I’ve noticed that one of the things that people sometimes ask is ‘Did you have a good night?’ It’s something to say on the first meeting of a conference when many people have travelled a long way – and you can exchange stories of jet lag or insomnia. We ask it of those at the end of their lives for whom every turn in the night is now uncomfortable. When a new baby is born we recognise that for a while no night will be unbroken. I remember one night of camping in a storm when that famous plea that God would guard us through ‘the perils and dangers of the night’ found a new meaning.
For the tradition of faith in which we stand, the night has also often been a time when we might feel particularly close to God. If I were to ask when most of us say our prayers – the kind of prayers we say in the privacy of our own room – then I would think that for many it would be at night. The hours of the night can be a time when, distractions gone, and being most vulnerably and truly ourselves, we are more open to with God. There is a kind of ‘space’ which opens up – when the phone will only ring in an emergency, when the house is quiet, when there is time. The hours of emptiness and even of sleep may be times when the greatest gifts and insights come to us.
Most of us are probably familiar with the phrase the ‘dark night of the soul’. When John of the Cross talks about the journey of the soul towards God he compares it with someone creeping out of the house under cover of dark to meet the one he loves.
‘Into the darkness of the night
With heartache kindled into love,
O blessed chance!
I went out unobserved,
My house being wrapped in sleep.
He tells how, in the night, he is united with God, like a lover with the beloved.
For him, and for others too, darkness means not suffering and fear, but love, intimacy and wonder. The darkness is the space where the epiphany of God can come. To the prophet Isaiah God says, ‘I will give you treasures from the darkness’. The darkness of the night may be a place where we draw close to God and God draws close to us.
So, I wonder what sort of night you had last night. I hope it was a peaceful one, that you slept well. But maybe other things happened as well. Maybe you dreamt – perhaps a significant dream. Maybe you were awake for some of it, maybe reading a little or listening to the radio, helping someone else who is ill perhaps, getting up to take the pill you have to have in the small hours, or keeping an our ear out in case the phone rings. Maybe you thought deeply about something or worried over something or maybe you said some prayers. Maybe you couldn’t sleep. Maybe you laid next to someone you love, someone whose gentle breathing calms you. Maybe you were kept awake by someone’s snoring. The pleasures and griefs of a human life seem so much more vivid in the darkness of the night and we are somehow more naked, vulnerable, more revealed to ourselves. As we lie in the dark, without the clothes or the make up that by day present us to the world, we are most ourselves, the self that only those closest to us see. Is it any wonder that God is known to us as at such times?
I think one of the first Bible stories I ever came to know, courtesy of Ladybird books, was this story of God speaking to Samuel in the night. He had an unusual sleeping place. There was no soft pallet beside his mother’s bed, but he slept in the Temple where the Ark of God was. And a light burned beside it, a flickering glow in the Temple gloom. And the writer of the story wants to tell us more than a tale about an altar boy who heard the voice of God in the night. He wants to tell us that in those days it was like night in Israel all the time. No-one could see much or even hear much. The voice of the Lord was rarely heard and there was no vision in Israel. Even Eli, the holiest priest and Samuel’s teacher, even his eyes were dim and his sight failing. And the writer means more than the sight an optician can measure, but the sort of sight that a holy man needs, insight. For this too was failing in these dark ages of the nation’s history. Samuel hears a voice in the night – and he runs to see what his teacher wants. But it’s not him. And not the next time either, or the next. But then something of Eli’s half-remembered wisdom returns to him and he tells Samuel to wait and listen for the voice of God. Eli remembers at last how God comes into the darkness of the night and he recognises, that though he has lost the ear for such a voice, that Samuel is finding it.
It comes as no surprise I think, no surprise to me at least, that God speaks to Samuel in the watches of the night. Human experience tells me that at such times we are most open, vulnerable, less well defended against the unexpected, more intensely ourselves, in some sense more aware of the profound things while other distractions are closed to us. The silence is deeper, the air more still, our souls more open to the deep. And it is a time too, it is true, when suffering seems more acute, when loneliness more real, when we are most clearly confronted with our own guilt or sorrow, our own hopes and dreams. At such times, God speaks.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King day. Let me tell a story from his life. It took places during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956. It was a critical moment. And then he received a threatening phone call late at night. He said:
“I hung up but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
And then he said, ‘At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.’
He says he knew then that God is able to give us the interior resources we need to face the storms and problems of life. His life of brave and prophetic witness found its strength in the sanctuary of the night.
And I am sure that many of us could testify to such moments when God speaks, maybe not in audible words, but clearly and deeply nevertheless. God speaks in our bedrooms and at our kitchen tables, as we nurse a cup of tea or clutch the duvet. And we need those, like Eli, who will encourage us to listen and to heed, even when the darkness of the night seems very profound.
Christians have long recognised that the road of faith is not always well lit. There are many places and times for all of us when the darkness deepens and night falls. Religion is not cosy comfort, all bright lights and primary colours. There may be times when the light before the Ark of God seems about to flicker to nothing. Then, as the poet TS Eliot has written,
‘Let the darkness come upon you
which shall be the darkness of God’.
Accept the darkness, accept what you are at your most vulnerable and afraid and unguarded. Lose yourself to the dark. For the wisest people of God will tell us that the dawn only breaks when we have entered fully into the night and listened for God there. And then we come to understand the Psalmist who says to God,
‘The darkness is no darkness with thee
The night is as clear as the day.’
It was a Christian from the fifth century, Dionysius, who said that God is a ‘ray of darkness’. It sounds like one of those infuriating theological riddles. Perhaps Henry Vaughan, in the 17th century made it easier when he wrote that
‘There is in God (some say)
A deep but dazzling darkness’
God speaks to us in the quiet spaces of the deepening night. And then we may know that the night is indeed as clear as the day. And we, who are most ourselves, most vulnerable, unguarded and childlike, nearest naked and unprotected, most alive to fear and to joy, most open to the deeps – when it is night – God comes.
When someone called Philip first met Jesus, he went straight away to tell his friend Nathanael that he had found the one of whom the prophets spoke. But Nathanael couldn’t believe that anything very good could come out of a dark hole like Nazareth. So Philip says, ‘Come and see’. And Philip’s invitation might well be re-addressed to any of us. Take time to embrace the night – the quiet space where you are most yourself. Look for the one for whom the darkness is no darkness, however far it is into the night. ‘Come and see’. Amen.