The luminous dusk, the unspent, dark cloud of God’s glory, lies beyond a door that is buried, in the words of Teresa of Ávila, “in the extreme interior, in some very deep place within.” Although only God’s grace can open the door, we can at least do our best to stand before the doorway. We do this by temporarily abandoning, during prayer and meditation, the world of the five senses, by declining to look at or listen to or think about the things around us. Darkness and stillness then become our collaborators, helping us to drag our attention away from this world of divertissement to the numinous world that holds the neglected fountain of divine light. The testimony of the saints is that this fountain, although hidden, can be found, or rather revealed, and that, when this happens, we are remade — and then sent back into the everyday, material world to do our mundane tasks with renewed life. Is this not the one great end to which we, on behalf of the whole world, should direct all our prayers?
Such is the final paragraph of Dale Allison’s The Luminous Dusk (Eerdmans, 2006), essentially a book on hesychastic prayer in the midst of a modern world full of noise, artificial light, and distraction. I don’t think Allison is himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but he’s certainly familiar with Orthodoxy’s longstanding practice of hesychastic prayer, the prayer of stillness, as especially exemplified in the writings of St Gregory Palamas and St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. While the rather discursive nature of the book’s style (the blurb on the back relates it to “the thoughtful, genre-bending nonfiction tradition of Wendell Berry and Walker Percy”) can be distracting at times, the message is spot-on. I regularly find myself unpleasantly affected by the lights of the San Francisco Bay Area (I actually have a quite stunning view of San Francisco from home, if you like that sort of thing), blinding us all to that vasty vault of stars and darkness, and that constant susurration of the bay-circling megalopolis here. I miss the “quiet nights of quiet stars” of which Astrid Gilberto sang so well: Oh, how lovely! In that respect, for my part, the book was preaching to the choir. Inspiration, too, to do something about one’s shambolic prayer life is ever welcome, one supposes. This book is helpful in inspiring a balanced reinforcement of priorities against the distractions, willed and unwilled, in a modern city and home and life and culture.