Light through the Cracks

“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

These words from a song by Leonard Cohen are, for me, the perfect answer to days of darkness now and in the past. In times of grief and joy, I often have the urge to climb the nearest church steeple and ring a bell, sometimes without even knowing exactly why. Is it protest, a call to rally others, or simply a way of saying, “I’m still here, speaking out in the only way I can?” And I’m giving up on the “perfect offering,” the exact right way to communicate and am getting down to accepting my own “cracks,” flaws, and imperfections. What a relief to know that the Light, the healing light of God’s love, will get through the cracks. It is the cracks, both planned and unplanned, that open me to God’s light.

This image of a crack letting in light brought to mind a visit to Newgrange in Ireland, and my experience of standing in a dark tomb. Like the Egyptian pyramids that they predate, Newgrange is an engineering marvel built in the Stone Age (3,000 B.C.E.) by a farming community on the banks of the River Boyne. Considered one of the most spectacular prehistoric tombs in Europe, it is constructed of 250,000 tons of stone with 97 massive outer boulders decorated and set in a circle enclosing a mound and underground burial chamber. The transportation and construction methods used cannot be fully explained by scientists today. Like most tombs it is completely dark, but carefully constructed so that on the winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun are channeled through a roof box. Briefly, on that one day, the light shines down a passageway illuminating the burial chamber. Some experts believe that the grave may have been the world’s earliest observatory, but it is not clear why such efforts were made to create this unique opening to the light on the winter solstice.

As I stood with my husband, his parents, and a small group in this burial chamber, a guide showed us how dark it was without any light source throughout the year, and then he demonstrated (with a large flashlight) how the chamber is illumined on the winter solstice. His demonstration led me to wonder about my own ability to turn to the Light, and to question what keeps me in spiritual darkness. How can I align myself with the Light when I’m feeling despondent? How did early Friends, standing or sitting in cells in Lancaster prison, keep the faith when sunlight was denied?

Newgrange, Chartres, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other well known structures built for worship have in common openings to the light, well designed “cracks,” beautifully arranged to turn our attention to the light. Their design reminds me of our need, our dependence on sunlight, especially in winter and times of spiritual darkness. These wonderful creations also offer the message that making a space for worship and directing our attention to the light and to God’s Light takes daily work in small steps by people dedicated to working together over a lifetime and hundreds of years.

The challenge on my spiritual journey is planning ways to let the Light in and to pay attention to the seed that God sows in my heart. I am becoming better at creating openings, framing time and space for both the sunlight and the Light. Morning yoga, prayer, meditation alone and with others, journal writing, and sitting in my garden reading great spiritual teachers are ways that I build my days to capture the Light. Creating this space for openings in each day and planning my life around my spiritual journey is a series of small steps and a commitment for life.

At Coventry Cathedral in England, a modern structure stands beside the remains of the old cathedral destroyed by the bombing of World War II. A small cross is mounted on stones and the burned ruins. Carved into the stone are the words, “Father forgive.” Standing before such a grave, such a monument burns into my mind and heart how hard it is to utter those words and how much harder it is to say with sincerety, “I forgive those who have wounded me,” or to seek forgiveness from God and the people I’ve hurt. Even without the devastation of war or terrorist attacks, my own anger, grief, and spiritual darkness break me. I struggle to accept all these unplanned, ugly cracks, and I discover that forgiveness opens me to new light. God’s love is always there, ready to accept me, cracks and all.

Wonderful new openings to the Light come when I pray, “Forgive me, heal me.” Leonard Cohen’s song plays again, “Forget your perfect offering. . . . That’s how the Light gets in.”

Mary Ann Downey

Mary Ann Downey is director of Decision Bridges, a nonprofit organization that brings people together to build consensus and bridge differences. She is a member of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting and of the Friends Journal Board of Trustees.