Today the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. Our ancient ancestors observed this day, watching the stars and the shortening days, patiently abiding and taking note until one day…it changed. They learned that the darkest day is followed by a little more light.
Left to it’s own devices, the thinking mind tends towards pessimism. The light will never return, it tells us; it is always darkest before it is pitch black, this kind of grim prediction. Most of us are educated and we think we should be able to think of a solution. Quick, think of something! Switch on the light! And yet often what we really need to do is to have the courage to be in darkness. We need to re-enter the world of the body, the world of our feelings and perceptions in the present moment, abiding peacefully, consenting to be pierced by our own loneliness and vulnerability, until a glimmer of light appears from within.
In Newgrange, in the east of Ireland, there is a mysterious Neolithic monument, a huge circular mound with a passageway and interior chambers. Tests reveal that it was built in 3200 B.C.E., which makes it older than the pyramids in Giza and older than Stonehenge. No one can say exactly what it is for, a tomb perhaps, or a place of rituals. But this is what is extraordinary: it was built so that the light of the rising sun on the winter solstice, on December 21, floods the chamber. Just as the sun rises, sunlight pours through an opening above the main entrance, shining along the passage and illuminating a carving of a triple spiral on the front wall.
Today, there is a decades’ long waiting list to witness this marvel. But imagine the impact it must have had five thousand years ago. Imagine how dark it must have been in a world lit only by fire. Imagine being gathered in the dark chamber with others…and then the light. Also imagine the effort and skill this project required, and register, again, that it was undertaken five thousand years ago, in what we call prehistoric times.
Why these ancient ancestors undertake such a labor? Some speculate that they were they ritually capturing the sun on the shortest day, as if they thought light could be grasped and stored, or maybe planted like a seed to could make the days grown longer. This smacks a little bit of treating our earliest ancestors as if they were very primitive, capable of little more than magical thinking. The monument they built is evidence of their courage and patience, their willingness not to just think and do but to observe. Sometimes when we abandon all hope and striving, all the old thinking that is rooted in the past, a light blooms in the darkness.