Dispelling the terrors of night – Our inheritance as joyful Children of God

The night can play tricks on us. Have you ever noticed that a view we know well by day can become restless, worrying, the cause of anxiety when darkness falls? We are persuaded by the dark, caught up by its shadows and by the experience of not being able to see what we know is there. Suddenly, the reality of that scene is different to the one we have already built up: we do not see by the surety of sight, but by fear and its dismal catalogue of unknowns.

These tricks pivot on one thing: fear. We fear what we cannot see. Much time is wasted by humanity in its vast, hidden precincts of fear; and not just in terms of physical darkness at night, but in those wanderings of the mind in which we conjure up all those things that could be the death of us, that may jump out at us, that surely will go wrong, that will do harm to us in one respect or another. Night time physically represents this place inside of us where fear acts like yeast, and where a ‘nothing’ becomes a ‘something’.

It may well be that we have good cause to think something bad is coming our way. But that does not mean it will. In a certain few cases, fear is a useful and efficient human reaction. But the fact remains: in ordinary, everyday life, we are fearful of what we cannot see. Fear is a shadow protruding from around a corner, yet we cannot see its cause: it is a ‘what if’. In most cases, we are dealing with a ‘nothing’, an ‘absence’ that, through fear, becomes a ‘presence’. We could be talking about a physical night-time scene, shrouded in darkness and sinister possibilities, but it might also be a situation in our lives that we do not understand, perhaps even a fear about someone whose character we do not understand – all because we cannot see it as we would like to.

Faith and trust are at the opposite end of this spectrum. As Christians, we are called to place our trust in God. This doesn’t necessarily mean we shall stop worrying or being fearful – we are humans, after all. But it means we are answering God’s invitation to trust Him, even when the road may seem bleak. It is easy to trust when we do trust, but to trust when we feel cannot, when we are shrouded in doubt? This is true faith.

Each night at Compline we sing the following words:

Put all our dreams and fears to flight,

The futile offspring of the night.

Restrain that enemy of ours,

Lest he defile unguarded powers.

We have a responsibility to trust. Through the action of faith, we turn to a different kind of ‘unseen’ mystery, that of God, whose light-giving presence is everywhere yet we cannot see Him as He is. We should remember that the word ‘mystery’ is not meant in the ‘Miss Marple’ sense, that is, a puzzle to be figured out. Rather, the mystery of God envelops us yet we cannot understand it; we simply do not have the capacity to grasp such a mystery. This is where trust comes in.

There is much in the media showing us how infectious fear can be: it flows through our culture in torrents of blame, hounding-out, rejoicing in unpleasant remarks – often about people we do not even know – and lashing out before we have even grasped a full understanding of situations. Most news is bad news; it preys on our negative thoughts. Good news often feels like a brief intermission, before the real news gets underway again. Some internet-based platforms make our personal involvement in this destructive cycle extremely easy, not least because we can hide behind our screens as we make ill of others, or as we absorb these posts into our own consciousness. It is well-nigh impossible to censor the good posts from the bad and so, inevitably, they reach our eyes. It becomes normal behaviour, and we run the risk of it infecting our God-given gift of up-building, of trusting our fellow humans, of having faith, and spreading the good news. And it is easy: have you ever noticed how easy it can be to not-bother doing the right thing, rather than standing up for the good? All of this betrays a lack of trust and faith. We might rightly say of such things: “Restrain that enemy of ours, lest he defile unguarded powers.” Fear has a wide catchment area around those who choose to broadcast it.

Conversely, we see the results of God’s presence in our lives, that spark of light, the dawning of His presence over everything we do. Many of us have met at least one person who lives in such a spirit of freedom and joy; they draw us to them; we want to respond to and to be part of such positivity. As St Francis was said to remark: ‘Preach Christ at all times and, when necessary, use words’. Like fear, the Spirit of Joy is infectious; and we are daily given the choice about which road to take. And no Christian life exists in a vacuum: our choice impacts on those around us. So it is true to say that we make a choice about what we broadcast. Do we broadcast the good news, joy, peace? Or do we broadcast negativity, fear, apathy? The posture of untrusting, of fear, of hatred, in rejoicing in blaming others: this is a posture of slavery, because it reduces our nature to its lowest common denominator. Whereas, the presence of our Creator in our life is the beginning of our true freedom.

At our liturgy of Tierce this morning we heard the reading: ‘For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:15-16.) We all know that unsettling night-time scene, viewed from a light-filled room: a dark expanse where all manners of harm may be lurking. What do we do? We close the curtains; we block it out. But such a state of fear exists in so many manifestations within our human experience, from relational to our own psychological issues with ourselves. ‘But [we] have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”’ The heart of our freedom is that God is our Father, and we are His children. Our sonship and daughtership is in real-time, it is active, now. Let us not forget this. We are the children of a Father who loves us so deeply that He cannot take His eyes off us. This is not the slavery of sin, of darkness, of fear, but true freedom. The eternally blazing centre of this gift to humanity is Jesus; as St Paul writes in today’s Second Reading at Holy Mass: ‘Before the world was made, He chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in His presence, determining that we should become His adopted children, through Jesus Christ, for His own kind purposes…in whom through His blood, we gain our freedom…’ (Ephesians 1.)

Cistercians value night prayer very highly. We have made that dark, sometime unsettling place into an opportunity to wait for the coming of Christ, the Enabler of our freedom. In his book The Cistercian Way, Andre Louf writes: ‘Every morning, even while it is still night, the monk rises joyfully to await the wonders that the Lord will work that day. But he does not keep watch only for himself. He watches indeed lest Jesus come to visit him during the day which is dawning, but he watches also on behalf of the Church and the whole world. As he waits for the dawn, he is on the alert for the slightest signs which could announce the imminent return of Jesus at the end of time. Jesus is always near and always on the point of returning. The monk proclaims this by his whole being as he persists morning after morning in his waiting. He proclaims too how urgent it is to draw the world from its sleep so that it may go out to meet Him.’

At MSJ, the Office of Vigils takes place at 4am, which is within the community’s ‘Great Silence’, a time in which we try to reserve speaking and dialogue to God alone. The first words of this liturgy are ‘You O Lord will open my lips, and my tongue shall declare Your praise’, sung three times consecutively. There is something very beautiful about puncturing the nightly silence of our vast Abbey Church with these words of praise. Many people tell us how they derive consolation from our practice of rising at night to pray, especially those who wake up at night worrying, unable to sleep. Certainly, for a Cistercian, it is a very special time, when the noise of the world is hushed about as much as it ever will be: no traffic, work machinery, not even birdsong.

So too is Compline a much-loved liturgy of the Hours, and this is often commented on by visitors and those who are new to reciting the Divine Office. Compline takes place just before bedtime, and gives us a liturgical opportunity to entrust the day to God, commending our spirit into His hands. Its examen, hymn, psalmody, short reading, versicle, canticle, conclusion, final prayer and blessing all reference our seeking His nightly protection before a new day dawns, as we ‘lie down in peace and sleep comes at once’‘hide…in the shadow of [His] wings’‘rest with Him in peace’, ‘go in peace according to His promise’ and ‘will not fear the terror of the night’.

So for us, the night is a time of prayerful action in our community, when we joyfully keep watch for Christ’s coming in our hearts. As St Paul writes:‘You too have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise, the pledge of our inheritance which brings freedom for those whom God has taken for His own, to make His glory praised.’ (Ephesians 1.)

Photo: an mist-covered dawn at MSJ, April 2018.