This weekend, those of us in the UK will be changing the clocks. Setting us back one hour, the most obvious sign that winter is approaching will be the darker evenings. Friends and family members will inevitably turn to one another over the course of the next week and say the traditional words:
"I cannot believe it is dark already"!
Anyone who has followed the Christian path for any period of time will likely also be familiar with darkness in a more spiritual sense. It was St John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who wrote about the "dark night of the soul". This is a stage on the spiritual journey characterised by feelings of helplessness, abandonment and failure. It is an in-between state, where we are not yet ready to enter into Divine perfection; yet our previous assurances of God's presence and strength appear to have deserted us. Which way to turn? The darkness seemingly prevents us from progressing. We are held in a liminal space, neither here nor there and all around us looks different, with God seemingly absent.
(These two images are the same work - Ignition II - photographed first with light from above only, and second, with additional light beneath)
Our ancestors have acknowledged this capacity of the coming darkness to draw us into liminality for centuries. This time of year has long been associated with the thinning of the veil between the earthly and spiritual realms, where the dark spirits and saints in light are strangely co-mingled. Over the coming weeks, many of us will be participating in the continuation of these traditions, whether that be with Hallowe'en festivities, celebrations of the saints on All Saints' Day, or acts of remembering at All Souls' those whom we love yet who have entered through death into the Divine kingdom. Creation's entering into the darkness of winter is mirrored by our own entering into a time of spiritual awareness, acknowledging the transience of our earthly life with all its darkness.
Yet, St John of the Cross assures us that darkness is an essential part of the journey. We are not to shun it but rather to embrace it. We enter more deeply into the darkness precisely so that we can be drawn beyond it. How can we truly recognise the light if we have not first known darkness? In my work as an iconographer, it is easy to be captivated by all things light. Our attention is so easily drawn to the shimmering gold, the colours, the brightest highlights and the overall luminosity that seems to imbue the saint with their particular character. Indeed, as I sat down to write this blog, my intention had been to write about the uncreated light of the Divine. But I am heeding my own words here; those particular reflections will have to wait until next month. I must not rush ahead of myself and gloss over the darkness. One of the first stages of any icon is to establish the shadows. The overall form of the face or figure is provided not by the coloured layers or highlights but rather from an accurate modelling of the shadows beneath. Time taken at this stage will be rewarded later and, as an iconographer, you rush it at your peril. Even the eye sockets are filled with darkness, providing depth so that we might, in time, look into the depths of the soul.
Establishing the shadows
So, as we put back our clocks and enter into the darkness, may we be encouraged that this is part of the continuing cycle of God's creation. To resist is to waste our energy. Instead, we are to embrace this time of year with its call to hibernation. Let's put aside our longing for warmer weather and lighter clothing, and take up our blankets, light the fire, settle in with a hot beverage and focus inwards. Creation itself is slowing down, conserving its energy and preparing to rest, so that the inner work in the depths of the earth might be done. We too await an inner transformation that the Divine Spirit alone can work deep within us. Whether we sense God's presence readily right now, or we feel more attuned to the dark night of the soul, this is not perhaps the season for radical decisions or great adventures. We hunker down, embrace the darkness and await the uncreated light of the Divine to lead us on our path.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139.11-12)
There's excitement in the studio whenever a large box from the printers arrives! This time, it contains a new range of greetings cards. So, in addition to A6 cards of St Antony, St Columba, St Katharine and St Photina, I now also have 5" x 7" cards of St Brigid, St John the Baptist, Mary with Christ Child and the Crucifixion. The cards are £2.50 and £3 depending on size, and I am currently offering 5 for the price of 4 (cheapest comes free). And that includes postage to mainland UK. Drop me a message to email@example.com if you want some.
The large box also contained fine art prints of my latest icon, St John the Baptist. With mount and conservation backing, ready for a 12" x 10" frame, these are £45 (including p&p to mainland UK). Again, drop me a message if you'd like one.