hear the good news in the palace. They haven’t got a clue in the palace. In the well-lit apartments of the court, they’re all in a tizzy. They have to ask itinerant wise guys what the buzz is. And the wise guys, once they’ve escaped this pollution of illumination to the place where a new star’s light can be seen – they go home by another way.
If this seems confusing, it’s supposed to be. Get used to it. Go home by another way.
*2 Samuel 11:1