In the title song of my favourite Bruce Cockburn album, Charity of Night, there is a refrain that goes:
Wave on wave of life
Like the great wide ocean’s roll
Haunting hands of memory
Pluck silver strands of soul
The damage and the dying done
The clarity of light
Gentle bows and glasses raised
To the charity of night.
Like many Cockburn lyrics, this needs plenty of thought. In fact, he is a better poet than he is a songwriter, perhaps, if you take David Kramer’s old notion, taught to me in his songwriting course in 1990, that lyrics should find immediate understanding and shouldn’t need a second hearing to be understood by the average listener. His own take on the song within the context of what is a basically post-sunset album can be read here.
There is something in the lyrics about the welcome we should give to those times when the light we see is reflected, is seen sideways on, and that we can welcome the sharpness that this brings to our vision, because around us everything is darker than we had hoped or desired, or less certain. It has an echo in the prophet Isaiah, when he commends those who cling to what God has said and rejects those who create light artificially when they want to walk by their own lights, if you will:
Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on their God. But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment (Isa. 50:10-11).
Cockburn, here as in many places, celebrates the completeness of life in his songs, taking good and bad equally from God’s hand, like Job, and finding a degree of reconciliation and harmony in all of it, like a child sleeping safe and warm under a blanket in the midst of a war zone.
Why all this? It is hardly an exact analogy, but the phrases clarity of light and charity of night have been rattling around my mind the last fortnight as I have been revelling in the fullness of autumn. Last weekend it was a slow, off-path walk through Howe Park Wood, searching for hornbeams, autumnal tree fungi and ancient apple trees; yesterday it was a family walk through Whyteleafe recreation ground in Surrey. In both places we felt that the sense of God’s care for us, in the canopy of yellowing leaves and the sharpness of the branches against the blue November sky, was heightened and that this time of year has a particular revelation of clarity that we should take seriously. Also, we see more. There is less light, but more of it gets to the forest floor. And the yellowing and thinning of the leaves allows a warmth of light to reach the ground where the thick green hazel and oak leaves provide rich shade in summer. We see more activity of birds and squirrels, and hear them more clearly.
Last night, John Bell from the Iona Community reminded us who had gathered together at St Andrew’s Great Linford for one of his Big Sings, not to celebrate Christmas too early, and to walk with Mary, pregnant and uncertain, through advent.
If we do not live with the dark, and do not walk with those who walk in it, we have halved our witness.
And if we do not observe and keep watch when the darkness is around us, and somehow pretend that it is light, that all is well when it isn’t, we lose half our learning.