Staying in the light feels harder than ever right now. How can we do it? This reflection is grounded in ancient wisdom but its main metaphor comes from modern literature. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are about the struggle between darkness and light, between hate and love. In the scene below that struggle is between “patronus” and “dementor.”
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ancient myths portray the struggle between forces of darkness and light. The metaphor has always represented the conflict between the way of hate and the way of love, the way of oppression and the way of freedom, the way of destruction and the way of harmony—the choice between what sucks the life out of our soul and what fills us with meaning and purpose.
Of course real darkness is full of blessings, and is an integral part of a whole and healthy life, and darkness and light are bound together in a beautiful way as the Taoist symbol so brilliantly portrays. We need to recognize that the classic metaphor is as limited and incomplete as it is useful and true.
The metaphor also includes some irony: the crusade of white supremacy for domination has been a force of soul-crushing darkness, and the great dark-skinned leaders for freedom like Gandhi, King and Mandela, or Diane Nash, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer—or Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammed—have been among the most light-filled humans in all history. And yet many white Christians act with hate toward people simply because of their dark skin.
The same dominant, oppressive culture has treated nature as a threatening darkness. Instead of lovingly tending and stewarding earth as a gift of light and the source of all life, it has subdued, exploited and destroyed it, sending all species including our own to the brink of eternal darkness in extinction.
We need to see that we are part of the same struggle for light and love as those who created the earliest myths and all the liberation movements of the past.
We have tremendous diversity of roles to play, but we each need a way to keep in the light when the darkness threatens to overcome us. I find this metaphor useful, so I share it in the hope you may as well:
The Dementors We Face
Dementors are instruments of darkness that block us from the light or suck the light out of us.
J. K. Rowling describes dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban saying, “They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them…. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soul-less and evil.” (page 187)
We can find dementors lurking in the news, on social media, in certain relationships or recurring situations, at home, at school, at work, in our community—they can appear anywhere and will be different for different people.
Our dementors are not external, though, they are internal. They reside in the response we have to the world. They breed in our darkest thoughts and feelings. The Nazi death camps were designed to suck the soul out of people and render them hopeless and turn them evil, but as Viktor Frankl shows in Man’s Search for Meaning, the dementors were inside each death camp inmate, which made heroic those inmates who found within them an even greater power of light.
The Patronus: The Defense against the Dementors
J.K. Rowling defines the “patronus” as “a kind of anti-dementor—a guardian that acts as a shield between you and the dementor…. The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the dementor feeds upon—hope, happiness, the desire to survive.” (p 237)
A patronus harnesses the life-force of light and makes it available to humans who are trained and practiced in its magic. It comforts and guides as well as empowers—three of the qualities attributed to the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John.
A patronus is what it looks like when we are instruments of the Spirit of light flowing through us.
The Patronus Charm is the way people learn to work with this force of light and let it flow. The charm is made up of two parts—first, tools and practices; and second, the focus of our intention and attention on the light.
The equivalent for us of Harry’s wand, word and motion includes a vast array of inner resources that help people who are struggling with anxiety or depression, like Cognitive Behavior Therapy or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, each with its own set of inner tools and practices. These are more elaborate than a flick of a wand and the words, “Expecto Patronum,” but their effect is comparable.
For example, if something in the news fills you with darkness and despair, you can go into nature or sit in your most comfortable chair and look around you and notice in detail the beauty and feel the relaxation of that moment of peace, or you can examine your thinking to clear cognitive distortions that are feeding the dementor, distortions like ignoring the positive or blowing the negative out of proportion and “catastrophizing.”
Talking with a good friend or counselor can also help, or feeling solidarity with others who are with you in the light. There are many different tools and practices, and different ones work for different people.
The most important part of the Patronus Charm, though, is the focus of attention on, or complete immersion in, the light. This focus has two steps.
First, we need to turn down the volume on the dementorish thoughts and feelings. Skills like mindfulness and meditation give us the ability to keep our attention focused on the light when dementors attack. In the Christian contemplative tradition these practices include heartfulness, Centering Prayer and the Welcoming Practice among others—they are all ways to self-empty and open ourselves to transformation by a higher power of light.
The second step in J. K. Rowling’s formula is the specific light that we invoke. It is not enough to be nice or fun, it has to be a heart’s core connection to a central part of the meaning, purpose and hope of our lives. We need to focus until that light fills our heart, mind, soul and body with its power. In the film clip above it is a memory of Harry’s parents.
In Centering Prayer and the Christian mystical tradition this has a fascinating twist. The way to focus on the most powerful light is to unfocus. It is to enter into the darkness of “a cloud of forgetting and a cloud of unknowing” leaving our awareness simply open to the unseen presence of the light that shines in the darkness, the light of God. We cannot access that highest power except through our deepest, unfocused openness.
We cannot do any of this without the discipline of study and practice, but the more we master our inner patronus, the more powerful a force of light we become in the world, and the more our own life is characterized by light.
This is what the world most needs from us now.