By setting ablaze our countless small campfires of hope, we gesture to the great, eternal day that will one day come and conquer the night forever.
A little over a week ago, Joel and I forayed out into the darkling streets of nine o’clock London to catch a late concert at Royal Albert Hall.
We wanted to stave off the end-of-trip rue attending our last night in London by filling it with music. Solemn, startling music as it happened. When Joel discovered that it was John Tavener’s Ikon of Light we were slated to hear, he was quite enthused. Even I, with a far lesser knowledge of classical or choral music, was glad to find that this was the concert on offer. Oddly enough, I had encountered snippets of Tavener here and there and found his choral music arresting, if not always easily accessible.
We barely made it in time, fairly sprinting from the Tube stop to the doors of the Hall, sinking into our red velvet seats in a summer flush just as a voice summoned us to settle in for the opening of the concert. The lights dimmed a little as the host for the evening, a calm man in a dark suit, took the stage and addressed us with quiet, engaging gravity. I was still breathing hard, trying to collect breath and body into stillness, distracted by the rustle and thump of the fidgety audience. I was only half aware of the introductory comments, but the man on stage seemed almost to reach up and touch me, abruptly, when he spoke these words:
“In tonight’s piece, one must think of the string section’s part as the cry of the soul, its reaching toward the light. And the answering choir, as the voice of the light itself.”
With that command, he stepped off stage, the lights died in the high, echoing space, leaving only the spotlighted stage and the circle of three violinists with the black mass of the choir curved in a half moon behind them. When the last high note of the quick tuning was accomplished, the violinists lifted their bows and for a moment, waited. Arrested by their patient poise, the audience stilled, attention inexorably drawn to the waiting three on stage.
The music began almost before I was aware; a single note thrummed from a single violin. A note of yearning, that gathered insistence as the voice of the second violin joined its plea. But timid. The simple melody was a question, a request presented almost in fear. Soul’s cry into the night.
And it was met with the mighty, sudden crash of the choir, a startling, almost trenchant declaration of song that answered the wistful violin so robustly one felt the violin might retract in frightened silence.
But into the shocking hush that followed the choral statement came the violin’s renewed plea. The melody was a low request, a strengthened desire, and the voice of the second violin added a note of resolve that made the music something that reached into the darkness with set intent. The taste of that crashing light had strengthened the soul, heightened its longing. And when the light answered, the answer was richer than before.
On it went, back a forth, a conversation of a concert between violin and voice, soul and light, song and silence. And with the introductory words in my mind the music became a story to me, the image of my own soul’s hungry, yearning journey through the long valley of this life under high, cold stars. The music sang my constant inner reach toward the mountains of a future, an eternity, almost unimaginable, sang my ache for that fragile, silver line of dawn I sometimes glimpse to come and set me free from the darkness. Ah, the darkness.
For the shadows were palpable that night. Death stalked the night just outside of the music in the suffering of the wider world, in the secret, very present sorrows of my own heart, and in the memories haunting the concert. For the performance that night was couched in the memory of death, given on the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s entry upon WWI. The music was chosen to usher listeners all over the country (hearing it via the BBC) into a contemplative hour in which people were invited to switch off their lights in memory and tribute to the multitudes who died on the battlefields of the Great War.
The darkness came very close when the music was done. For the host came back on stage and asked those who had been given electric candles to switch them on. For an instant, light reigned as the hall shimmered with hundreds of starlike lights that danced in the hands of those who waved them through the shadows. And then, they were told to switch them off. At once, the stars died. And the loss of them felt like grief, like the dying out of the countless hopes and loves and joys of those whose lives so tragically ended. The hall grew dark and loudly quiet. An actor took the stage then and read the words from the announcement a hundred years before that had plunged the whole country into a time of such sorrow.
And silence reigned. For a few moments, everyone kept their seats. No fidgeting scratched against the quiet now. No quick breath, no tap of foot. As if the utter, unnatural silence of hundreds in one room could offer some tribute to the dead, we kept a steeled hush. And in it, caged in it, I thought of the ongoing march of death through the world. I thought of those soldiers, hundreds of thousands, dead in their prime, now dust. I thought of the fighting in Gaza, the starving of children in Iraq, the wailing of their mothers. I thought, almost with shame, of my own small pains and felt them joined with the wars and famines and fights raging throughout the world at the very moment of our vigil.
A rustle from the stage drew my eye and I realized that the concert had ended. No light came up, no closing word was spoken. The choir and musicians left the stage, and in silence, the audience got to its feet and we left that darkened hall with its fierce echo of music, its record of sorrow begging for the grace of light.
Out into the twilit darkness of late night London we strode. And for a long time, we simply walked. We skipped the first tube stop and walked the deserted dirt paths around the edge of Hyde Park. When the gravity of the silence that closed the concert had worn off a little in the temperate air with the heat of our breath and hard thump of our feet, we began to discuss the music. How it promised so much, those crashing affirmations of hope cried out through the notes of Tavener’s work. But how pervasive, how disturbing was the silence that followed the darkness.
How is hope kept in a night-black world? Funny, isn’t it, how small sorrows can be borne, loneliness and minutiae and the tiny losses and tiny deaths attending every ordinary day. But when they are coupled with the raging griefs of the world, and joined by a tragedy or even a moment of deep loneliness, the sadness can seem almost too much to bear. Even now, a hundred years on from the war that was supposed to end all wars with new battles seeming to spring up every day, we have to ask ourselves what it means for light to come in the darkness. What hope do we have for peace? For safety? What does it mean to live by light, to reach for it, to believe it’s promise when people die and children suffer? How does the promise of light answer our pain? And how do we order our lives, our aching lives, in response?
We rounded a corner, swift in foot and thought, and stopped abruptly in our tracks. The trees around the park drew back and a long vista of city roofs and steeples and high rise apartment buildings stabbed the navy sky. But above them all, stronger, taller, outreaching them by what seemed a mile rose a mighty shaft of light that shot right up toward the stars and bloomed into a blazing orb. The light shaft was like a sword, like a prophet’s staff, clean and bright and unbreakable, searing through dark and mist.
I recalled that someone had told me that a column of light would blaze in London to mark the WWI centenary. I was awed by that light. My eyes held fast to it, marveling at its power, the way the darkness fell back from it. Immediately, the words from the Gospel of John came to my mind, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” I have always savored that verse and the presence of that word, “comprehend,” with its different shades of meaning. The darkness neither understands the light, nor can it grasp it, wrap its hands around it, assimilate it into itself. Light, even a pinpoint star of it, will always stand free of shadow.
And abruptly I remembered the last piece of music played at the concert. In the solemn drama of chosen silence and dark, I had forgotten that the high, startling music in Ikon of Light and the similar piece that followed were closed by a short, simple choral arrangement of a poem by William Blake. The song was so gentle, so humble, it slipped almost forgettably in at the end of the musical battle before it. But it grew now in my mind, the rich, woven music and the words like a seed bearing fruit at just the right moment:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild.
He became a little child.
I, a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!
I stopped at the corner before the Tube stop, breathing hard. In that instant, the many symbols, the music, the light, the wavering dark that I had witnessed that evening drew together into a blazing truth. And I knew that whoever had planned that concert had chosen the Blake song to be the quiet answer to the darkness that would inevitably attend us out of the hall. As we dispersed into the night, that song was a gift to accompany us, a shepherd in the valley of the shadow teaching us how to hope. For the Light whom the darkness could not overcome was a Lamb. A little lamb, a tiny, wailing babe born in a stable. And he was the Light of the world, and his “life was the light of men.”
He was lifted up, blazing, into the sky of history just like the standard of light stabbing the London horizon. And when He was bound to a crude, hooked, splintery cross, beaten until his brightness faded into blood and pain, it seemed at first that Light could die. Like the millions of others on the battlefields and barren mountaintops. Like the hearts whose light is extinguished by loneliness or desolation. But the darkness could not comprehend Him. He blazed straight out, unconquerable Light splitting open the tomb.
But even better? That conquering Light wasn’t only outside of us, on the horizon of history. The Light indwelt us. By the gift of that fragile, gentle lamb, Light made his home in our hearts. When any soul now truly cries out for the presence of the light, like the violins in their keening desire, the answer isn’t merely a crashing glory outside ourselves, nor even just the promise of Light to one day conquer. Our answer is the voice of Love speaking within us, eternal Light present now, burning in the core room of our hearts. In us, day has dawned.
And by that Light we live. In its strength, we order our days not by the darkness we see, but by the great dawn that indwells us, the ever-present promise of the healing that will one day spill over and remake the broken world. We are driven by Light, shaped by it, mobilized to embody its splendor for the rest still caught in the night.
My breath came quicker. Eyes fixed upon that column of light, that fierce declaration of remembrance proclaiming that the brave and the dead will not be forgotten, I no longer sat passive in the darkness of my doubt. That London memorial came because of the many who chose to live by hope. Who understood that to live by Light is no longer to sit and question the darkness, passive, inert, waiting for light to answer for us. Rather, we wield that light ourselves, craft its beauty, cup it and offer it to those in the shadows, and in so doing, we become the answer to the darkness ourselves. We build, create, sacrifice, love, form homes, make songs, speak out the great stories and fight the great battles. Over and over again, we answer the darkness with our own small flame, kindled in us by the lamb whose Light was could not be vanquished. By setting ablaze our countless small campfires of hope, we gesture to the great, eternal day that will one day come and conquer the night forever.
My mind and body and skin and bones felt suddenly steeled and strong, straight as the sword-like light before me. And a single phrase, learned long ago, ran through my head as I finally ran for my Tube stop.
Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur.
Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.