One of my favorite things about this season of seemingly ever-present physical darkness is the occasional pocket or flash of light. Not just the leftover twinkling Christmas decorations, although that helps, but the “mundane” glimmers that, to put it in artistic terms, create everyday versions of the on-canvas beauty created by artists like Caravaggio through the use of “chiaroscuro”—a technique that contrasts deep darkness and brilliant-but-concentrated light in dramatic fashion.
Among all those everyday chiaroscuro moments I encounter, my absolute favorites are the glimpses of a glowing light emanating from a stranger’s living room window against a dark winter sky. As I drive or walk down a street, that figurative and literal window into someone else’s world warms my soul—not in a voyeuristic way, but in a from-a-distance appreciation of a freeze-frame moment in time witnessed in passing.
One evening recently, I came home from work and had to take our dog, Jake, out for a walk. I just wanted it done. I was tired and hungry. It was cold and dark. “Let’s get this over with,” I thought, or may have even said out loud to Jake, who sat with his head tilted ever so slightly to the side as if trying to figure out why I was in such a hurry on such a lovely night. I looked up and saw the stars just starting to come out and the thin sliver of a crescent moon hanging by a thread. Then I rounded the corner to find white twinkling lights on the neighbor’s trees and the sight of a family gathering around a dinner table through a brightly backlit window. I could smell the distinct scent of a fireplace burning somewhere, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the beauty of everyday life in an artistic creation right outside my front door.
As I headed home, so grateful now for the chore I had originally dreaded, the blinking lights of a plane came into view overhead, its flight pattern cutting through the swath of stars and clouds over our house. Rather than feel annoyed by what might seem like a clunky intrusion on my otherwise Normal Rockwell moment, I saw not only beauty but felt awe at the sight of the silent jet racing toward the airport. “What a wonderful world,” was all I could think, the classic song playing in my brain.
At this time of year, with the holidays behind us and a lot more winter ahead, it can be easy to get bogged down in the darkness and drudgery as we trudge back and forth to work or school, bundled up against the cold, heads down against the wind. Our minds are already counting the days to spring and sunshine and warmth, wishing we could fast forward a few months of our lives away. What if, instead, we basked in the density of winter darkness, settled in for the season, and focused instead on the flashes of light and color and warmth that are even more brilliant than usual because of the stark contrast to the world around us?
I don’t know about you, but a glimpse of a fat, yellow moon rising up amid barren tree limbs over a snow-covered yard will bring a smile to my face and a sense of peace to my heart even if I’ve had a rough day. Simple joys hidden in plain sight can make all the difference, if we can learn to stay in—and appreciate—the now of our lives.
Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the coming of Light into the world. That celebration didn’t end when we packed up the ornaments and put the tree out on the curb (or back into the basement). The Light is there always—around us, inside us. We may walk in darkness, but we have seen a great Light. Let’s not forget that during this stretch of Ordinary Time in our liturgical year. Look up, look around, seek out the light in your world and the Light in your heart.
This column originally appeared in the Jan. 17, 2019, issue of Catholic New York.