(all images by Kate Kennington Steer)
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
’Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
‘There’s a certain Slant of Light’
I find it difficult to comprehend where my time between the Autumn Equinox and Samhain (the Celtic festival for this cross-quarter day on November 7th) has disappeared to. I cannot remember even using it in any meaningful way. It is a strange time where dates and days of the week mean little to me on a daily basis. Perhaps that explains why I am so interested in following the light this year, marking my seasonal pilgrimage through the year, even if light can be such an unstable, insubstantial element in which to anchor myself.
Samhain brings a ‘certain slant of light’ which is an invitation from the ‘thin’ places: a festival to mark the beginning of the ‘season of dark’, the ending of the ‘season of light’ (the two halves of the Celtic year). Such an invitation explicitly confronts my modern fears about the nature of darkness, and the way my mind, body and spirit react to such shifts in the light with ‘seasonal affected disorder’ (SAD). In the northern hemisphere, Samhain brings the invitation to welcome the coming dark days as rest time, pause time, recovery time, planning time. Samhain celebrates such a movement in tones of light: from the warm, ‘hot’ colours of Summer, through the golds of Autumn, to the cooler shades of Winter, where blues and greys can dominate.
So Samhain is another ‘hinge’ point in my year, and one my Celt ancestors might have described in terms of a ‘threshold’. Those same Celt ancestors used Samhain as the opportunity in the year where they could deliberately recommit themselves to celebrating their own ancestors by remembering them, bringing their influence back into the present moment, and listening again for whatever wisdom the elders may have had for their present time and space. In my family, November marks the death of a great-grandmother and grandmother and the birthday of a deceased grandfather, so sorrow is never far from my thoughts at this time, though deep gratitude for their lives and the love they showed me is also not far from my surface.
It is no accident that the Anglican Church marks November as a ‘memorial for the dead’ month. It begins with the feasts of All Souls and All Saints, encompassing the twentieth-century moment of Remembrance Day on the 11th November, and lasts until the Church year comes to an end again with the feast of Christ the King the week before Advent begins. Other religions too mark this month with a variety of ‘festivals of light’, and it seems to be a repeated cultural and spiritual theme that this time is an acknowledgement that one cannot have day without night, dawn without dusk, sun without moon, light without shadow, and that winding throughout all our stories our ancestors played their part, for good and ill.
So Samhain is a tipping point towards the dark. And this year with waves of Covid-19 besetting our world, the threat to our mortality seems rather more present. Many have suffered the loss of loved ones, and in so many cases these died tragically isolated. Many have been overwhelmed by caring for the sick, in homes or in hospitals, battered by dealing with death in far greater frequency than normal. Even those who, like me, have learned the new term ‘shielding’, are not immune to the social zeitgeist of anxiety that permeates every news bulletin and often, every conversation.
So perhaps this year, I am being exposed to fear in a wider way than I have previously experienced. Ways forward into this Winter can at best only be tentative, when the coming of another period of ‘local lockdown’ seems increasingly likely and routines I have learnt in the last few months, will have to make way once again. In this unsettled, temporary rootlessness, the path into Winter already seems misty, murky and full of mystery. I recently read this deceptively simple description of mist in Garden of God’s Heart by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt, which seems to encapsulate so many nuanced images about the transitions between light and dark, between Autumn and Winter, between past, present and future:
Cloud covering the ground, sky descended, clumping in icy giant breaths across the garden. Laying low like a fugitive fog. Will you disperse gently, leaving a stratum of honeydew manna? Or just deposit damp droplets as you disappear?
Vanishing vapour, wisps of winter starting to enter the world, the heaviness of cold bursting onto the scene, touching the last vestiges of autumn unannounced and somewhat unwelcome after a lulling of milder golden days. A mantle of mist, a shrouding of mystery that will perhaps teach us about spiritual secrets and the patience we need to wait for clarity. (214)
In my search for such clarity, I have found myself returning to a favourite source of wisdom, Learning to walk in the dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, and I remember one salient point: that darkness is not dark to God. So, if I ask for the grace of eyes to see, the eyes of my heart might glimpse, recognise, embrace the light in dark; I might enter the mystery of one eternal paradox: this darkness is light, just as this light is dark.
It is so easy to be afraid of the coming darkness, a very real external reflection of feelings which can dominate inside me. I used to wake every morning saying ‘I don’t want to live this day’. Even whilst still a young woman I insisted to my family and doctors that I wanted a DNR notice on record in case of accident, knowing as I did so that inside I was battling with waves of suicidal thoughts. Now at least I know to listen for The Invitation who whispers ‘enter this day, K’, even though there are still many days I feel it is impossible to respond. Yet the miracle of the seasons turning in my own spiritual life is that there are at least some mornings when I can wake to greet, welcome and surrender to the gift of the new day. On these days I can pray more easily the opening lines of Thomas Keating’s ‘Centering Prayer’ that I say almost daily: ‘I welcome everything this day brings, since I know all is for my healing’.
As I wrote at the Autumn Equinox, do I want to live a fear-filled life or a creativity-filled life? This still such a ‘live’ question for me. The creativity-filled life I long for invites me to root myself in my present, paying attention to what is within and without me, getting curious about how the synchronicities of life my be showing me a new path of being, signposting the way to go for my healing. So the invitation of this Samhain for me is to garner the courage to just wait and sit in the mess of my present uncertainties. To pause before I try to fix. To clear a space so I might hear what those who have gone before me want to say to me, (whether they died recently or long ago, whether known to me personally or not). To listen to the wisdom they offer. To see what rich treasure they have found in their own dark. To follow their guiding as to where I too may find what I need for this coming moment, day and season.
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal is its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.
‘All Nature Has a Feeling’
(The above is an extended version of a post written for the Godspace blog to mark Samhain, November 7th 2020.)