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‘Longest Night’ service aims to shed light on dark times

Annual Brattleboro program set for Sunday aims to comfort people grieving a death, divorce, or other distress.

BRATTLEBORO—Carolers sing “Tis the season to be jolly.” Unless you’re grieving a death. Or divorce. Or job loss, health challenge, hunger, homelessness, or separation from a loved one.

“There’s all sorts of sadness,” Devin Starlanyl says.

The member and lay minister at Brattleboro’s St. Michael’s Episcopal Church knows seasonal tunes declaring “all is merry and bright” don’t comfort those feeling otherwise. That’s why she and her peers are organizing a “Longest Night” service for the public this weekend.

“There can be a lot of reasons to be down,” Starlanyl says. “You could have seasonal affective disorder or be worried about getting older or just sick of the commercialization of Christmas — ‘buy, buy, you can’t have enough’ and all these door-buster sales, like you really want to bust down a door?”

The fourth annual service, scheduled for the Sunday closest to the winter solstice and shortest day of the year, is a nondenominational program of spiritual and secular readings and music.

“We have come here, the longest night, to name the loss and sorrow in our lives when the world around us celebrates joy and happiness,” its opening words state. “We have come here, the longest night, to acknowledge the darkness as we also claim the light that follows the night.”

The event annually draws between 40 and 50 people who, during a candle-lighting ceremony, speak of everything from losing family members and friends to struggling with addiction, depression, and myriad physical and mental diagnoses.

“The holiday season can magnify what is going on in our lives, including pain and loss,” says Phillip Wilson, a retired priest who will lead the program. “Sadness and memories may seem overwhelming at a time when joy and celebration are expected. And when you have to hide it, it’s the most difficult.”

Organizers have written most of the service themselves, including new words to the 1872 English carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” But they’ll also share a Jewish Hassidic story about Adam.

“How frightened he must have been when, for the first time, he saw the sun disappear,” it says in part. “How could he accept the night, when he had never seen a dawn?”

And they’ll quote the late Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke wrote. “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

The program is set for Sunday, Dec. 17, at 4 p.m. at Brattleboro’s St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. Organizers stress they won’t hold a collection or have any expectations of those who attend.

“It doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe — everybody’s welcome,” Starlanyl says. “We want to provide a place of quiet, comfort, support, and validation that you’re not alone. Times being as they are, I expect the need has only increased.”

Adds Wilson: “It’s honoring the broken place but also the hope of new light. It’s not Christian-centric, it’s merely human.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #438 (Wednesday, December 13, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

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