I am; yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes:
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems …
From ‘I Am’
Written in The Asylum, Northampton
John Clare (1793-1864)
Blue Christmas is a feast for those for whom the longest night of the year might hold some particular emotional or physical significance; a feast for those for whom darkness is perpetually threatening to overwhelm the light; a feast for those for whom the phrase ‘the dark night of the soul’ holds a special resonance; it is a feast for all those who find themselves unable to celebrate.
It is a feast to welcome in the unwelcomed.
In the last six months the depression that permanently lies under my own skin has become acute again, so this is a feast of particular pertinence to me this year. I am fortunate to be spending today with my parents.
But what of those whose families struggle to support them? What of those whose families reject them, for whatever the reason? What of the families who are missing a beloved part this Advent because support systems were not in place to help when they were most crucially needed? What of those who have been ‘released’ to the ‘care of the community’?
‘Many translations of Luke’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) use the wonderful phrase “God has regarded me in my lowliness” (1:48). This French-based word regardez means to look at twice, or look at again, or look at deeply. Mary allows herself to be looked at with God’s deeper and more considered gaze. When we do that, God’s eyes always become more compassionate and merciful. And so do ours if we regard anything.’(Richard Rohr, online meditations)
Blue Christmas is a feast then to be hospitable to myself, to bring all my own grief to the manger and expose myself to the searing Love of God’s gaze; and it is a feast to bring others to this place too, reaching out to those who feel love-less at this time. As Godspace discussed at length in the summer, ‘Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place … It is … the liberation of fearful hearts.’ (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out)
Am I offering a space where those who meet me find themselves looked at compassionately, so that the Spirit’s work of loving liberation may begin or continue? Further, is there honesty in my artistic work which reaches out on an emotional register, perhaps creating just even a small moment of emptiness which the Spirit may freely fill in? As Amy Winehouse said so brilliantly ‘Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen’: Creativity is God’s integrating response to all grief.
As a photographer I am always considering the interplay of physical light and non-light, and all stages in between. Shade and shadow dance their way through my work, drawing my eye further into an exploration of what is called ‘darkness’, both inside and outside me. (The abstracts that accompany today’s post are all details of IPhone photos that drew me in the further I looked.) I take spiritual comfort from the knowledge that God dwells in the dark. Indeed God deliberately entered into darkness, being born in a stable hewn out of rock; and rose out of a cave, ensuring all may hope to be so transformed. Further, the very name of God we can repeat so blithely at Christmas, Immanuel, is the specific promise that the Living God is with us in the darkness.
I have spent much of this year mulling over Barbara Brown Taylor’s brilliant book Learning to Walk in the Dark. As part of her research she went to sit in the Organ Cave, Virginia, where she picked up a small stone that had gently sparkled next to her. Later it looked ordinary. It is only by turning off all the lights (deliberately deciding to enter a state of darkness) that she realises the paradox: ‘the stone is alive with light, but only in the dark’:
While I am looking for something large, bright and unmissable holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards?
Those who ‘dwell in darkness’ have much shimmering beauty to share, even in, most particularly in, their, our, my, howls of pain. If only there were ears to listen, and eyes to see, and hands to hold. If only we had the courage to sit in the dark. If only we welcomed the darkness. Then God might indeed be born in us again this day.
Kate Kennington Steer is a writer and photographer with a deep abiding passion for contemplative photography and spirituality. She writes about these things on her shot at ten paces blog (http://shotattenpaces.blogspot.co.uk).