Gratitude for the Darkness
Reflection by Jane Ulring, Managing Director of the Interfaith Institute.
In November of my second year in seminary, my health began to gradually deteriorate. The doctors couldn’t decipher my symptoms, and I was left to muddle through three years of fear and discomfort. There’s one evening from the worst Winter of my illness that stands out in my memory. Searching for comfort, I attended a candlelight Advent vespers service. As worship concluded, the pastor prompted us to share what we were grateful for as we anticipated Christmas. My spirit was not in a space of gratitude that night. I was hurting and weary and didn’t want to give thanks. But as I sat there in the dim candlelight some thoughts flickered forth: I was grateful for the gentle, intimate privacy the darkness of vespers provided while I was so raw and unwell. And I was grateful the service was at 6:00 pm, before I was too tired to go out. And then I realized, for the first time in my life, I was grateful for winter’s early nightfall.
I kept pondering these small gratitudes long after worship finished. Growing up, I always found Winter’s short days to be a nuisance. But now, I began to wonder if there was a wisdom dwelling within Winter’s long nights, and if I had, until now, failed to understand Winter’s role in the balance of things. These thoughts returned the next day when, feeling worse than the previous day, I woke from a late afternoon nap relieved to see the sun was setting; inviting me to curl up and go back to sleep.
So, I began learning about seasons and creation, curious about what I had failed to understand about the natural world. I sought out eco-theologies that celebrated Earth’s gifts and learned more about local ecosystems and environmental movements. Two books, in particular, helped me grow: Earth-Honoring Faith by Larry Rasmussen and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. These authors taught me the Earth is a complex sacred being, with wisdom to share if I learned the languages of trees, plants, waters, and seasons. This animated way of interacting with the world was different from the Christian example I grew up with. I was taught to think about nature as something passive I had dominion over, not a living being to learn from, grow with, and mutually care for.
I now relate to Winter as a sacred teacher of rest; her long nights hospitably offer me the gift of respite essential to life’s flourishing. I’ve often made negative associations with the darkness accompanying Winter’s short days. I connect darkness with endings and death and lack. But reframing Winter’s darkness as a holy invitation to rest, has helped me see new attributes. Winter’s teachings have helped me discover darkness is a source of beginnings, revitalization, and life. For instance, in scripture creation begins in darkness, a formless void. And the darkness of sacred text, home to the first act of creation, is echoed in our ecosystems today. Life begins in wombs and beneath the soil where there is no light.
Reframing the meaning of Winter’s long, dark nights inspired me to incorporate Winter Solstice into my faith practice. It is a holy day that reminds me of the fundamental relationship darkness has with rest, and with acts of creation and new beginnings. The Solstice occurs on the longest night of the year and marks the transition from night growing longer to night growing shorter. It is the apex of a natural cycle of contraction, when days shorten and lengthening evenings invite me and all living beings into a season of rejuvenating rest. It’s a time to conserve our energy, a time to reflect, a time to heal. Solstice also marks the moment this natural cycle of contraction transitions into expansion again. The days stretch gradually longer on the other side of Solstice and invite me to gather the lessons I’ve learned from a period of reflection, anticipate how the energy I’ve stored will inspire me to grow, and imagine what I’m called to create now that I am restored by darkness.
It is a holy day that reminds me of the fundamental relationship darkness has with rest, and with acts of creation and new beginnings.
I rarely get to experience the fullness of Winter’s gifts because the patterns of my lifestyle, society really, rarely slow down the way Winter would advise. My workday remains on a 9 to 5 schedule, and I often fill my evenings with additional activities, like going to the gym, or gathering with friends. And as Winter’s nights grow longer, I still generally gripe about the shortening days. However, there is an invitation I now know I’m ignoring when I whine about winter’s supposed gloom; a sacred call from the darkness to slow down, to shed responsibilities, reflect, and restore.
Regardless, when Winter Solstice rolls around I remember the holy shadows of that evening vespers service. I remember how exhausted and vulnerable and lonely I was, and how Winter’s shroud felt so stabilizing and relaxing. As I anticipate Solstice this year, I remain thankful for Winter’s wise and resounding invitation to the sacred practice of rest as part of creation.
The Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice is December 21.
This article was originally published in December 2021.