I did not expect to be so moved by candlelight when the lights went out. I was looking forward to the symbolic enactment of the Christ’s descent to the dead, light’s refusal to be subsumed. Plunged into near total shadow, the altar radiated. I knew the general structure of Tenebrae, a special form of sung prayer for Holy Week: choral psalms, lamentations, a candelabra extinguished one candle at a time. Tenebrae prays movement into the Triduum Sacrum’s drama of suppers, gardens, horrors, abandonments, descents and wonders.
The Tenebrae hearse (sometimes called a harrow) blazed. Isn’t that a marvelous name for this special liturgical prop, fifteen lit candles forming a triangle, death and light at once? At the Tenebrae I attended, some “house lights” remained on during the service so we could read along. Tenebrae builds to a spectacular denouement: the center candle, representing the light of Christ, is not extinguished. Instead, the candle gets hidden behind the altar. Light radiates even if its source descends out of sight.
After entombing the candle, someone shut off the electric lights. I was reminded of the arresting phrase from Lucy Kirkwood’s 2017 play The Children: “You don’t have a right to electricity.” The Tenebrae image had power precisely because the room turned off ordinary conveniences. I needed less light in order to notice light’s meaning.
I cannot remember the last time I went to Tenebrae, but I have spent the better part of the ongoing pandemic reading the Irish ecological mystic John Moriarty. Moriarty’s spellbinding work sits with a hard truth that our Church needs to hear and proclaim: the planetary environmental crisis is a symptom of a spiritual crisis. Dominant ideologies and myths insulate us from feeling part of the environmental whole like an immune system. Moriarty praises Tenebrae as a ritual antidote, an integrating spirituality. In Turtle Was Gone a Long Time I: Crossing the Kedron, Moriarty writes, “In Tenebrae, it is by the light of candles quenched not by the light of candles lighted that we continue,” (183). With Jesus as guide, we must be willing to descend and harrow the hells within ourselves.
Pope Francis continues to invite the Church to consider the same intersection of spirit and climate. Serious reflection on what is happening to our “common home” risks a real existential despair. Climate catastrophes are urgent, dire and profoundly overwhelming. Individual choices will not stop climate change. Individual quests to drive less, to recycle more plastic and paper, to install solar panels or take reusable totes to the grocery store—no matter how virtuous or cost effective—will not save the world. Some feel called to tiny houses or subsistence farming; many become overwhelmed. How can there be flourishing life, family and future if we need to change everything about how we live? Future generations will grapple with different coastlines after sea-level rise, lost biodiversity due to desertification, more intense storms and more unquenchable wild fires. The planetary future seems impossibly dark.
Moriarty poignantly describes human civilization as the iceberg into which Titanic Earth has crashed. We numb the anguish of impending doom with sentimental confidence in starship lifeboats. Far worse is the apathetic spiritual shrug: Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, so our planet might as well burn (and given the many evils humans perpetuate, perhaps it even should). Addiction to economic sameness takes the lead, ensuring a descent into hell on earth, with hosannas of “Drill, baby, drill.” How else could we keep the lights on all night?
To be clear, modern comforts and technologies are not inherently evil. Perhaps the dark isn’t as sinister as our consumerist consciousness makes it out to be. Moriarty’s Tenebrae offers ritual formation into an alternative spiritual position. Perhaps the ecological unknown can be like the dazzling darkness encountered in a mystic’s openness to the divine. Moriarty himself indulged a life of heroic simplicity. But not everyone needs to abandon their lifestyle to become hermetic gardeners and prolific writers. Instead, Moriarty claims in his first major book Dreamtime that “Settling for less was a way to wonder,” (194).
What room do we leave for wonder in our climate anxieties? Tenebrae embraces the necessary lamentation for our common home on an ecological collision course. It hurts to admit there can be no return to consumptive “normalcy.” The Church, as a pilgrim people of God, can help mourn the loss of unsustainable lifestyles rather than pile on unproductive guilt and shame. Truly integral ecological reform will mean sitting in the unknown dark together, acknowledging scary realities, and refusing to abandon hope. We can remember to turn off the lights sometimes and wonder. A Tenebrae spirituality helps us see what St. John Henry Newman calls the “Kindly Light” that leads a pilgrim people onward through darkness, never alone.
Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.