History of Hymns: “Holy Darkness” by Dan Schutte
By Colleen Toole
by Dan Schutte
Worship & Song, No. 3141
Holy darkness, blessed night,
heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.
As we await you, O God of silence,
we embrace your holy night.
© 1988, 1989, Daniel L. Schutte. Published by OCP. 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Dan Schutte, best known for the hymn, "Here I Am, Lord," is a major figure in Catholic liturgical music post-Vatican II. Schutte was a founding member of the St. Louis Jesuits, a group of Jesuit seminarians who met while studying at St. Louis University and began composing liturgical music in a contemporary folk style. He now holds the position of composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco. His hymns are primarily used in Catholic settings but a few have found their way into Protestant hymnals as well, including this piece, "Holy Darkness."
So often our hymnody and liturgy focuses on a binary view of darkness and light, with "light" equating to "good" and "darkness" representing "evil." Scripture often supports this; the first chapter of John, after all, celebrates the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcoming it. However, this ignores other scriptural metaphors of the Lord as shelter and shade. Psalm 121 refers to the Lord as "shade at your right hand," who ensures that the "sun shall not strike you by day." Revelation 7:16 also promises protection from the sun and heat. Given the setting of the events in scripture—the desert—it is no surprise that light might not always be the hero, and darkness can be the blessed relief.
Another Catholic writer who dealt often with the power of darkness in his writings was the Carmelite monk and mystic, St. John of the Cross. Born into poverty in Spain in 1542, his early life was marred by the deaths of his father and his brother. He studied with the Jesuits, a newly formed order at the time, and became a Carmelite in 1563. After studying and teaching at the University of Salamanca, he met Teresa of Avila, who was working to reform the Carmelite order. John then became involved in the Discalced ("shoeless") Carmelites reform movement. Unfortunately, this led him to many of the troubles in his own life. Carmelites who opposed the Discalced Carmelites grew in power, and in 1577 he was taken prisoner and held in torturous conditions, but he escaped after nine months and took refuge with nuns until the dissentions calmed.
St. John of the Cross is known today primarily for his poetry, much of which was written during his time in prison. His poem and accompanying treatise, "The Dark Night of the Soul", exemplifies many of the themes found in his writings: the soul's journey to God, the relationship between God and humanity as a relationship of lovers, and the transformative power of darkness. While "dark nights" are often thought of as troublesome or dangerous, to St. John of the Cross, they are necessary and therefore beautiful. The darkness of night allows God to purge the soul of all that pulls it into sin, which is the first step on the path towards union with God. Though he acknowledges that this night can be painful and disorienting, St. John of the Cross writes of the night with thanksgiving and praise, acknowledging that without this night of purgation and purification, the soul cannot be led to God.
"Holy Darkness" is based on the writings of St. John of the Cross, and it, too, praises the darkness as one of the stages through which God works. Chock full of scriptural references, this hymn speaks to the many ways God works to draw humanity closer to God. Like "Here I Am, Lord," "Holy Darkness" moves between voices; the refrain is sung to God, and the verses are the voice of God singing to the people. In the refrain, God is framed as a "God of silence," whose answers are "hidden from our sight", conjuring images of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, finding God not in wind, earthquake, or fire, but rather the still small voice that follows.
What God sings to us in "Holy Darkness" is the assurance that God is working to bring us into new life. The first verse references Isaiah 48:10 ("See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction"), harkening to St. John of the Cross's idea that the soul must first be purged and purified before moving closer to God. With this established, the promise of God's goodness coming in the midst of barrenness, darkness, and silence continues throughout the verses. The third verse takes a turn as it references Job 38, answering our doubt with questions that, in and of themselves, reassure us of God's power. The fifth verse takes another turn, as it returns us to our own voice as we address God. With nods to both Psalm 130's watchmen waiting for morning, and the common Biblical metaphor of the bride waiting the groom, "Holy Darkness" ends with us quietly and patiently resting as we wait for God in the moonlight.
Schutte has included "Holy Darkness" in his collection of songs to be used in Triduum, the three days of Holy Week beginning on Maundy Thursday and running through Easter, reminding us that the key story of our faith takes place in darkness. "Holy Darkness" and other hymns that celebrate the dark fill a deeply important niche in hymnody.[i] They use biblical metaphors that are often neglected or even absent from our worship. They help to counteract racial assumptions that can arise from constantly referring to "darkness" as "evil." But perhaps more than anything, they point us toward a God who works in all circumstances, in darkness and in light.
About this month’s guest writer:
Colleen Toole is a former Lovelace Scholar of the Hymn Society and a soon-to-be graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. A frequent staff member during the summers at Montreat Conference Center, Colleen's primary research concerns the intersection of gender identity and worship.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.