The Dark Light of Time, Memory & Meaning

“Nature abhors a vacuum.”

Had a conversation with young atheist who has trouble accepting that there might be things both natural and supernatural.

Supernaturalism is, to him, unprovable, and therefore impossible.

They always amaze me, these “wide open” minds who put so many limits on what can be believed, and rely so heavily on science, which is -at its core- a trying to understand all, because in truth we understand so little. Science itself -like all understanding- is ever-evolving.

Why, just a few weeks ago, we discovered that the dinosaurs existed about ten million years earlier than we have ever supposed.

It wasn’t big news. Just as a trillion dollar debt suddenly does not resonate much, in the face of a nine-trillion dollar debt, over the course of Eternity, ten million years may not seem like much.

But considered on its own, a ten million-year mistake of scientific understanding is a pretty big deal.

So, how do we know what we don’t know? And why is it so difficult for us to admit that something we may not understand, something we cannot empirically prove, may yet be the Truth?

After all, everything we know of our past impacts our present and our future. History reverberates; even those transformational moments of the past 100 years which we may not have personally lived through are still unwinding in our time, like a long peal from a tuning fork, reaching ever outward, and touching our todays.

Our past is always with us. Our future is always with us too, in this present moment, because everything we do, right now, is already ringing ahead of us, into our tomorrows.

And so we must be thoughtful in our choices, but we are often reckless -often so enslaved to our egos and our interior prime-directives that we simply don’t take the mere millisecond it is sometimes needed, to check our gut and consider whether we want our next steps to be hounding us, in later weeks, months, years.

That’s a lesson I need to keep learning. But I think I am probably in very common company, in that respect.

There is a passage in Terry Pratchett’s The Truth that touches all of this in a way that is both amusing and enlightening. In chronicling the genesis of Ankh-Morpork’s first daily news sheet, Pratchett introduces us to Otto, Discworld’s first photo-journalist: an Uberwald Vampire (he’s on the wagon, having taken the pledge, and does not drink human blood) who buries his addiction in an obsessive study of the interplay between shadow and light. His primitive camera involves imps and salamanders (it’s Discworld; don’t ask) and land eels, which he uses -at decidedly personal risk- to illuminate his “iconographs.”

We encounter him discussing his theories on “dark light” with Cub Reporter Sacharissa, who has just recovered from an encounter with a land eel, whose intense light had knocked her out:

Mind Otto’s accent. He is a vampire, after all, and he does come from Uberwald.

“What actually happened when I grabbed the eel, Otto? . . . I saw things. There were…flames. And people. And noise. Just for a moment. It was like watching a whole day go past in a second! What happened?”

“Vell,” Otto said relucantly, “you know how salamanders absorb light?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Vell, zer eels absorb dark light. Not darkness, exactly, but zer light vithin darkness. Dark light…you see, dark light…vell, it has not been properly studied. It is heavier than normal light […] I haf heard it said that dark light is zer original light from which all other types of light came. . . . Haf you heard the theory zat zere is no such thing as zer present? Because if it is divisible, zen it cannot be zer present, and if it is not divisible, zen it cannot have a beginning which connects to zer past and an end zat connects to zer future? . . . zer universe is just a cold soup of time, all time mixed up together, and vot ve call zer passage of time is merely qvantum fluctuations in zer fabric of space-time.”

“You have very long winter evenings in Uberwald, don’t you?”

Otto spends some time explaining (and waiting for thunder-rolls to accompany his revelations, as they would were he in Uberwald, but he is in Ankh-Morpork, so…) and admits that sometimes dark light reveals elements of past and future in his iconographs.

“All right, all right, it’s a magical light that takes uncanny pictures,” said Sacharissa.

“That’s a very … newspaper vay of putting it,” said Otto politely. He showed her the iconograph. […] “ve know what is physically zere is not alvays vot is really zere. Look at zis vun.”

“Oh, that’s a good one of William,” she said. “in the cellar. And…that’s Lord de Worde standing just behind him, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” said the vampire. “I don’t know zer man. I do know zat he vas not in zer cellar ven I took the picture. But…you have only to talk to Villiam for any length of time to see that, in a vay, his father is alvays looking over his shoulder.”

And that is why Otto studies the interplay of light and shadows; why he is so very respectful of the mysterious “dark” light, the “heavier” light that may be the source of all light. Because he wants to understand. In his humility, he seeks wisdom. He has a sense about light seeking light.

Earlier today we read about Christ, the Mystical Serpent upon whom we may gaze for healing. Some admitted to a bit of cognitive dissonance in the idea; in scripture, serpents are a source of misery, bringing of spiritual and physical illness. Christ -who is all Light, who is the “heavy” light- manages to absorb even that imagery and that actuality. Subsumed within his glorious light, all is transfigured and transformed.

“Light shines in the darkness; the darkness comprehends it not.”

A lot to think about in that one little line. A lot to think about in the dance of shadow and light, which moves all around us and within. The more we understand about how we house dark and light inside our own souls, the more we can understand its movement through the world.

That’s a lot to look at, a lot to be accountable for, too, over time and in eternity. No wonder we are always only beginners.

I think that’s why some people don’t wish to think about the natural and supernatural world. Somewhere in there -it is the nature of all things, actions and reactions being what they are- lurks accountability.

Today’s Online Retreat will conclude with one more post, probably between 9 and 10 PM.

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