It was midnight — the "witching hour."
But it didn't feel spooky at the old Mission San Luis Rey in Southern California. In fact, the atmosphere seemed filled with "holy darkness," as some faiths call it.
I know conventional wisdom associates spirituality with light. That's natural. Light lets us see and warms us. It purifies things. But there's another facet of the spiritual that seems to thrive in the silence and depths of night.
Think of the "holy night" when Jesus was born.
Think of Nicodemus coming to the Savior for counsel and wisdom late at night.
Think of the miracle of the Passover, or the Last Supper.
That was the kind of darkness at San Luis Rey — not Halloween, but more Hallowed Evening.
I went to visit the mission at night because I wouldn't have time the next day, and I wanted to get to know the place. In the amber lighting, the white walls looked like bread dough about to turn golden in the oven. Shadows hovered in the nooks and crannies and under the eaves, giving the place air of mystery and awe.
I felt perfectly safe and secure there — until a man appeared out of nowhere.
I quickly learned he was the self-appointed guardian of the mission gates. He just wanted to make sure I wasn't out to bring mischief onto holy ground.
I assured him I was not. I was simply enjoying the mission at midnight.
I suspect he liked the mission at midnight as well.
"Prayer is a 'dark path' where we must give up all props and pretension, all assumptions and preconceptions," writes Chris Erdman, a seeker and author. "When we think we've got a view of God, all will go dark — for God cannot be seen."
I remember reading that darkness often gets a bad rap in our culture. There is, in many traditions, a belief in "sacred darkness."
The thinking goes like this:
White simply reflects all colors back. But black absorbs the light, takes it in.
Black, in such traditions, represents our ability to absorb light and hold it deep inside.
As I left San Luis Rey, I noticed that many other buildings in the area had been built to resemble the old mission. The firehouse looked like a mission. So did the shops in the strip mall.
In the dark, they all looked tranquil, cool and inviting.
Driving away I remembered that our Mormon stake will be the first in Brigham City to clean the new temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and some of the cleaning assignments will run past midnight and into the early morning.
But just as with San Luis Rey, I don't think there will be feelings of foreboding inside the temple at that hour.
I suspect, in fact, it will feel like Christmas Eve — a "midnight clear," with angels hovering near the earth.