Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 55. Tenebrae

QA 55. Tenebrae

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On March 27, 2016

Tenebrae (the Latin word for “darkness”) is the only Christian service I ever trusted. It’s made up of psalms of grief and lamentations of the lost and forsaken. The evening of Holy Saturday. The messiah is crucified, god has abandoned his people to their enemies. Why God? There are no signs for us to see; there is no prophet left; there is not one among us who knows how long.

One by one, candles are blown out. The shadows grow. In some churches, there are also contemporary readings from the news, from the neighbourhood, of violence, humiliation, war, hunger, desecration. More candles go dark. Puh. Puh. Puh. Warm human breath, unvoiced. When the central white pillar candle is extinguished, a door slams in the dark like a rock rolled over a tomb. Finally, one small burning candle is brought out from its hiding place behind the altar. There is no benediction. The congregants disperse without speaking.

This is the world shown clearly for once: merciless and unconscionable. A place of pointless suffering, vicious cruelty, inhumanity, hatred, fear and indifference. This unspeakable world that no one speaks of. This intolerable world that every one tolerates. Breath – breath! – has become the tool of executioner and silence and shadows. This is the world, this is the world, this is the world.

And yet. One small light endures, persists, almost defiantly (with temerity, which is cognate with tenebrae, and speaks of boldly, rashly, rushing ahead in the dark).


The small hidden light is equally true of this world. Somehow (which we should think about), it is more true. I believe it is what Levinas calls “the little humanity that adorns the earth”. Levinas didn’t ask for much. The little humanity of kindness, of letting another go first through a door, of refraining from eating in front of someone who might be hungry. The sign of putting another person ahead of oneself. The sign of love, to prefer the good of the beloved before one’s own. To be prepared to give one’s life for another – or to give it anyway with no preparation at all. The sign of a genuine self-love, to become aware in the marrow of one’s bones the interconnection and interdependence of being with others, and from this to respect one’s own worth and word.

Such signs and wonders are still only a speck in a world turned over to pride and ignorance. Nothing changes. And yet. And still. There it is. A slight light in the dark, astonishing in itself. It holds great power and none at all. It gives evidence only of itself.

At best, and I think this is so, its evidence offers a possible ground for hope. If so, assailed and forsaken and unconsoled as we may be in this world, we could still face that reality without falling into despair. We could take heart. We could take note. (This seems to be my work.) In the small kindnesses we perform, in the small kindnesses we witness and accept from others, in our tender pity and mercy, to cultivate this flicker of holiness.



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