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Starting Point

Light piercing the darkness


People often tell me how hard it would be for them to get used to rising as early as we do here in the monastery. We rise every morning at 3:45, and most mornings I am up even earlier.

Actually, there are a lot of other folks up at that time. I can hear the cars on Highway 212. For most of history, when morning fires had to be set and the day’s chores started well before dawn, very few folks slept “late.” Early rising was the unquestioned norm. I like getting up early. By now I am so accustomed to it I never set an alarm. My eyes open, and I rise to the peace of the dark early morning hours.

I did so this morning and dressed and headed downstairs. Coffee is always brewed. I walk down to where I keep my writing stuff in a large room downstairs and then I come back up here to the library office and write or read. I felt restless this morning. I tried to read, but my mind wandered. So I wrote a few letters but felt as if I was just filling pages, waiting anxiously for something more revelatory to come. Finally, I decided to put the paper and books aside and go for a walk.

My head felt somewhat clouded. It was dark, but I could see the path that winds behind the monastery. As I approached it, something caught my eye, visible through the dense trees that form a small forest just off the path. Through that forest I often see the moon rise in the evening. Now, what caught my eye was the first light of the sun. The light had pierced the horizon and was blood red. I was struck by the richness of color given off by that far, far sun. I watched it for a while and then had to come back inside and get ready for Lauds.

During Lauds I thought of ancient peoples whose words we were chanting. I once read in Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God that the ancients used ritual to make the sun rise. It was believed that ritual, done faithfully and repeatedly, made the moon and sun rise, and kept the stars and all things of the heavens in place. The vastness of the universe and its movements, the coming and going of seasons, and the bounty and terror brought with nature’s cycle -- all of these were “negotiated” by long ago ritualists.

That sense of religious drama still has a resonance in me. Perhaps it is some residue of a primordial sense in my gene pool that makes me yet wonder how to control -- and keep happy -- the mighty powers of the universe that swirl about me.

I felt so small looking at that first morning light. The sun is high now. Its rich red has matured to a near noon fiery yellow.

How beautiful it was, that first light. It came with no need of ritual or magic. It rose and pierced the darkness. Light and its warmth spread everywhere, and because of that, life is given, enhanced, assured.

In this room where I sit, I am surrounded by hundreds of books. In those books lie millions of words. And those words tell of so many places, places that are like universes of meaning. Yet as these worlds exist so near me, I got restless. My heart hungered for something more, and I did not know quite what that was. So I walked in the dark and was not looking for anything particular. I was just walking and then saw that beautiful light.

What a gift, that light, a gift that rises and shines every day, and does so with no need of magic or potions or ritual. Yet it works its own spell on me.

In this new millennium, it is yet early, and I walk in the dark and await some news, some revelation that will tell me who I am and give me the light I need to find my way. A light rises, and something in me is dispelled.

I later pray Lauds, the words of the ancients, and look about me and see the smiles of monks and light in their eyes, and pray to be open to the light given us, pray that we might shine.

And on dark days -- those days when the light seems far and even cold -- I may walk a bit in a lonesome way, and once again see a bit of light rise and pierce the darkness about me. And I will smile and remember all that is given, all that rises and shines, as gifts, like the dawn. n

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000