One of my worst recurring nightmares is that when I walk into a room and flick on the light switch, no light goes on. If that happened in everyday life, the obvious explanation would be that the bulb has burned out and needs to be changed. But when it happens in a dream, in the archetypal language of the soul, there is a more profound meaning to the event, and a darkness that seems beyond any of our capabilities to dispel.
This darkness surrounds us, envelops everything we do, and discourages all attempts to find any ultimate meaning in life. This is a hard concept to understand until we realize that we are continually drawn down into the inescapable quandary of our own mortality, beings that are flickering like candles day by day until we are ultimately extinguished.
Whoa, boy. Before I draw you, dear reader, down into my darkness, let me tell you about last Friday at the jail, where I facilitated an afternoon discussion group. I never know what will happen on such occasions, or what the prisoners will bring to the group when they emerge from the despondent pandemonium of their incarcerated existence. But I do know from past experience that they will bring some light with them, whether they are consciously aware that this is what they are doing, or not.
So I brought a couple of quotations to use as fire starters. One was a Sufi prayer:
O God, give me light in my heart and light on my tongue and light in my hearing and light in my sight and light in my feeling and light before me and light behind me. Give me, I pray thee, light on my right hand, and light on my left hand, light above me and light beneath me. O Lord, increase light within me, and give me light to illuminate me! These are the lights the Prophet asked for. To possess such light means to be contemplated by the Light of Lights.
The second was from a letter written by George Fox:
Friends, whatever ye are addicted to, the Tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves, and then mercy comes in.
In the first quotation the light is almost overpowering—and indeed surreal. It’s hard to believe that anyone could even exist in such an ambience, without a single vestige of shadow to flee to out of the direct light of the sun. Fox, on the other hand, starts with a world filled with shadows and temptations, gripping us so tightly we can hardly see our way out. What then, is the meaning of purity, enabling us to contemplate our condition and allow mercy to come in?
Well, Fox doesn’t mention “light” until further on in his letter, where he wrote, “Stand still in the Light [referred to earlier as ‘that which shows and discovers’] and submit to it, and the other will be hush’d and gone; and then content comes.”
The choice of these two quotations was a spontaneous one on my part. But the prisoners who came to the discussion group made the connection between them without prompting. The dream I mentioned at the beginning is a universal dream. Everyone has experienced it in one form or another and has awoken from it in a state of existential terror. Just imagine what it would be like for a man to awaken from such a dream and find himself in jail. His reaction would be more than just fear, and he would not likely feel that he could alter his situation just by changing a bulb—prisons are designed to incapacitate people, to make them feel they have no control over their lives or their destinies.
The Sufi prayer, at first sight suffused with illumination, could only have been written in a condition of absolute darkness. Like the Psalmist, the poet is crying out from the depths of despair with the only words that make any sense: “Give me light!” For such light he is prepared to give up all the ambiguous security and anonymity of the darkness. Such Light (with a capital L) illuminates him not from outside, but from within—bringing him to a new and dramatic awareness of a power that can and does dispel the darkness that makes us feel helpless and without any ultimate worth. Fox knows how addictive that darkness can be. So do the prisoners, especially those who have experienced drug and alcohol addiction and cannot imagine themselves without it weighing heavily on their lives day after day.
I suggested that we talk about moments in our lives when we had “glimmers” of hope in spite of everything else going wrong. Those glimmers of hope are what give each of us the inspiration and strength to carry on. For one prisoner it was the knowledge that he had a friend (another man who had joined us in the group) that he could share anything with and who was always there for him. Sometimes, in the street, this meant sharing drugs—not a helpful illustration until we began to realize that sharing the burden of addiction may also be an opening to relief, if not a cure, from it.
Each man began his story with a personal sense of worthlessness, of being irreconcilably “bad.” At first this seemed to be a form of resistance to the exercise. Yet in every case, relating the experience of darkness dispelled the darkness just enough to allow a glimmer of self‐revelation and insight to occur. I left them with a quote from William Penn who, after acknowledging that we often have difficulty discerning much light in our lives, wrote, “Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be given thee.”