He who controls the light

May 17, 2010 | 31 comments

A while back my husband and I were leaving a party at a rural house, and we had to walk in the dark to get to our car. It was a moonless night, and as the glow of the house receded into the background along with the sounds of the party, darkness closed in. Our car was maybe a quarter mile away, but even at that short distance we had trouble finding it. I could sense the dense woods nearby as I stumbled along the gravel drive; some predator could be staring at me right now and I’d never know it. We eventually decided that my husband would go get the car and come back and pick me up. I felt my way over to a tree to lean against while I waited, and he went forward, disappearing into blackness.

My reaction to the situation was strange. I felt the predictable mix of being uncomfortable and a little freaked out, but one surprising feeling overrode all others:

Indignation.

It felt like something had gone fundamentally wrong with the universe that I could not create light by a mere swipe of my hand. I kept wanting to reach for a light switch or click on a flash light to get this annoying darkness thing under control.

I felt small and powerless. I hated it. Without light, I couldn’t do much of anything. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t see what was around me. I couldn’t defend myself. At that moment I had a deep, primal awareness of how very dependent we are on light for having any control over the world.

I once heard that some ancient tribe thought of their main god as “he who controls the light.” It makes sense. When you think about it, before electricity, the power to flood the world with light belonged to God alone — and it was a tremendous power.

I’ve mentioned before what a profound experience it was when my husband and I went to Costa Rica and found ourselves in an area with hardly any artificial light. Our cabin technically had electricity, but the lights were so dim we mostly used candles since they were just as bright. Every evening when the sun set, it was like watching my power set with it. There is just not that much you can accomplish in inky darkness. I couldn’t go anywhere. Even a simple task like unpacking the suitcase was a pain, the closet and the drawers and half the room cloaked in heavy shadows. I could technically read by candlelight, but it made my eyes so tired I never got more than thirty minutes into it before I dozed off.

But it’s only nine o’clock!” I’d think every night in exasperation. I wanted more hours in the day. I wanted to be able to read for a couple more hours. I wanted to be able to see every nook and cranny of the room to get unpacked and set things up. And I was used to having the power to make those wants a reality. Back at home in my world of 70-watt lightbulbs connected to a simple switch, I had the power to say “Let there be light!” and banish darkness at my will.

If you could bring someone from the year 1700 to spend a day in 2010, I bet the thing they would be most blown away by is our power over night. A couple years ago I talked about a time that my husband and I tried not to use artificial lights in the house for a few days. As I said in that post, it was a disaster. I was unbelievably frustrated because I could not lengthen my day with the mere flip of a switch.

It occurred to me that in order to live this way for any length of time, I’d have to fundamentally change the way I approached my entire life. I’d have to focus more on what I could do and less on what I wanted to do. I’d have to live within real, hard constraints. I’d have to accept that at nightfall my work must stop, whether I was done or not. In other words, every day at sunset, when nightfall came, I’d have an all-encompassing reminder that I am not God.

I recently read the following in a review of the book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (which I’ve not read but sounds great):

The English called nightfall “shutting-in, ” which literally meant the shutting-in of daylight but came to mean “the need for households to bolt portals against the advancing darkness.” All “doors, shutters, and windows were closed tight and latched, ” and “seldom was God’s protection more valued than at night.” The fervor with which people prayed was deep and real: They feared violence, fire, death, even the possibility that the next day the sun itself would fail to rise. Cities provided primitive illumination with lanterns, and watchmen patrolled the streets, but the light was dim and inconsistent at best. [emphasis mine]

That moonless night when I stood against the tree while waiting for my husband to get the car, listening to the chorus of crickets and the occasional crunches in the woods caused by who-knows-what, I knew with certainty that the advent of artificial light had a direct connection to the decrease in religious practice during the last century. I don’t think it was the main cause, and maybe wasn’t even one of the top five causes, but I’m certain that it played some significant role.

When you can’t control light, you control very little. The vast majority of humans have lived this way, each forced to think less about what he wanted to accomplish and more about what he could accomplish with the daylight hours available; every person getting a big reminder at every nightfall of his own vulnerability, smallness and powerlessness.

I love artificial light, of course. I’m typing this in my brightly-lit office at 10:14pm. Don’t count on me calling the electric company and telling them to close our account because of all the great spiritual lessons I could get out of it anytime soon. But sometimes on nights like this, when I’m adding “daylight” hours to my day at will, moving about the house as fast and freely as I want to, flooding each room with light at my whim, it occurs to me that the blessing of electricity also comes with a certain weight that can be tricky to the spiritual life. Because now, every single one of us has the power of “he who controls the light.”

photo by caveman

31 Comments

  1. Marie

    John 8:12

    12When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

  2. Michael King

    http://pilgrimagediary.blogspot.com/

    I love this post! How do you do it? It's amazing that you can write like that. Light is so powerful in so many ways; I've spent the better part of my life uncovering some of its mysteries in science… nothing comes close to the sheer mystery of it all though!

  3. SursumCorda

    I'm reminded of this every time a hurricane cuts off our power. I've never done it voluntarily, but I think it would be a good exercise (in thanksgiving and appreciation if nothing else) to throw the main breaker for a day every once in a while and experience our dependency, which these days is more obviously on governmental infrastructure than on God. Both bear thinking about.

  4. DM

    I've actually read "At Day's Close": it's pretty good in getting across how big a change we've had culturally in just a few short decades–remember that we've had light bulbs for "only" about a hundred years. There's a good reason Marshall McLuhan called the light bulb "pure information".

    While we think of computers, cars, planes, telephones as revolutionary, the thing that most changed society is artificial lighting.

  5. Sandy C.

    We live in the country and one time not long after we moved here I was visiting our elderly neighbors across the road and stayed until after dark. We live about 200 yards off the road and they live right on it. So the distance home was only about 225-250 yards. I was surprised when they offered to drive me home and declined. Then, when I got out in the darkness, I almost wished I'd accepted their offer. We do have quite a few coyotes in the area

    I enjoyed your thoughts on darkness, light, and our declining dependence on God.

  6. That Married Couple

    Intriguing!

  7. Karyn

    Wow, what an interesting connection. In Madeleine L'Engle's book, A Circle of Quiet, there's a discussion about why everything seems to fall apart around dinnertime. There are the logical reasons such as kids getting sleepy, mom being worn out, and Dad just getting home from work. According to the book, the main reason everyone is out of sorts is because we all fear the darkness. Kids literally fear the coming darkness but we adults fear the darkness of the unknown, of evil, of uncertainty.

  8. Rosita

    This reminds me of something I heard once about development. They said the best way to lower the birth rate was to bring electricity to the region. I always found that interesting, and I believe it is true.

  9. Ouiz

    As my kids and I are going through THE LONG WINTER by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and seeing their utter powerlessness against the dark (they ran out of kerosene) and the storms outside, these same themes come into play — God is in control, and we need to receive all from His hands gratefully.

    Much different when I can flip on the light switch or go to the store when we're out of food!

    Thank you for this great post!

  10. Lizzie

    Have you ever read 'Interpreter of Maladies' by Jhumpa Lahiri? The first story in the collection 'A temporary matter' is all about a couple whose relationship is deeply affected by the power cut and lack of light they experience each evening. It's incredibly moving.
    Beautiful thoughts on light…thank you.

  11. Christine

    Your writing is just so awesome. I print out your articles and tuck them in my hubby's lunch box. He likes them TOO!

  12. Julianne Douglas

    I love the possible connection you suggest between the advent of artificial light and the decline in faith. Much there to think about as I lie in the dark tonight. Thank you!

  13. Anonymous

    I once lived in Florence, Italy. One night there was a huge power outage. All the street lights were out although some homes still had electricity.

    I was headed for a party a short walk away along the Arno. But what a strange feeling to try to walk in the pitch blackness of a moonless night! We knew how many blocks away the party house was so we felt our way by keeping our hands on the building walls along the way and counting off the streets at each cross-street break then walked carefully — hands out — until we reached the wall across the street and thus we continued, street by street.

    It was then that I had a better understanding of all the murder and toss-'em-in-to-the-Arno stories I had read. In that inky blackness, there was so much that could happen — and did happen — some of it evil.

    Fast forward to modern time: I have an insomnia problem and am working on it with the help of a sleep disorder clinic. One of the many things they've taught me is to "power down" at night. Turn off the the computer several hours before going to bed, for example, etc., etc. Well one of my latest things is to sit down quietly in CANDLELIGHT and spend time in prayer and meditation before I go to sleep. It's hard to do — I'm wired for the 21st century! — but little by little I'm trying to increase the candle time to 30 minutes or longer.

    It's helping! A lot!

    Which tells me something….

    ~ Nona

  14. Katie Alender

    It makes it easier to understand why the moon has long been a subject of such fascination!

    When we lose power, I'm useless.

  15. melissa

    Back in my 20s I lived in Africa for two years and, aside from kerosene lamps and candles, when the sun went down, it was dark. The only light would come from the fires burning outside each family compound. The one thing that I really loved about the darkness was the stars. Where I live now, even though it is only a medium sized town, there are really only a relatively few stars in the sky at night. In Africa with no electric lights, I could see literally millions of stars. I think as we have lost our abillity to see the wonder and beauty of the night sky, we have also lost the true feeling of the vastness of the universe and the smallness of our place in it, and with it, the understanding of the power and majesty of the God who created it all.

  16. Carolina

    While I agree that the night can be frighteningly dark, don't forget that a moonless but clear night can also bring something very bright – a sky full of stars (I've actually found stars annoyingly bright when trying to sleep while camping).

  17. Katherine

    That is a fascinating connection. I wonder to what extent all technology is an attemp to "play God" by, in some sense, overcoming nature? Thanks for posting this!

  18. LP

    Jen, this is SUCH a huge point! I have now lived in the DC or NYC areas since college over 12 years ago, but was raised in a more suburban-to-rural area in upstate NY. The dark used to freak me out as a child (we lived in a very populated neighborhood) but I encountered it often at friends' houses in a more country setting, Girl Scout camp, even nights we were out later than most of our neighbors and it was almost pitch black (especially if we forgot to turn on the outer lights at our own house!), and I would have to work through the discomfort of it. Now, I am 30 and NEVER have to be in complete darkness – ever. More than a few times I have actually longed for that feeling of smallness before the universe because I can feel it slipping almost permanently out of my daily experience. I think perhaps I would be a better person if that was not the case… Powerful reflection!

  19. Nona

    A further thought:

    Electricity has not only made it possible to have light 24/7, it also makes possible the constant stimulus of radio, television, computers, etc., etc. assailing, afflicting, pummeling our minds and brains.

    It's harder to "power down" at night to sleep because of all these artificial stimulants.

    As mentioned above, just a further thought but I think there's something to it.

  20. Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Two comments:

    1) Candles existed back in 1700 (and buying a candle or even having it offered was a lot easier than to restart an electricity installation turned off due to debt)

    2) If one man has a candle or two and a book or an instrument, he can entertain the rest (confer mealtimes at Le Barroux monastery, where you will not eat, because only male guests are allowed into refectorium)

  21. Karen

    No wonder ou society is so tired. God created a natural signal to wake up and go to sleep, but we are ignoring it.

  22. Anonymous

    Interesting. I have always thanked God for electricity when I pray but I also pray for the ability to use it wisely.

  23. SherryTex

    It's funny you mention this, as this past weekend, the power was out at our church and I found the mass lovely as we were a much more subdued crowd taking in the liturgy of the word without the added glare of overhead lights.

    When the lights came on, the priest made a little joke that his sermon must have been illuminating. I mentioned to my husband that I had liked the darker setting and immediately, the lights went back out.

    My husband joked, "Ask and ye shall receive." and the congregation was laughing as the priest also humbly conceded with good humor that maybe he had nothing to do with the power surge of light.

    We are called to be luminous at all times.

  24. CM

    There was a post on a very similar theme at stuffchristianslike.net today, with a lot of comments. He really focused on the aspect of action along with prayers.

  25. Maiki

    It is speculated caffeine caused a similar effect on society.

  26. Anonymous

    You have to remember that people in the past were used to the night darkness, unlike we moderns who feel so very helpless. Think how many great works of art, music, inventions, discoveries where done in the ages of darkness! And it was probably influenced by a healthy relationship to the natural and supernatural world with a respect for the forces of nature and the the Force who created that nature.

  27. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    SUCH food for thought – and I love your idea of a B&B with no electric lights. :>) I linked to this on my weekly roundup.

    and PS – you and Nona both recommended Say Good Night to Insomnia to me, and since reading it, I've had a complete improvement in being able to fall asleep at night. Alas, I wake around 3 or so and start praying souls through purgatory… Baby steps, I suppose.

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