I have been lying awake in the dark a lot lately. I lie there, really hoping to go back to sleep, wishing there was some way to forget what I know. But the darkness keeps calling me.
In these long winter days, it can be hard to keep faith. In the night, fear and despair can come creeping into our hearts. There are gifts to be found in this winter season, if we will wait, and yet it is so hard to watch and wait in the darkness.
Perhaps the darkness scares us, and we want to hurry into the light. Or perhaps we want to go back to sleep, want to lull ourselves back into a kind of not-knowing. The darkness around us is deep, and if we are not watchful, we will sedate ourselves with material things in order to quell our anxieties.
For me, every winter requires a spiritual discipline to sit in the gathering dark and notice my impulse to stuff material things into the aching places of my heart. I have to watch my desire to rush away from any uncertainty or despair. I feel desperate to fill that empty, often aching place inside myself. Some people call this empty place within us the God-sized hole. Buddhists call it a hungry ghost.
I face an annual struggle to keep myself from stuffing the mouth of that hungry ghost. Every year I have to tell myself to stay awake in the dark, and see what I might learn. It is never easy, but it brings me gifts of understanding and clarity. I learn about my deepest anxieties. I also learn that the imagined realities of my fears can be transformed into deeper wisdom—and sometimes into action.
It is always very difficult to keep myself awake in the dark, to sit in the quiet rather than rush to fill January with the busy self-improvement scurry our society lauds as necessary. It is always hard to keep myself in the stillness—always hard, and always worth it.
But this year is different. This year it is even more important to stay awake.
This year, certain powers are at work to distract us from the current reality. Powers of hate and greed know that the despair and anxiety we feel is nearly unbearable, and they are counting on that, counting on our weakness. They will stoke our fears so that we cannot bear it, and they are certain that we will forget to keep watch in the dark.
So I suggest several practices for these winter days. These are spiritual practices that will help us to stay awake and aware in the days ahead. I call these practices the four Rs: Reflection, Repentance, Resistance and Resilience.
The first is Reflection. In this season of stillness, we must begin in silence. Let us keep quiet, be still and listen inside ourselves, and see what wisdom rises. We must take breaks from the constant distractions and noise of our lives, and create moments of reflection. Yes, our modern lives make this hard. But it is imperative that we ground ourselves. Meditate, pray, just sit quietly with your tea and let the hubbub inside you quiet down. Feel your feelings. All your feelings. Cry if that is what comes. We need reflection in the stillness if we will be clear in our actions.
After we have listened to what is inside us, we must listen deeply to the quiet voices around us, the ones that are buried. How do things look through the eyes of the poor, the young, the immigrants, the persecuted minorities? Our faith also asks us to see from that angle. In these weeks of quiet, let us reflect on what our society looks like to those who are most vulnerable.
The second practice I invite you to engage is Repentance. Sometimes we struggle with repentance; it is hard. In a culture that hates failure, that sees admitting wrongdoing as some kind of weakness, repentance can be very difficult for us. And yet, we do have some things for which we should repent. When we glimpse the story of our society from the underside, we begin to grasp the limits of our own vision. We can see the things we failed to understand before, and places where we failed to act.
Once we see where we failed, we can decide how we will change. We can decide we will act in new ways. For example, when I listen to the voices of people of color, I see where I failed to act against racism and bigotry. My heart aches to see how unaware I was of the suffering of others. Though I am embarrassed and ashamed, I repent of my previous ignorance and inaction.
In the quiet darkness, what can we admit to ourselves? Can we admit that we did not listen enough to those who were crying out in pain? Those of us who are male, can we admit that we did not fully grasp the reality of misogyny in our society? And those of us who are white, can we admit that we were unaware of the depth of racism?
Can we admit that we failed to adequately care for our fragile democratic institutions? Can we all admit that we have not struggled hard enough to protect our planet from climate disaster? Can we confess, quietly, in our own hearts, that we have not really resisted the forces of autocracy and repression that threaten our nation?
These are painful admissions, aren’t they? I lie awake in the night and weep for the things I did not do and the warning signs I ignored. In this season of quiet, may I repent of these errors.
It would be so much easier to gloss over our mistakes. It would be so much less painful to stuff some food and drink and Netflix into the aching emptiness within us.
And yet, that is how we have done things for so long. The powers are counting on us to do it yet again. We cannot give them what they want. We cannot go back to sleep.
Therefore let us repent, so that we stay awake. And after we repent, let us engage this third practice: Resistance.
To begin, we ask an important question: What are we resisting? Resisting begins inside ourselves. We are resisting our own shallow longings to hide from the painful things. We are resisting distraction and numbness. We must try to resist despair.
We must also resist the temptations of hatred. It is easy to succumb to hatred in these hours. But hatred feeds off itself. Hatred is a parasite that consumes its host.
Instead of hatred, in these days we must practice a revolutionary love, the love that Jesus taught and that Gandhi, Romero and so many martyrs practiced. We must love our enemies, as fiercely as we can. Now, I am talking about a revolutionary love, a love that demands justice. This is loving with our eyes wide open. Our love declares that all beings are within the vast circle of love, even those who oppress others. Because we love all beings, including those who do evil, we will demand that the powerful repent their ways. This is a courageous and ferocious love. And this love is more powerful than hate.
Revolutionary love also gives us the strength to resist forces of hatred that are outside of us—that surround us. There is much to resist in the days ahead. Revolutionary love will concentrate our minds on the most useful actions. We must not flail about, but continue to center ourselves and clarify our purposes.
In these days, we must resist the attempt to normalize things that we know are wrong. We must raise our voices against every erosion of civil society, and every attack against the personhood of another group of people. We must keep alive the structures of resistance we have built, and continue to strengthen the ties between us in this struggle.
These are difficult days. We are being tested. We will be tested ever more greatly. My friends, I do not know if we will succeed. But I do know we must try. As writer Chris Hedges says, paraphrasing the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “We don’t fight fascists because we think we can win. We fight fascists because they are fascists.”
This will be a long struggle. We must gird ourselves for a long effort. But when I grow weary in this struggle, I think of my friends in Eastern Europe, particularly my Unitarian friends in Transylvania, Romania. The Unitarians in Romania are a double minority—they are part of the ethnic minority of Hungarians in that country, and they are also a religious minority as Unitarians. Under communism the Hungarian Unitarians were bitterly persecuted. Ceausescu’s dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s was one of the most brutal in Eastern Europe.
And yet, though they suffered terribly through decades of a totalitarian regime, the Hungarian Unitarians survived by using tactics of resistance. First, they managed to keep their faith and their communities intact under the dictatorship. They did so in spite of great peril. And one of the ways that they survived and endured was by deepening their practice of our Unitarian faith. Though they were persecuted, they continued to tell their stories and teach enduring truths to their children. They concentrated their efforts on passing on traditions to the nextgeneration.
So they taught, surreptitiously, freedom of conscience, compassion, and the value of reason to each new generation. They often used Bible stories like codes, to pass on ideas that were otherwise too dangerous to talk about openly. The churches were places of quiet resistance.
Indeed, the revolution that finally toppled Ceausescu’s regime in 1989 was born in a church, not Unitarian but a Reformed Protestant church, where a congregation was courageous enough to name out loud the evil that ruled the land. Dictators hate and fear religious people because they know that the enduring message of compassion and freedom is a threat to their powers. They know that religion calls things by their true names and unmasks evil. Dictators know that when people have their hearts set upon the deepest truths, courage abounds.
The Hungarian Unitarians clung to another important religious practice: Resilience. They cared for one another and their communities with deep practices of resilience. They kept up their common life and practiced joy in the face of oppression. They celebrated the seasons. They cooked and ate meals together. They grew food in small kitchen gardens. They preserved the old ways—like farming and food preservation. They passed on the old skills—woodcarving, weaving, and other crafts—in order to remember their own culture, and thus remember that they were not just citizens of a dictator. They remembered that they were a people, together, with a history that transcended any particular
They even preserved the old folk dances, and taught them to their children. Much of folk culture was suppressed under communism. Identity and diversity is a threat to totalitarianism, and so the dictatorship tried to get rid of all forms of folk culture. And yet the folk dances and folk arts were taught, and even revived in the last years of that regime.
In the face of totalitarianism we must remember who we are. We must ground ourselves in our faith. We must cherish our children and tell them our beloved stories. We must practice daily acts of resilience.
These are the four practices I commend to you: Reflection will help us see the whole picture. Repentance will keep our hearts and eyes clear. Resistance will move us into action for the greatest good. And Resilience will keep us strong for the long fight ahead.
In this winter season, don’t go back to sleep. In all the seasons to come, don’t go back to sleep. Stay awake in the dark, my friends. Stay awake. I am awake, too. Let us be awake together.