in Honor of Thomas Merton's
Essay 5 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of
The Sign of Jonas
Defying traditional expectations, Thomas Merton depicts the dark as spiritually good. This is in the nature of a paradigm shift—and it’s not easy to cause a shift in anything as hidebound as a 2,000- year-old religion anchored to a set of ancient sacred texts.
In the very first paragraph of “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” Merton writes:
“You (God) have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better.”
Merton’s God blesses the darkness. This is a concept that would seem to fly in the face of much scripture:
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Note: Light good, dark bad.)
“So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness in all the
of Egypt three days… but all the
people of Israel
had light where they dwelt.” (Note: Light good, dark bad.)
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Note: Light good, dark bad.)
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Note: Light good, dark bad.)
“Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Note: Light good, dark bad.)
While positive passages about darkness exist in the Bible, they are few and far between. Negative views of darkness overwhelmingly predominate.
But Merton saw through this darkness surrounding darkness to realize that the light-dark dichotomy was always intended as metaphor, and that sometimes metaphors must change with the times. Darkness served as a favorite image in ancient times because it was universally known and feared. Our contemporary fears of darkness are much milder by comparison. If fear begins to seize us, we can simply flick on a light switch, performing our own, “Let there be light.”
When the books of the Bible were written, intense anxieties about the night, the darkness, and the wilderness were very real and reasonable. Communities banded close together to protect themselves from the dangers that lurked outside. Assurances of safety dissolved when the sun sank below the horizon. The civilized space contracted. People gathered together within known, familiar spaces... and they barred the doors. The wilderness outside the city walls, home to dangerous animals and bandits, advanced closer in the darkness. Any venture out into the dark carried considerable risk. Better to wait inside for the night to pass and a new day to dawn.
A twentieth century man living in the first full century of electric illumination, Thomas Merton was open to finding new metaphors to express the old truths. For him, the night was simply an unexplored space—like the terra incognita at the edge of an old map. With less to fear, he was more aware that God was fully present in the dark, blessing the night just as he blessed the day.
At the close of “Fire Watch,” Merton prophetically speaks for God:
The Voice of God is heard in
“What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious for what is vile I know not at all.”
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
In the new metaphor, there’s nothing to fear in the dark. The night assumes a new dignity, now recognized as precious before God.
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