Late fall, the haze of harvest now history, the air already bristling with rumours of snow, the narrowing daylight . . . all of it transports me to the farm: it’s dusk, I’m walking the path from the barn to the house, carrying two pails of milk, my way illuminated by a circle of yard light, then, farther on, the incandescent glow of our porch light. A benediction.
I remember too, before we moved to the farm, the porch lights in our village. Walking over to a friend’s house after supper, or pedaling the dirt streets under a rising moon, or ambling along the railway tracks after dark — looking back, there was a magical sense of being and belonging conveyed through those small-town porch lights, shining yellow and bright in the presence of relatively few street lights.
Porch lights are small prairie lighthouses. When the ‘63 Rambler broke down, as it frequently did, on the way to pick up my cousin, overturning hasty plans of heading to the city, I take a shortcut across a field and see the porch light through a leafless line of scrub poplar. Stepping across the stubble, I keep an eye on this slight beacon wavering on the horizon.
There was a tradition, dating back at least to pioneer times, of leaving a candle in the window. It signalled that a family member was away — the lit candle a watch-fire for their return. It was also a sign of welcome. For a traveller caught on the road at night, the warm glow of a lantern in a window was a welcome that erased all thought of weariness.
There is not enough darkness to overcome the light from a single candle. I like that someone, somewhere, has pointed this out. That even in the darkest of nights, the illumination of a candle, a lamp, a porch light, reorients us to our path, gives us back our direction.
And at the same time, in the cast of this little light, we are made acutely aware of our dependence upon each other. Do we not all need someone to place a candle in the window? For we are all making our way along these winding paths overshadowed by loss, darkened by pain. Our faith, at times, in tatters.
We are not given endless mid-summer days. We are not shown the face of God. That blazing gaze would blind us; and the endless ease of bright summer days would obscure our need of an illuminating light. But in the mere-ness of a porch light, at some focalizing distance, it’s possible to suddenly become deeply aware of our contingency, our provisional breath. The mist rises and we’re standing at the edge of some vast canyon, conscious of a desire, an emptiness within that defies satisfaction.
A moment such as this can be obliterating. But it can also be a kind of self-emptying that drives us outside of self-referential selves, our grasping egos. It might even be said that this emptying emptiness — which feels like God’s absence — serves as a lamp unto our feet. It might even be said that God withdraws, so that God’s incarnate possibility grows.
There is a cabin that sits in the middle of a few acres of trees. Late one evening while walking along the bordering road I had this impression:
Walking the road back to the cabin,
I see a porch light through a scribble of trees,
and higher, Venus, lambent,
through a worn sheet of silver cloud,
and I am pulled toward and beyond this world.
Stilled by light’s speed, spilled into boundless silence,
knowing myself known by what I cannot know,
feeling myself held by what I cannot touch.
I am love-lifted through the torn net of my faith
into the immense solitude of your presence.
Only in this utter aloneness
can I know how rich your companionship.
Only by distance, as through a gauze of cloud,
does your porch light shine.
The narrowing days of late fall seem to make the light fold in on itself. There’s a richness to fall light that reflects something like (Theodore Roethke’s line), “light within light.” A phrase that also describes our experience when we come upon that candle or porch light left burning for us.
If God has disappeared into silence, Christ is present in the face and the cry of this person, here, now. To sit under the porch light in this presence, in these circumstances, and exchange the warmth of belonging, is to find our direction. It is to experience the light within light.
Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton’s inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at www.growmercy.com