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The Irrational Season
By Madeleine L'Engle
Farrar Straus GirouxCopyright © 1987 Madeleine L'Engle
All right reserved.
The Night Is Far Spent
Two o'clock in the morning. A thin, chill November rain is falling. I stand at the dining-room window, holding a comforting mug of hot bouillon, and look out at the never-wholly-asleep city. A taxi moves slowly along West End Avenue. A young woman walks down the middle of 105th Street with a very large Great Dane. My Irish setter is asleep in the bedroom; he knows that it is much too early to get up.
I enjoy these occasional spells of nocturnal wakefulness, and I am never awake alone. Across West End Avenue there is an apartment building where the eleventh-floor windows are always lit, no matter what time it is. This night, in another building, someone is studying by a single light bulb suspended from the ceiling. The Hudson River is visible through television aerials and between two tall apartment buildings on Riverside Drive. Ours is a restricted view, but it is a view, nevertheless, and I love it. There is a small ship, a freighter, I think, moving slowly along the dark water, its lights both warmly greeting and mysterious. What looks like a star grows brighter and reveals itself to be a plane coming in to land at La Guardia; but there is a star left behind in the wake of the plane, a pale city star.
I sip hot bouillon and feel relaxed and at peace at this beginning of a new year - a new year for me. I have had another birthday, and this is always like opening a brand-new journal to the first page, or putting a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter as I start a new book; it is all ahead of me, clear and bright, the first smudges and mistakes not yet made. I know that they will come, and soon - I don't think I've ever typed a full page without making at least one error; however, beginnings are always exciting and full of hope.
The beginning of my personal new year comes as the Christian Church's new year, Advent, begins, the four weeks before Christmas. The Jewish New Year is over; it is not yet time for the secular New Year or the Buddhist New Year; the academic year is already well started. Has there ever been a culture or a religion where there has not been a special day to mark the beginning of a new year? I still function more in terms of the academic year than any other, and probably will continue to do so even when we no longer have children in school or college.
A new year can begin only because the old year ends. In northern climates this is especially apparent. As rain turns to snow, puddles to ice, the sun rises later and sets earlier; and each day it climbs less high in the sky. One time when I went with my children to the planetarium I was fascinated to hear the lecturer say that the primitive people used to watch the sun drop lower on the horizon in great terror, because they were afraid that one day it was going to go so low that it would never rise again; they would be left in unremitting night. There would be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, and a terror of great darkness would fall upon them. And then, just as it seemed that there would never be another dawn, the sun would start to come back; each day it would rise higher, set later.
Somewhere in the depths of our unconsciousness we share that primordial fear, and when there is the first indication that the days are going to lengthen, our hearts, too, lift with relief. The end has not come: joy! and so a new year makes its birth known.
In the Christian Church these weeks leading up to Christmas, this dark beginning of our new year, is also traditionally the time of thinking of the last things, of the 'eschaton,' the end.
The night is far spent. The day is at hand.
That day when all nights will be spent, when time will end: we all know it's coming. Scientists know it, and tell us the various ways that it could happen, but as of now they aren't predicting when. Various religious groups have predicted the end of the world off and on for hundreds of years. Whenever one of these groups tells us that Doomsday is going to come at midnight on a certain day, I always feel a little queasy. Maybe this time they're right. It has to happen sometime.
It was a long time before I could begin to think of this ending of all known things, all matter, the stars in their courses, music, laughter, sunrise, daisies and dynasties, starfish and stars, suns and chrysanthemums, as being in any way something to look forward to with joy and hope. It was a long time before I could turn my thoughts to the eschaton without terror. Long before I'd heard about the atom bomb or the hydrogen bomb, or fission or fusion, I feared the end of the world in much the same way that I fear a nuclear holocaust. And the description of the last day in the New Testament sounds very much like atomic devastation: "The present sky and earth are reserved for fire.... The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart, and the earth and all that it contains will be burned up."
A nuclear holocaust would probably mean the end of human life on planet earth, but not the rest of the solar system, or the galaxy, or any of the hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe. And nuclear warfare would be man's pride and folly rather than God's anger...
Excerpted from The Irrational Season by Madeleine L'Engle Copyright © 1987 by Madeleine L'Engle. Excerpted by permission.
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