Loving the Darkness: A Halloween Sermon

When, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.
                        —Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 5

I am an inveterate and unrepentant lover of Halloween. Every October, both my house and my mind play host to the darkest things I can imagine: ghosts and witches, monsters and demons, and evil things that I would be ashamed to even imagine until very late in September. I have a wide selection of Halloween ties to wear to work, virtual costumes for all of my social media sites, and two Spotify playlists of dark Halloween music—one classical and one contemporary—that I listen to all day, every day of the month. (Please feel free to steal them).   

And the thing is, I am usually a pretty happy person. I love puppies and children and warm summer days. I am nice to other people when I don’t even have to be, and I have a healthy optimism for the future of the world. I am not “that guy” who wears black and quotes Kafka and Sartre all the time. Like millions of other generally happy people, I spend a month or so every fall soaked in the darkness of the supernatural. And what is even weirder, I consider Halloween as a religious holiday just as important as Christmas or Easter, which I also spend a month or so celebrating every year.

A fair bit of sociological analysis has gone into explaining why people like me love Halloween. The name itself means something like “Holy Evening” (All Hallows Eve), the night before “All Saints Day” on November 1. But the dark side of Halloween did not evolve naturally out of any Christian tradition. Rather, it came from an unsuccessful Christian attempt to contain the darkness of pagan harvest festivals like Samhain (pronounced sow-in because Gaelic is weird) that the priests could not stamp out. Halloween is not a product of Christianity; it is a small victory for a pre-Christian spirituality that forced the colonizing Christians to accommodate it.

As it turns out, though, celebrations of darkness and evil are crucial to celebrations of goodness and light, for reasons that the Book of Mormon lays out clearly in 2 Nephi 2:11: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.” The existence of light requires the existence of darkness, and this is true physically as well as spiritually.

But, you may ask, why do we have to celebrate the darkness? Why can’t we just push it away and live in the light all the time? Why do we have to give equal time to the devil? Isn’t it so much better to live in the light? The answer, as Barbara Brown Taylor explains in her wonderful book Learning to Walk in the Dark, is no. Human beings were not meant to be always in the light.

This is true physically. Electric lighting is a relatively new phenomenon in the human world. Only in the last hundred years or so that we have been able to banish the night from our homes and our cities. And doing so has had tremendous consequences for how we perceive the world. We live with so much light pollution that, in most places, we can no longer see the stars. And our senses are so constantly assaulted by the light that, when we experience actual darkness, we have no idea how to make our way.

The same is true for other kinds of darkness. As a culture, for example, Americans have become staggeringly inept at dealing with the darkness of death. Most modern people go their entire lives without experiencing death in any but the most antiseptic, clinical environments. We lack intimate familiarity that our ancestors had when people died in their homes, surrounded by their families. And we have abandoned the formal mourning rituals that, until just a few decades ago, helped people structure their grief after a loved one died. In an effort to push the darkness of death out of our lives, we have made ourselves unable to process the final stages of life.

The same logic applies to what religious people might call spiritual darkness—to anger and murderous rage, to hatred and jealousy, to doubt and despair and outright disbelief. These emotions and spiritual states not antithetical to faith; they are part of an opposition that is as important to us as the opposition of day and night. We need both. We learn from both, yet our religions illogically fear one side of the opposition and try to annihilate it with the other. We need to cut that out, Taylor tells us, and I will quote at length from an important passage that explains why:

Once you have emerged from whatever safe religious place you were in – recognizing that your view of the world is one worldview among many, discovering the historical Jesus, revolutionizing your understanding of scripture and up-dating your theology. . .  what’s left to hold onto?

I do not believe I am describing a loss of faith in God here. Instead, I believe I am describing a loss of faith in the system that promised to help me grasp God not only by setting my feet on the right track but also by giving me the right language, concepts, and tools to get a hook in the Real Thing when I found it. To lose all that is not the same thing as spending eleven months in a dungeon (speaking of John of the Cross). It may not even qualify as a true dark night of the soul, but it is without doubt the cloudiest evening of the soul I have known so far.

After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to nada. There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea, steering by stars. Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides great relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before. (139-140)

To learn how to steer by the stars, we must first be able to see the stars—and that requires more darkness than the modern world, or modern religion, want to give us. The great fictional allegory of this is Isaac Asimov’s short story “Nightfall.” The story takes place on a world with seven suns, in which night comes only once a year. When darkness does come, nobody alive has ever experienced it or can even imagine what it might look like. The scientists of the world know what is coming, and they try their best to prepare for it, but they can’t. Everyone is driven to madness, and the entire society collapses in just a few hours of darkness.

Everyone will end up in the dark at some point in their lives. Everyone will take a wrong turn on a country road and end up somewhere with no streetlights. Everyone will experience death and depression. Everyone will experience doubt and despair. This is why Halloween is every bit as important to a mature Christian faith as Christmas or Easter. Halloween gives us a formal, ritualized space for trotting out the darkest things in our souls and treating them as things worth celebrating. It creates a space for loving the darkness. And we must learn to love and celebrate the darkness because we cannot always live in the light.

Comments

  1. alwaysatthelast85 says:
  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice, thanks.

  3. rickpowers says:

    One listening recommendation: Tales Of Mystery And Imagination (Edgar Allen Poe) by the Alan Parsons Project, with a brief narration by Orson Wells. Excellent music.

  4. Fun and, well, darkness with light behind—sunrise is coming here. For 20 years I swam in mental darkness punctuated by blessed light. When that darkness receded, there was shaded day-brightness. Full light was not available. Yet the horror was gone too, no longer waiting in the wings. I could go back to the modern search for frisson at scary movies and the night noise. But I think I’m done with full on Carnival.

  5. thehachenberger says:

    I feel like the issue might be that we don’t differentiate between darkness and sin.

    Darkness is designed into our existence that we may grow. Part of darkness can also be feelings like grief, anger, and sadness to which we often have a negative association. But they are definitely necessary. That’s what I always though the scripture “taste the bitter that they might know the sweet” means.

    Tasting the bitter however doesn’t mean to actively partake of it (sinning).

    But even this distinction might be too simified. Also sin (as a form of actively inviting darkness into our lives) can also become transformative through repentance.

    But I guess we wouldn’t encourage anyone to actively sin just to learn.

    Embracing the (inactively chosen) darkness that mortal life brings might very well be enough for now.

  6. Left Field says:

    I agree that our distant relationship with death is problematic. When I was about 8 years old, a boy I knew at church died in an accident. I didn’t really know him well, but I went to the funeral with my mother. At the end of the funeral, they invited guests to walk by the open casket. My mother strongly suggested that I wouldn’t want to go up to the casket so I “could remember him when he was alive.” I’m sure she was just trying to protect me from what she assumed would be a traumatic experience, but at that age, I wasn’t assertive enough to say that yes, I did want to see the body, and no, that didn’t mean that I couldn’t remember him when he was alive.

    Later, when my grandfather died, I was alarmed that we just walked away, leaving him unburied, suspended over the grave, with the explanation that the cemetery staff would take care of the rest after we left. It seemed terribly disrespectful, as if we were just abandoning the body. They call the event a “burial” but we somehow can’t be bothered to sick around for the burial. We go back later and find a nicely manicured lawn where Grandpa spent his last moments above ground only in the company of total strangers. And we just have to assume that the hired hands did their job. I guess the burial is supposed to be too upsetting for people to witness, but for me, it’s far more upsetting to walk away.

    Thank goodness at least, for the Mormon custom of dressing our own dead.

  7. Laura Trigueros says:

    Alwaysatthelast, this is off topic, but is that “vision” the source for the sometimes-touted belief that Satan has announced he is going after the women of the church (usually interpreted as luring us away with careers, feminism, and childlessness or fewer-children-ness)?

    I look forward to this time of year for the whole rest of the year, and have long been seeking a way to explain to myself why such a seemingly silly holiday feels so sacred to me. This helps.

  8. In his Fablehaven and Dragonwatch books, Brandon Mull explores the themes of light versus dark as part of mortality though the two main protagonists. One of the characters, Seth, acquires powers associated with darkness allowing him to communicate with and sometimes command the undead and other “dark creatures.” Yet with his innate goodness, notwithstanding his impulsive and brash tendencies, he uses his powers to help beings ensnared in dark magic rather than exploit them. In terms of character development, Seth’s journey is the highlight of the series.

  9. I don’t know if I can get behind full support of celebrating the darkness, but I do agree that we need times to recognize it and learn how to navigate it.

  10. I like kicking off the holiday season with Halloween. Most good stories begin with a problem–and the saga of humanity is no exception. Halloween might serve to reminds us of the Fall–and that if it were not for the atonement of Christ we would easily become prey to those “awful monsters” death and hell.

  11. Claudia B says:

    Thank you. Negotiating a new relationship with God has been some of the hardest work/searching/thinking of my life. I want to print your description and read it aloud to everyone I know, or may even meet someday.

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