Seeing light in the dark: Waking up to the holy in our midst

A bunch of white holiday lights shining in the dark

“Make friends with the dark,” I tell my young son. I mean this literally, and spiritually, as we turn off the lights and practice walking “blind.” My friend’s daughter, who was born in Haiti like my son, has no sight. Yet she cultivates such a rich imagination and inner-world, it exceeds our capacity to see. I imagine the same is true of the divine. What we fear as darkness, and at times, perceive as the uncertainty and chaos of our lives, God may see as an opportunity for wisdom and new birth.

I was reminded of this recently when an old friend called. We hadn’t spoken in a few years. Shiriony (Sheer-ee-oh-knee) is a practicing Buddhist who chants regularly for me and my son’s well-being. He runs his own florist business on top of his day job as an apartment super. He used to be homeless. Hearing the joy in his voice prompted me to reread everything he’d shared with me ten years ago about his journey through the darkness of having no home.

His story began with the sudden death of his mom. Overwhelmed by loss, he numbed his pain with shopping and gambling until it spiraled out of control. When he was finally evicted from his home, he was too proud and too scared to tell his family and friends. He started riding the el train at night, hopping off whenever he saw people who knew him. Sometimes he’d stop by a friend’s house and then lie about going to stay with another friend.

“I was so ashamed,” he said. “All that hurt and regret kept me closed up tight.” He told me how he used to always talk about people who were homeless “like they were dogs,” looking at them in disgust and not understanding how they had ended up in that situation. “It never made any sense to me until I became homeless and I started reflecting on my life. … Being homeless myself gave me the opportunity to apologize to a lot of people.”

One night, he told me, a woman who looked like a jazz singer in her mink coat came up to him and said, “You’re getting off this train.” Shiriony argued back, but she insisted. He thought she might be taking him to get something to eat like she’d done before. But that night, she said, “I’m taking you to a place where you can get some rest. You can’t sleep on the train and then just walk around all day. Your body needs to lie down. You’re starting to look like an old homeless man.”

“I’ve only been homeless a month,” he said in his defense. But she went right on. She brought him to an overnight shelter and gave him her bracelet filled with rhinestones and fake diamonds. Keep it, she instructed him, for protection. “Everyone knew she was a little crazy,” Shiriony explained. “I used to see her downtown when I was going to work. She panhandled. But you never know who you’re going to be with in life. There were many people who were homeless—who didn’t look like they had a dime—and they bought me breakfast.”

It took him about two years, and a lot of support from Inspiration Café in Uptown, to get back on his feet. When he finally shared with his family and friends the real reason why he disappeared, they were furious. He told me they scolded him. Some had even assumed that he was dead. “It was just my own arrogance,” Shiriony confessed, “the trips I took other people through because I didn’t want to face up to the responsibility of taking care of myself. I’m not proud of that.”

Looking back on that time in his life, he realized just how much he wanted to contribute to the happiness of other people. He makes gorgeous flower arrangements out of everyday finds: a tin can, a feather, a hollowed out piece of wood. And he chants to find wisdom now—not for cars or money or apartments like he used to. Shiriony also prays to enjoy living. “The most important thing about life,” he reminded me, “is the wisdom not to suffer.”

And that’s the other reason why I remind my son to not fear the dark, especially in this season of light. Good things happen in the dark too, I tell him. Hearts are changed; egos quieted. Our sense of who we are at our core suddenly and rather inexplicably grows louder when we can’t see the future, much less our next step. It’s how we wake up to our truest selves—and to the presence of the holy right in our midst.