Darkness and Light

May 12th, 2019

I seldom experience true darkness. At home there is always some sort of ambient light. Even on moonless nights, the sky always has a hazy glow, and only the brightest of the stars show through it. It’s not that way in the desert.

The monks at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert ring the bell for Vigils just before 4:00 AM. I got up grudgingly on three nights to pray the psalms with the brothers. Karin went along with me once. Each time I left the retreat house, I was astounded by the utter blackness that surrounded me. There was a small light outside the door of the house to guide me, but after a few steps, I walked like a blind man on the path toward the church.

I always looked up at that point, and I stared at the stars above me. Some of the sky was hidden by the high canyon walls, but the visible portion of the heavens was glorious. When I looked to the east, I could see Scorpio and Sagittarius rising. Jupiter was near to  them, blazing with a frozen fire. The Milky Way crossed the night sky like glowing, ragged river. There were so many stars, and they were so bright, and they were so cold. Starlight is a curious thing. The light of the sun brings warmth even on the shortest day of winter, but the stars burn like ice. Their light shines with a jewel-like purity. It is a purity that is brilliant, and yet somehow dead. Stars make the rest of the sky completely black in contrast to them. The stars accentuate a darkness that is already overwhelming.

After Vigils, Lauds, and Mass, I went to for a long walk in the morning. I walked for six miles along the dusty, dirt road that connects the monastery with the rest of the world. The sunlight never completely illuminated the canyon. Portions of it were always in shadow. I came back to the retreat house and sat in a chair on the porch. One of the canyon’s cliffs towered over me. I watched the sunlight play hide and seek on the canyon wall.

The cliffs that surround the Chama River Valley are sandstone, laid down in some ancient sea eons ago. Now the primeval seabed is lifted hundreds of feet in the air, and I could see the various layers of stone as I sat on the porch. At the very top, the sandstone was a dirty grey. Below it, the rocks were bright yellow. The next layer was white. The lowest and largest of the strata was rust red, like the surface of Mars. Each of these layers subtly changed their colors as the sun made its journey through the sky. Greys became darker and dimmer when the sun moved away. The yellow stones became ocher when left in the shade. Whites turned to dull grey until the sunlight returned to brightened them. The rust colored stones turned to blood when the abandoned by the sun.

These changes of hue were rapid and unexpected. I was often distracted by other things: a black beetle crawling near my feet, a butterfly that came to play, a hummingbird flying in every direction at once. When I looked back at the canyon wall, it looked entirely different. New hollows and crevices were illuminated. Other indentations were swallowed up in shadow. I saw trees and bushes that I hadn’t seen before. They clung desperately to crags with their roots, holding on to a paper-thin layer of soil and the slightest bit of moisture. The green of the plants provided a welcome contrast to the red rocks. It showed me the tenacity of life.

I sat for hours watching the canyon wall. It was a wonderful show.


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