Bishop: Night Saving Time

by Bishop Joensen | November 23, 2020

Bishop William Joensen

My brother David suffered a freak accident several weeks ago when he was opening a plastic drink container and the cap shot into his right eye, driving the natural lens back to the retina and leaving the eyeball filled with blood.  The trauma left him grappling with the prospect of being permanently blind in one eye—his depth perception compromised, his field of vision reduced.  His family and circle of people in his life ramped up the prayers. And though he was attended by great MercyOne and Wolfe Clinic medical staffs and surrounded by a lot of love, there was an inevitable sense of isolation and wrestling with uncertainty and discomfort by himself that no one else could alleviate.

As we draw close to Thanksgiving and the season of Advent that quickly follows, I wonder if Dave’s experience captures what we all face as we trudge onward through the pandemic.  Infection rates are rising, the admonitions not to gather for traditional holiday meals and customary socializing are growing more strident. The waning daylight makes us all vulnerable to a seasonal affective disorder of the soul that leaves us feeling sad, angry, and disoriented as we try to negotiate our way through half-light, half-darkness.  Our perception of what lies ahead is shrouded by our present life disruptions and the specter that things are going to get much worse this winter before they get better. 

We might feel both actual and anticipatory grief, intensified by our November remembrance of the souls who have gone before us in faith, whose absence from the dinner table is compounded by the prospective inability to even gather with family members and friends whose fond stories of lost loved ones might spark laughter and supply balm for the soul.  And, of course, we dare not broach the topic of the recent election, lest we squander any enduring sense of connection and goodwill that helps us hang together despite it all.  Sigh. . . 

I’m not trying to plunge into the pool of melancholy or draw you with me below the surface, but to simply name what is and what is not.  Light and darkness, sight and blindness mingle these days in degrees we best engage with a healthy dose of good sense and robust faith.  Wellness experts will dispense the usual advice about preventive measures that will sustain mental health (e.g., plenty of sleep, temperance in food and drink, moderate exercise, intentional outreach to folks who would delight in hearing from us, fasting from media or conversations that rile us up and rob us of our peace).  Yet our faith offers resources beyond what modern medicine or self-help guides supply.  Our prayer, with varied courses of thanksgiving, petition, and praise—some from the treasury of Scripture and Catholic tradition—is so vital if we are to keep hope alive, to be able to yield to sleep and awaken and step into the next day.

The first century St. Pope Clement of Rome draws from Psalm 19 in reminding us that we are always in God’s presence, and that he is always poised to communicate his life and grace to us: “Day unto day pours forth speech; night unto night whispers knowledge.  There is no speech, no words; their voice is not heard.”  Yet still, “A report goes through all the earth, their messages to the end of the earth.”  God’s Spirit wants to whisper to us, but only if we take a risk and open our hearts to the darkness that would befriend us.  Only a holy boldness that responds to God’s tug on our hearts will nudge us to be “alone with the Alone,” to allow God to share our discomfort, and to communicate what only the Creator of both night and day knows--above all those unspoken words, “I am with you.” 

As the prophet Daniel acclaims in an alternating play of praise, “Nights and days, bless the Lord.  Light and darkness, bless the Lord.”  We need not be anywhere other than where we are for God to find us, so that we might discover the elusive peace that only Jesus can bestow.  While we have a natural preference for light, and recoil from anything that would snatch sight from us, our lives inevitably present us with darkness we did not choose.  We can run from it and hide, or we can choose to let the Author of both night and day enlist the night to save us from ourselves, from our surrender to despair.

As we approach an Advent unlike any other, we cannot do an end run around darkness and hope to have our joy and peace replenished. Unlike the artificial night of sin and solitary confinement, a night “where no man can work,” (John 9:4), God himself is at work, offering this graceful season as his personal gift to us. He promises to reveal his gentleness, his capacity for Love to “presence” itself in the acute absences that beset us. We must pass into a night that is not oppressive, a night not made by human hands, a night that—dare I say it—is ‘pregnant’ with life in communion that no virus can take from us.

Thanks to a skillful surgeon and, by his own account, the power of prayers, my brother Dave can now see colors and shapes in his damaged eye, though he awaits the insertion of an artificial lens.  His traumatic experience was a night of faith in which God’s goodness and care for him was confirmed, and we are all profoundly grateful.  Yet even if he had lost his sight, as grievously tough as that might have been, God’s promise and presence would have not have been diminished, for night and day both belong to God.  Advent came early, though it still awaits all of us.  The poet Robert Conquest sets the table for what lies ahead:

Soft sounds and odours brim up through the night

A wealth below the level of the eye. 

Out of the black, an almost violet sky

Abundance flowers into points of light.

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.