Henry Vaughan’s The Night

Cover of Silex Scintillans, Henry Vaughan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We are in a funny in-between phase for our various series on Old Books With Grace. A few weeks ago, we finished the Lent Series, “The Many Faces of Jesus,” and I encourage you to go check out those if you haven’t read them yet. In June, we are doing something new, fun, and different: the Old Book Club, starring Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I am going to have some folks come on the podcast with me and we will discuss three chapters of Austen’s fantastic novel at a time. I hope that you will read along and invite a friend or two to read with you. I’m really looking forward to it.

Today, we are going to meditate on a beautiful poem by the seventeenth-century poet, Henry Vaughan. Vaughan was a Welshman living during the tumultuous time of the English Civil War. Henry and his twin brother Thomas were born in 1621. Henry became a physician and Thomas an Anglican priest. In the 1640s, the Book of Common Prayer was banned by the Puritans now in power, and in 1645, Archbishop Laud was executed by Cromwell. By 1655, Anglican services themselves were entirely illegal. Henry Vaughan was a devout Anglican, and his poetry reflects his sense of loss and attempts to establish communion with the Anglican poets who came before him, like George Herbert. During this same period, Vaughan married, had four children, then his wife Catherine died. It was a bad time. 

Yet Vaughan writes some of the most beautiful verse of this period. Saturated in the nature of the Welsh countryside, he finds God outside of the traditional places and spaces which have been barred to him. His great collection of poetry, Silex Scintillans, is united through exploring sources of community and identity as a Christian when the earthly wells of his community and identity, Anglican corporate worship services, have been outlawed and destroyed. And not to diminish the seriousness of what I’ve just written, but it has one of the most awful subtitles of all time: Private Ejaculations. Yes, sadly true.

“The Night,” one of my favorite poems of Vaughan’s, is inspired by John 3:2. The Pharisee Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night to ask him questions. Nicodemus’s nighttime excursion leads to some of the most foundational teachings of Jesus, which in itself is amazing if you think about it. Jesus speaks what becomes John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” in this private conversation. Yes, those words were not spoken on a mountaintop or in a house of worship, but in this midnight interlude between two friends. Let’s turn to Vaughan’s meditation on Nicodemus and Jesus.

The Night, by Henry Vaughan

      John 3.2

         Through that pure Virgin-shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glo-worms shine,
             And face the moon,
    Wise Nicodemus saw such light
    As made him know his God by night.

         Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blinde eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
             When Thou didst rise!
    And, what can never more be done,
    Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

         O who will tell me, where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallow’d solitary ground did bear
             So rare a flower;
    Within whose sacred leaves did lie
    The fulness of the Deity?

         No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty cherub, nor carv’d stone,
But His own living works did my Lord hold
             And lodge alone;
    Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
    And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

         Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busie fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
             Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high Heaven doth chime;

         God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
             His still, soft call;
    His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
    When spirits their fair kindred catch.

         Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice
             Is seldom rent,
    Then I in heaven all the long year
    Would keep, and never wander here.

         But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tyre
Themselves and others, I consent and run
             To ev’ry myre,
    And by this world’s ill guiding light,
    Err more than I can do by night.

         There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
             See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!

There’s a lot here to think about in this rich and dense poem. Let’s walk through it slowly.

Through that pure Virgin-shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glo-worms shine,
             And face the moon,
    Wise Nicodemus saw such light
    As made him know his God by night.

Vaughan begins with a lovely picture of the Incarnation through a metaphor of night and day. Through Mary, the “Virgin-shrine,” a “sacred veil” is drawn over the incandescent glory of high noon. This veil obscures and muffles the unbearable, blinding brightness of the sun at midday so that people can actually look at and face a source of light, the moon’s gentler brightness that illuminates darkness. Divinity becomes flesh and blood and makes itself approachable and visible. As a result, Nicodemus can see and know God.

          Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blinde eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
             When Thou didst rise!
    And, what can never more be done,
    Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

Nicodemus was blessed because he could directly witness the Sun’s descent and ascent, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Vaughan also delightfully puns on the last two lines. Nicodemus speaks at midnight with the Sun, S-U-N—impossible. He also speaks at midnight face-to-face with the Son, S-O-N—also not done anymore, with perhaps a few rare exceptions of mystical writers. 

The next few stanzas hint at Vaughan’s present-day predicament, where he identifies with Nicodemus. It is not among the traditional places of worship that Nicodemus finds Jesus and speaks with him, not among “dusty cherubs,” carved stone, or mercy-seats, which is both the carved adornment at the top of the Ark of the Covenant where the Presence of God rested in the Old Testament. Some English churches also had mercy-seats (sometimes called misericords) where you could lean if you were standing a long time praying, so again we find a double meaning. Instead, Jesus walks among his “living works.” He is described as a flower hiding divinity in solitary ground. And his people sleep, while only the trees and herbs “watch and peep.” 

Such a dense forest of allusions! Vaughan is artfully referring to time past and time present. Jesus has come outside of the Holy of Holies, into the world of nature. Vaughan glances ahead of this moment with Nicodemus, to Jesus praying in Gethsemane, when the whole world, even Jesus’s best friends, are asleep rather than with him in his pain. And Vaughan looks even further ahead, into his own time, when Vaughan himself has been barred from those same dusty cherubs and mercy-seats and carved stone, his beloved parish church and communal worship. But Jesus does not have to be found there. 

I love what Vaughan does next with his imagery of night and day. We all know of the ancient associations of night with fear, ignorance, despair, danger, and evildoing. As someone who has struggled with insomnia in the past, I have dreaded the night. Vaughan turns this age-old imagery upside down, which is extra surprising given the current darkness of his own life.

         Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busie fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
             Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high Heaven doth chime;

         God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
             His still, soft call;
    His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
    When spirits their fair kindred catch.

Night becomes a relief, not a fearful necessity. Its lack of sensory stimulus offers a “check and curb” to the busy-ness, the bustle, the neverending distractions and demands of the day. The silence gives space and retreat to the soul. The night is naturally Christ’s progress, Christ’s prayer time, the time where the stars of Heaven proclaim his glory. And Vaughan gives us a beautiful picture of Jesus. It as if he has been praying at night peacefully in a garden for long hours in stillness. He has been still and silent so long that his hair is wet with dew. He has become part of the garden. And it is also Jesus’s “knocking time,” the time when the soul is finally silent enough to hear his “still soft call.” 

Vaughan compares his “loud, evil days” to this quiet, dark tent of God. I’d imagine if you have young children like me, you can especially relate to “loud, evil days.” Some days it feels like all I do is get frustrated and forget things in the chaos of my house. Mired in unending to-do lists, depressed by the state of the United Kingdom, brokenhearted over the death of his wife, Vaughan laments his distractedness and wandering during the day. But he ends with the most beautiful meditative image of the poem:

         There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
             See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!

Vaughan’s “deep but dazzling darkness” reminds me of an anonymous medieval contemplative writer, who wrote an incredible work called The Cloud of Unknowing. This writer describes how in order to get closer to God, we must ascend into a cloud of unknowing—that is, abandon all our preconceived expectations and images of who God is and how he works in order to open ourselves to his Presence as fully as possible. The unthinkable, indescribable, incomprehensible dazzling darkness of God—who can understand him? And Vaughan thinks of this in the dead of night, but not with fear or apprehension. This deep but dazzling darkness, in which he wishes to become invisible and dim, is in stark contrast to the glaring, headache inducing brightness of the day in which he has no rest or peace. I have this funny image in my head of being wrapped in black velvet, in a cocoon of closeness and quietude that grounds me and hides me from the things that consume me by day.

Next time you are awake at night in bed, let that enveloping darkness be a welcome comfort, especially if you struggle with anxiety, grief, or feel completely burdened by the works of the day. Think of Vaughan and Nicodemus. Await Jesus at his knocking time, with his hair damp from the night air. Take refuge in the utter mystery of God’s deep but dazzling darkness by rejecting the need for busy-ness, for easy explanations, for mastering and controlling the world around you. I am thankful for Vaughan’s reminder.

3 thoughts on “Henry Vaughan’s The Night

  1. It occurs to me that Vaughan’s reference to the Lord’s “head wet with dew,” his soft call and knocking in the night directly quote from Song of Solomon 5:2-3. When we, like Vaughan, most long to find the Lord, he comes to us on his own terms. An old hymn begins, “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he turned my soul to seek him, seeking me.” Thank you for your introduction to this lovely poem.

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