The autumnal equinox has wheeled around once again. Every year I am reminded how this season has become my favourite season. Historically lacking the consumerist trappings of Christmas or Easter, it has been free to explode a worthy celebration on the world without forcing it into a plastic mould. Without knocking the lovers of pumpkin spice lattes, I can’t help but feel a heaviness at the exploitation of autumn.
All things pumpkin spice aside, it’s become a deeply personal tradition for me to engage in an entire season of thanksgiving. Mabon, the second harvest festival in the Celtic year, reminds us of the fluid balance between light and darkness. I’m unable to ground myself fully if I’m not grounded in both. The darkness holds a lustrous beauty that the light simply can’t display.
It’s a bit of a tantalising nugget of truth: this siren song that lures us to explore the dark. So much of Christianity urges us to focus on the light alone and only the light. Evil dwells in the darkness (apparently), and we are not to be in league with that which has been declared evil.
If only we were a little more far-sighted in our understandings of the universe. If only we could have differentiated between the capacity of good and evil to move between the light and the dark, rather than moralising the light and the dark themselves, we may have found greater stability in our dear faith.
If I relinquish my need to equate darkness with evil, not only am I able to see the beauty in darkness, but I can begin to see the evil that happens in the clear light of day. It’s an abundant gift, this de-moralising of the seasons.
I understand my own impulse, though: what I can’t perceive with my senses is shrouded in shadow and mist. It is unknown, it is clouded, it is darkened. Without some exposure to illumination, I fail to understand what I can’t see, hear, touch, smell, or taste. And truthfully, many evils do make their home in the dark. When I can’t perceive their presence, I can’t know what or who’s lying in wait for me. Nor can others known what disturbing plans are racing around my own brain. The darkness certainly serves the purposes of evil rather well.
My favourite children’s book series of all time is built upon this very contrast: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The good people are of the Light, and the bad people are of the Dark; Merlin and all the Old Ones are of the Light, an all the bad sorcerers are of the Dark. It’s a natural distinction, if a rather binary one. Thankfully, I’m not bound to binaries to determine the inherent worth of myself (or the world). Still, the light/dark contrast makes for gripping reading (especially when one is ten years old and reading under the covers when she’s supposed to be asleep).
It’s no coincidence that this emphasis on the balance between the light and the dark falls within a season of Thanksgiving. Advent reminds us that we are moving from darkness to light, and Easter reminds us of the light’s triumph over the darkness of Good Friday. Perhaps the church calendar could do with more influence from the Celtic and pagan calendars: not only celebrating the darkness during Samhain, but celebrating the balance of both light and dark through gratitude. Perhaps we need a time where we intentionally seek out this dance of light and dark into the gray in-between. What better time to seek how the grays emerge from both spaces than during the season flooded with colour?
I suppose it all sounds a bit magical, a bit witchy. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Christianity needs a bit of magic back in its praxis. For me, literalism all but stripped me of my capacity to see past the witch tied to the stake.
What I’ve found, though, is that a purely fantastical faith — contrived by my genuine ache to attach myself to earth and her seasons — fails to face the bloody world head on. A belief held strictly inside my own magical bubble doesn’t let me feel the grief of a child who’s just lost her mother, nor is it able to cough at the forest fire smoke on the Alberta air. It sure as hell can’t embody our collective pain in the world. That’s Christ.
It’s not that Celtic Christianity is diluted, but rather my own romanticising of the practice fails to embody the scope of God in the world.
Faith needs to bleed, faith needs to weep, faith needs to hear the car wrecks and the school shootings; faith needs to touch our bruised skin and betrayed hearts, faith needs to taste the pollution on the air made bitter with our fear of the future. Faith, so urgently seeking our primal origins, needs to have both bare feet grounded in the world that I can when it is light, and in the world I can’t see when it is dark.
Without striking that balance, I begin to walk forward lurching painfully to one side (even if that one side has the best of all pure intentions). Faith must engage my horror or it can’t be faith. It only becomes a way for me to narcotise from this kaleidoscope world , while also romanticising what may have been long ago.
Stepping into this thanksgiving season, I’m grateful that the dark is as it is. But more than that, I’m grateful that I’m better able to perceive both the subtle and the stark nuances between the dark and the light. It’s been in these frustrating nuances that I’ve learned to let go of attaching rightness and wrongness to either space. While it would certainly be easier for me to hold onto my black and white thinking, nuance calls me towards sunrises and twilights where the world is not only as it is, but as it could be, or neither one at all. I’m free to keep a foot planted in the joy and horror around me, while also having having another foot planted in the uncertainty and hope what could be.
And both spaces together create the possibility for my own wonder in this new life.