By Mirabai Starr
LIGHTING THE DARKNESS
Here in the mountains of northern New Mexico where I have spent most of life, the winter solstice season is marked by fire. During Advent, families and businesses fill small paper bags with dirt and nestle yellow votive candles inside them. They line the adobe walls around their homes and the low hanging flat rooftops of their shops with these homemade lanterns, called farolitos, and kindle them at sunset. The entire valley glows with tiny golden lights. What began as a Spanish Catholic tradition is now a cherished ritual for our entire multicultural community.
On Christmas Eve hundreds of visitors and residents gather at the Taos Pueblo—the oldest continuously occupied indigenous village in North America — for the lighting of the luminarias. These bonfires are made of juniper wood stacked in a lattice pattern and piled as high as ten feet. As the sun goes down, the luminarias are ignited and flare up into the pink sky. Then the statue of the Virgin Mary is taken down from her perch in front of the SanGeronimo Church and carried in a ceremonial procession around the village plaza, weaving in and out of the towers of flame, with men shooting off deafening rifle blasts at regular intervals and other participants playing hand drums and chanting devotional songs in Tiwa and Spanish. The procession is a unique blend of traditional Native and Roman Catholic spiritualities, and it carries us all through a landscape not of this world but of some other, more rarified realm.
These fire rituals are said to represent the light that God uses to find his way home to us. During this season of gathering darkness, we seem to instinctively search for signs that the light will come back. We seek this light as individuals navigating our inner wildernesses, and we gather as communities to reassure each other that within the womb of darkness the Light of the World is getting ready to be born.
In the Jewish tradition, we celebrate the miracle of light with Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after a small group of revolutionaries prevailed over a large army of occupiers. The amount of oil left to light the sacred flame was only enough for one night, and yet it lasted for eight. Just when we are convinced that there is not enough light to illumine God’s path, the miracle unfolds, and the fire blazes.
In this light – embodied in the flames of the farolitos and luminarias, in the candles of the Advent wreath and the Hanukkah menorah, in the burning bush out of which the Holy One spoke to Moses and revealed his unknowable identity, in the Star of Bethlehem that led the shepherds to the feet of the newborn Christ Child – all barriers melt and we remember our essential interconnectedness. In this light we notice that there is no such thing as the Other.
How, in these times of renewed strife between the Children of Abraham and Sarah, do we find the light and remind each other that the God we love (or fear, or suspect may not even exist) is One? Maybe through embracing the holy fire at the very core of our deepest darkness and allowing it to transform us.
At the mystical heart of each of the Abrahamic faiths lie teachings about the transformational power of fire and the identification of the Holy One with light. In Judaism, the Shekinah — the indwelling feminine presence of God — took the form of a pillar of fire at night to lead the Israelites through the desert. In the Christian tradition, God revealed Himself (sometimes as Herself) to the twelfth century visionary, Hildegard of Bingen, as The Living Light. In the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Christ says that he is “the light that is above them all.”
In Sufi teaching the highest spiritual state is fana, the annihilation of the separate self in the fire of Divine Love, so that lover and Beloved become One Love. There is an apocryphal story in Islam of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) who, in punishment for smashing the stone idols in his father’s workshop, is thrown into the village furnace to burn to death. All night he repeats the name of the One God, and in the morning, he emerges from the flames unscathed.
If all three monotheistic traditions glorify the fire of the Divine, maybe it is within this image that we can find the secret medicine to heal our broken connection. Here is my prayer for this Season of Light:
May we let ourselves down into the arms of fire and allow it to melt the armor on our hearts. The excruciating fire of our loneliness and our fear of intimacy. The sweet fire of our longing for union with the Beloved. The purifying fire of radical unknowingness, which all the great mystics assure us is the beginning of knowing God.