At 10:19 p.m. on December 21st, those of us living in Minnesota marked the exact Solstice moment–at that precise minute we made the magic planetary shift or turn so that the next day we would receive a tiny sliver more of sunlight. For four decades, it has been the Solstice that has caught my attention at the American holiday season. My then spouse and I began hosting a small gathering of women friends. The group assembled in our living room, lit only by candles and the fire in the fireplace–a real fire, I might add–and listened as each spoke about something of Importance in her year that she wanted to “give to the fire.” If it was a hard thing, the token was given to the growing darkness; it it was a positive thing, it went to the returning light. When that spouse ended our relationship and moved out in the fall, I decided to hold the Solstice circle anyway, not inviting a few women who were clearly “her” and not “our” friends. Though that was a particularly painful moment for me, I was sustained by the support coming from my friends, so I put a single sheet of paper with their names on it (plus a few people not in Minneapolis) into the fire.
Since both the winter and summer Solstice are about light, I focus on that part of life at those occasions. I also know how crucial light is symbolically for writers and people of all faiths. Recently I told a good friend that I wish I spoke Latin so I could say in that old tongue “light falls generously.” At my church whose choir is superb, I so respond whenever they sing something with “lumen” in the title. A particular favorite is a piece entitled “Lumen Christi,” or, obviously, “light of Christ.” And of course, the Bible has God’s initial proclamation to be “Let there be light.”
So what is it about light that gives it such heft? Even scientists join in valuing it when so many take their various devices and go to places where they may witness eclipses of the sun or moon, moments when our part of the universe is cast into total darkness for a relatively short time. Once the British writer Virginia Woolf experienced an eclipse while living in London. She then wrote a moving essay about how she felt as it faded and a then vanished. Terror was the word she used because her highly active imagination let her feel what it would be like if the sun never reappeared. She believed life as we understand it would stop. So the joy in her language when the sun showed its first thin slice of luminosity (our vestige of the Latin word) was palpable when first I read this essay.
That’s how I feel on December 22nd,. even if the new sliver is totally imperceptible to me. I believe it has come, even if I can’t see it yet. And that’s faith, surely. Now it’s January 6th and this morning, I saw the first tinges of a sunrise about a minute earlier than in late December. So the universe has graced us once again, even if we don’t deserve it. But then grace may never be “earned,” just as faith is unnecessary in tangible circumstances. Light, then, is part of the mystery of existence, connected in unknowable ways with whatever we think of as the ineffable. And until I can get help in writing my three-word sentence, I’ll be glad just to say “lumen” and “lumen” and “lumen.”