I woke up at 5:30 that morning of my first day in India. I had a solid 15 hours of jet-lagged sleep and was ready for this new day. My hosts Bruce and Anne Johanson had told me they enjoy sipping tea on the balcony in the early morning hours, and when I slipped out onto our shared balcony, I found them already there.
It was still pitch dark, and the sounds of night filled the air — the chirping and whirring of insect wings punctuated by the splashing of frogs. I took my place on the balcony overlooking a rice paddy in swamp stage, a pond that I had barely noticed as I stumbled from taxi to bed the afternoon before. I sat in the dark and listened to the music of the night singers.
Suddenly, just at 6:00, the cry of a bird announced a program change. The slow, rising quer quer quer of the Southern Coucal filled the air, and a few minutes later it was answered by the high-pitched drum roll of the Brown-headed Barbet. The Asian Koel joined in, pounding out its quouw quouw against the background warble of the Bulbul, and the pale light of dawn began to break. Not that we ever saw the sun. We were facing west, into the Arabian Sea, and the sun was well behind us, shrouded in early morning mist. Dawn suggested its presence in the forms that quietly emerged from the landscape around us. The outlines of the rice paddy began to take shape, and the palms around the pond appeared against the sky. The pond, the trees, and the field beyond were revealing themselves to be the home of hundreds of birds. Suddenly the cormorant made a dramatic and singular entrance, flying in from his resting place somewhere beyond the field and hovering low over the entire pond. He carefully scouted out the most promising place to fish and dove in. His solitary loon-like shape became a landmark in the pond. By this time daylight had fully arrived, and the birds were in full cry, the solo singers ringing out against the background chorus of the swamp hens chattering with each other. By 7:00 it was all over. Every part of the landscape was brightly lit and the birds fell silent, their work done.
The Southern Coucal
We looked at each other. Wow! What just happened! They knew. They had seen this drama play out many times before, but my body clock was now setting to a new time. This morning ritual was something not to be missed. For the rest of my stay I woke up naturally a bit after 5:00 to listen to the sounds of the night before watching the unfolding of the dawn.
Thomas Merton discusses a similar experience in his monastic home in Kentucky. He describes the songs of the more familiar birds of the American south and connects this dawn with the dawn of creation when birds first come awake and seek from their Creator permission to be:
The first chirps of the waking day birds mark the ‘point vierge’ of the dawn under a sky as yet without real light, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes. They begin to speak to Him, not with fluent song, but with an awakening question that is their dawn state, their state at the ‘point vierge.’ Their condition asks if it is time for them to ‘be.’ He answers ‘yes.’ Then, they one by one wake up, and become birds. They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing. Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.
Meanwhile, the most wonderful moment of the day is that when creation in its innocence asks permission to ‘be’ once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was.
Though the Kentucky birds are different in Merton’s account from the ones I was hearing in India, the experience is similar. He too, marvels at that instant in time that marks the transition from darkness to light and traces it back to the first creation morning when the birds awaken to life for the first time. Before bursting into song, they ask their Creator, “Is now the time? Is it time to be?” Now, in India as in Kentucky, they continue to ask the same question at the dawn of each new day, and the Creator who in the darkness of the night has opened their eyes responds with a resounding “Yes.” Now is the time to be. One by one, they take on their life as birds and in dialogue with their Creator they sing their songs and stretch their wings, happy to be birds on this new day.
Merton calls this moment of awakening the point vierge of the day, the instant when the dark becomes light, the moment when the soul meets God and recognizes that he has been there throughout the night. It is the moment of encounter and recognition, of awareness and gratitude. The root of this new day lies in the darkness of the night that comes before it. This is not the darkness of isolation and abandonment. It is the darkness that God created to partner with light in the fullness of each new day. The darkness of the pre-dawn hours covers us like a blanket and hides the shapes and forms of the world around us, shielding us from the work that the morning light will bring to us. Now, we can simply rest.
The time of darkness before dawn is sometimes called the time of vigils, the liminal time when the veil between night and day, darkness and light is the thinnest. Many have found these hours a good time of prayer. God is waiting for us in the darkness. It is a time of waiting and watching for the light. Sometimes, with longing we cry out for the hours of waiting to be over with. The dawn can’t come too soon.
But the darkness has its own source of light in the starry skies overhead, reminding us how limitless this darkness really is and assuring us that this, too, is where we find God. And maybe in the darkness we realize something more of his limitless mystery. The darkness hides from us even our own bedroom furniture, but it can’t hide God. He comes to us in the darkness, and while we pray for the light, he reminds us that he is here with us in the dark and that he is sufficient.
So we wait in the time of vigil until the dawn deacons alert us to the light to come and invite us to stir and ask if it is time to be yet. We have been listening to the sounds of the night and waiting for the signs of the new day. And it comes every day, as it has since creation morning, without any help from us. It is pure gift. Our only response is gratitude — gratitude for the day before us, for the beauty of the light, and for our own being. None of it is to be taken for granted. If the night watch has cultivated in us a trustful waiting, the morning light calls forth praise. Gratitude is the work of the hour and with it comes joy and awareness.
“‘Wisdom,’ cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend,” says Merton. The work of the birds as “dawn deacons” ends at 7:00, and the world of human time and purpose swings into full gear. We hear the padding of feet passing underneath the balcony and the rattle of pots and pans replacing the sounds of the birds. We are back on clock time. The distant streetlight clicks off and we listen to the rumbling of cars and carts. People have their work and agendas for the day. We can look at our watches and know the time. But this day will be different. We have experienced the point vierge. We have shared in what Merton calls “an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it: we are off ‘one to his farm and another to his merchandise.’” But we are in on the secret. Perhaps this day’s activity will not be simply devoted to the farm and the merchandise of human preoccupations. Perhaps this day will open us to the mystery of creation week, of living in the presence of God.
The encounter with God in the darkness leads us to walk through the day with a new perspective. Like the birds, we linger a moment to connect with the Creator and wait for his “Yes” before entering the work-a-day world of human affairs, and the moment of encounter brings a new awareness of the presence of God. We see the work on our to-do list and the people around us in a new light. We see through the eyes of Christ that the people we meet are our brothers and sisters — that they, too, are in the image of God. Our perspective grows to embrace them in the eternal love of our Creator.
We have encountered the love and mercy of God in the darkness, and the fears and insecurities, jealousies and doubts that can trip up a day disappear in the wider perspective of God’s grace. Our hearts are being transformed into the image of God. We hear the wisdom of the dawn deacon. We know that the gates of paradise have been opened. As Jacob’s encounter with the Angel in the dark night by the River Jabbok changes him, we, too, emerge with a new name, ready to face what has terrified us in the darkness, and we find that the enemy we have feared is our brother (Gen. 32-33).
Beverly Beem has just retired from the English department at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.
Photo Credit: All photos by Bruce Johanson and used here with permission.
 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 131-32.
 A French term, usually translated as the virgin point or the virgin heart.
 See David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Days (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2002), pp. 20-27; 32-43. See especially the chapters on Vigils and Lauds.
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