Perhaps you saw the recent CNN report on the disappearance of darkness around the globe. For an increasing number of people, the night sky is no longer brilliantly visible. Artificial lighting has driven away the black. The stars are vanishing.
I thought of this report while reading Fr Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessel. At sunset the Desert Fathers would pray for two or so hours, then go to sleep for a few hours, awaken and spend the rest of the night in vigil, praise, and meditation. “Biblical man and the Fathers slept, certainly, like every human being,” comments Bunge, “yet for them the night was also the preferred time for prayer” (p. 79). Why preferred? Because it is in the darkness that the mind (nous) becomes most open to spiritual realities. Bunge quotes a passage from one of the letters of Barsanuphius and John:
Sleep flees from the one who, like Jacob, watches his flocks at night, and if it still takes hold of him, then this sleep is for him like waking is for someone else. The fire with which his heart burns simply does not allow him to be submerged in sleep. Indeed, he sings psalms with David: “Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” The one who has arrived at this degree and has tasted its sweetness understands what has been said. For such a one has not become drunk with material sleep, but only makes use of natural sleep.
St John Cassian shared with his fellow monks a story about St Anthony the Great, passed down to him by Abba Isaac:
So that you may grasp, however, what the condition of true prayer is, I will present to you, not my teaching, but that of blessed Anthony. From him we know that he sometimes continued so long in prayer that we often heard him cry out in an ardent spirit, when he prayed in ecstasy and the light of the rising sun began to pour forth: “Why do you hinder me, O sun, since you only rise this early so as to draw me away from that clarity of the true light?”
Evagrius Ponticus makes explicit the connection between nighttime and noetic illumination: “The world created in the mind seems difficult to see by day, the nous being distracted by the senses and by the sensible light that shines; but at night it can be seen, luminously imprinted at the time of prayer” (Kephalaia Gnostica V.42).
For the past nine months I have been rising early (usually between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m.) to spend time reciting the Jesus Prayer. (That I am presently doing this is hardly virtuous, given the severity of my insomnia. I might as well get up and pray as lay in bed thinking about thinking about whatever.) I find the darkness comforting. But I cannot yet testify to any special experiences of noetic illumination. A Desert Father I am not.