Shortly after I converted to Catholicism, I found myself hopelessly overwhelmed. I had three children under age three, a seemingly endless to-do list, and regularly felt like I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I’d begun to deal with my stress by spending too much time on the internet, and my prayer life had become almost nonexistent. As Lent approached that year, I spent a lot of time searching for how I could make it a time of reprioritization and renewal. I wanted to undertake a spiritual practice that would be drastic enough to break me out of my rut, but would also be reasonable for someone with my crazy lifestyle to undertake. And then, during one of my (all-too-rare) prayer times, I got an odd inspiration:
Turn out the lights.
I felt drawn to do occasional fasts from artificial light during Lent. After talking to my husband about it, we committed to foregoing all electric sources of light after sundown approximately once a week—and this included not only overhead lights, but glowing screens like computers or televisions as well. For safety’s sake we did leave nightlights on in the hallways while we slept, but in terms of illuminating our evening activities, it was all candlelight. The impact it had on our lives was more powerful than I could have imagined. To list just a few of the profound changes this simple once-a-week fast brought to our lives:
1. It forced us to limit our to-do lists. My 98-year-old grandfather often comments that life is much more hectic now than it was when he was growing up on a remote farm in the 1920s, and I think that electric light has a lot to do with that. The first thing I noticed during our artificial light fast was what a large amount of work I typically tried to accomplish after sundown. I found it impossible to tackle laundry by candlelight, and obviously any work on the computer was out. At first it was exasperating, but then I realized that I had been using artificial light to push myself way beyond reasonable human limits in terms of how much I tried to do in a day. On the days that I was forced to do only as much work as I could do during daylight hours, my life became naturally balanced, with times of rest complementing times of work.
2. It taught us humility. The first night I found myself facing an entire evening with no light, I was just about twitching with anxiety. But what about all that laundry? What about those dishes I didn’t get to? What about email?!?! I hadn’t realized how much I relied on myself and how little I relied on God until I was forced to give up control of my schedule. It was humbling to see that the universe actually did not fall apart at the seams without me working 16 hours a day, even when I didn’t get to those items on my to-do list that were “so important.”
3. It inspired us to live intentionally. On the days when I’d have artificial light to extend my work time as late as I wanted to, I tended to shuffle around the house aimlessly, getting to things when I got to them. But when I knew that my work would have to cease at sundown, with whatever didn’t get done being set aside until the next day, I approached my days much more purposefully.
4. It reduced our stress levels. At the time I was burdened by a lot of worries about everything from money to how I would get through the next day without collapsing from exhaustion. Yet every time we switched off the lights and lit the candles, an amazing thing would happen: My stress would be instantly cut in half. Something about the dim, natural glow and the movement of the flames made me feel deeply relaxed, even when I had been full of tension just moments earlier.
5. It carved out time for the things that matter. The two areas of life that were always threatened by our frantic schedules were prayer time and family time. Without being able to do much work or become distracted by glowing screens, we found that our candle-lit evenings left us plenty of time for our real priorities.
6. It helped break attachments to internet and television. Being forced to spend the occasional evening without the online world or TV gave us some much-needed time to re-evaluate the role that both of those things played in our lives. It made us see where we were over-using them, and forced us to develop new habits for entertainment and relaxation.
7. It improved our health. Studies have shown that our bodies depend on light cues to produce hormones that impact our entire systems, and when we throw them off with too much artificial light in the evening, it can contribute to everything from breast cancer growth to obesity. Though we probably didn’t go without light long enough to have a long-term impact on our health, we did see great short-term benefits. Nighttime snacking was almost entirely cut out, since, oddly, chips and dip by candlelight just didn’t have the same effect. We went to bed earlier, and found that it was easier to fall into deep sleep when we hadn’t been staring at glowing screens right before bed.
8. It made us viscerally aware of our need for God’s providence. Darkness can be scary when you can’t control it. I have rarely felt more powerless than when I would watch the last rays of sun disappear from the sky, knowing that I would be left in darkness that I could not banish at will. A reviewer of the book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past wrote:
The English called nightfall “shutting-in,” which literally meant the shutting-in of daylight but came to mean “the need for households to bolt portals against the advancing darkness.” All “doors, shutters, and windows were closed tight and latched,” and “seldom was God’s protection more valued than at night.” The fervor with which people prayed was deep and real: They feared violence, fire, death, even the possibility that the next day the sun itself would fail to rise. [emphasis mine]
Electric light gives us the illusion of having control over our lives, and I found going without it to be a stunning reminder of our littleness and powerlessness in the grand scheme of things.
Doing candlelight-only evenings isn’t easy, even when it’s only once a week; most of us have lifestyles that revolve around the availability of artificial light. But if you’re looking for something to add to your Lenten practices that will shake things up and help you see your whole life from a fresh perspective, I highly recommend turning out the lights.