Keep me in the shadow of your wings

Sitting in the choir stalls of St John’s Abbey Church last week, I was struck by how the shorter days and the move to daylight savings had cast the larger church into shadows for both morning and evening prayer. The choir in the front was lit for daily office, but those coming and going across the back were barely visible – employees arriving early or leaving late, students taking a shortcut through the church to warm up, these were figures barely discernable in the shadows. There was something intriguing and comforting about the depth that light and darkness together give to a space – you can almost see the corners, but not quite – there is more than meets the human eye which invites the mind to its memory of the space as one knows it and the imagination of possibilities not quite seen. In the early morning the growing light through the windows gave promise of the day to come. In the evening, all was dark save the lights of the doors and the flickering candles off to the side.

We know that shadow implies the presence of light – it is not complete darkness nor full light, but the potential of the between, the threshold of two realities. Perhaps that potential is why shadow as word and concept is so present in scripture used in liturgy, especially in the ‘prayer book of the church’ – the psalter. There, the shadow of God protects and shelters: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1); “Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 17:8); “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7). The shadow of God’s wings provides a place to sing God’s praises: “for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy” (Psalm 63:7). Beyond daily office the shadow of those who follow Christ heals others: “Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.” (Acts 5:14-15). The “praying over” the sick continues in early church documents drawing on Acts and James, particularly the Canons of Hippolytus: “A deacon shall accompany the bishop at all times to inform him of everyone’s condition. He is to inform him about each sick person, because it is important for the sick person that the high priest visits him. He is relieved of his sickness when the bishop goes to him, especially when he prays over him, because the shadow of Peter healed the sick…” (Canon 24)

But the most widely familiar of ‘shadow’ language is its association with the presence of death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) The image of the ‘shadow of death,’ whether drawn from Psalm 23 or other source, is a frequent image in liturgical prayer at funerals, from there picked up in music texts and preaching. The ‘shadow of death’ seems apt to evocatively give voice to what is ‘between’ the threshold of two realities. “The Sun of Righteousness is gloriously risen, giving light to those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death” (a suggested anthem as the body is borne from the church to burial, 1979 Book of Common Prayer, US)

As I meditated on the importance of discernable shadows to give rise to thought I reflected on many church buildings and worship spaces in which I had been in the last couple years. So many of them seemed determined to banish shadows, leaning repeatedly on a direct over-illumination of the space in which the worshipping community gathered, making everything bare and exposed, in a monochrome light. Now, this is not to argue against the obvious, people need to see when reading hymnals or bulletins or other, but what is lost when the only light switch is completely on high – in every corner – or off?

Gathering in a dark church for the Easter Vigil has a power more palpable than even the extraordinary words of that night. The out-of-proportion popularity of Compline, mostly in darkness or the shadows of candles, is well attested to, especially for those in their late teens and early twenties. The unusual popularity of Tenebrae in Holy Week (at night rather than at dawn!) again speaks to the need for the shadows (along with a more programmatic ritual than the non-chronological reality of many Holy Week/Triduum liturgies). Are we afraid of a few shadows? Is it the same approach to space that gripped much church architectural reform in the 1980s and 1990s – all one bright common space for worship in the same key for everyone? The return to multiple places of sacrality (font by the door, places of verbal and kinesthetic prayer accessible and varied, the place of the word, the altar, a separate chapel for the reservation of the sacrament) argue for proportionate space depending on the prayer, but also for a multiplicity of ways in which individuals and communities seek the face of God. For many, the ambiguity of shadow is perhaps an important symbol, a pointing to our partial vision of the economy of God and a faithful participation of life between realities. Thanks be to God for shadows which invite us to explore the ‘more’ which is always there.

“How much of earth’s beauty is due to its shadows!
The tree and the cliff and the far-floating cloudlet,
The uniform light intercepting and crossing,
Give manifold color and change to the landscape.”
(Thomas Durfee)

One comment

  1. A man in Ipswich changed over to a different Church for his Mass as his parish priest had installed fluorescent lighting in his own Church; he told me it turned it into a sort of supermarket atmosphere and took away his mood of prayerful attention !

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