Night time: it’s the right time for love, so a song says.
But so much of our lives are actually governed by the desire to make the night into day.
Our technology seeks to banish the night altogether. But when we do, we lose so much.
What might it mean to have a good night? That is, really to value the night for what it is, and to learn to discover its gifts to us: this is an interesting challenge.
I’ve been reading Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the World.
It will take me a while, but so far it is really fascinating. It is no
doubt an invidious thing to claim to write a history of the world. But
in the early parts of the book, Blainey offers an insightful
appreciation of the physical context in which the various civilzations
of the earth have arisen. So we come to a chapter called ‘The Dome of
Blainey tries to explain how fundamental was the awareness of night and the night skies, for ancient humans. Before any form of artificial lighting, the night skies were so much brighter. They also interpreted so much of what happened to them as determined by the moon, in particular, and the stars (which they saw in various clusters, with names and personalities). Still today many things are measured in line with the lunar cycle, and some people still believe that it is best to plant crops with the new moon.
It is difficult for those of us who dwell in cities to have a grasp of how spendid is the night sky, unless we travel a long way from the city.
This is where the research of Professor Roger Ekirch, of Virginia Technical University (USA) helps us. Ekirch is the author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.
One of the particular findings of this study is to trace the impact of street lighting, over these last 200 years or so.
In many parts of the world these changes are much more recent. People are able to extend the time they work, or shop, or play: as lighting makes the night more like the day. And of course people had good reason to value the light: especially because it helped banish many things they feared in the night, everything from robbery to bumping into someone carrying the dead body of a plague victim, from which they might become infected. Lighting was to help people banish their night time fears.
But what would it be if we accepted the night for its own sake? Ekirch describes the times when, for example, some people practiced a spiritual discipline which welcomed the gifts of the night. One of these was our dreams. So, the night itself was divided into two sleeps. During the night, there was a waking time. (Older folks probably had to get up anyway!) Toward the conclusion of the first sleep, we now know from psychological studies, people dreamed most. But these folks not only knew this, they paid attention to it. In the waking time between the first and second sleep, there was a time to remember and attend to one’s dreams and thus to pray, to seek the meaning of these messages from within the mystery of their lives.
I heard Professor Ekirch speaking of all this on Phillip Adams’ radio program —appropriately called "Late Night Live’. I was impressed by the value of this and have begun to wonder, yes the word is ‘wonder’, about how much wonder we have lost in our general inability to engage with the night for its own sake.
I then thought about the way we have read about the night, in the Bible.
Take one text, for an example. After the Last Supper, John writes that Judas went out, ‘And it was night.’ (John 13.30) I have always heard this interpreted as Judas going out to do evil, so how fitting it is that it was night.
There are many points of contrast in John’s Gospel, such as that between the light and the darkness; so we might well see this reference to ‘the night’ as suggesting that Judas has gone into the darkness, where there is resistance to Christ and his way, where the light does not shine, where evil does its work.
But this is in fact not what John says. To read ‘the night’ in this way (through our modern view of the night) may be to miss something really significant. John himself gives us the clue, in the first chapter: v. 5: ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’
At night, there are in fact many clear and bright lights. At night, there are gifts for us to receive —such as rest, insight, and a different sense of direction, perhaps more to do with being than doing.
When Judas went out, it was night. Maybe this indicates that important things were happening. Maybe it does mean that danger, real moral and physical danger was nearby, both for Judas and for Jesus. And maybe too it meant (to ancient readers) that this was a vital time, an important and meaningful time, to which they should all pay attention. The light shines in the darkness.
The night and the night sky are gifts to us, if we have the eyes to see.
I am wondering what it means for us today to respond to and love the night, and thus to have a good night.