I recently finished reading Learning to Walk in the Dark, in which Barbara Brown Taylor pursues literal, physical darkness as a spiritual discipline. She explores the gifts of lunar spirituality to counteract the American church’s preference for full solar spirituality. There are things to learn in the darkness that you’re not going to find when you’re always trying to stay the bright light.
To my favorite biblical passage about darkness, “Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21 NIV), I got to add this one:
And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name. (Isaiah 45:3 NLT)
Brown Taylor goes for walks in the dark, spends a night in a cabin with no electricity, and reads about the Dark Night of the Soul, but the part of the book that is sticking with me the most is her discussion of wild caving (going into the parts of caves that are not nicely prepped for tourists). She quotes Barbara Hurd’s book, Entering the Stone:
When you’re stuck in a squeeze, the best response is to study the rock and pay attention to where you are and how your body feels.
Which is also good advice for those stuck in an emotional squeeze of grief and pain. The more you thrash against the constriction, the more you panic, the less able you are to see how you will get through.
It’s also the source of my new favorite phrase: The only way out is the way in. Brown Taylor also puts it another way: The only way out is through. In caving, you literally exit by backtracking. Emotionally and spiritually, it means that the only way out of the dark emotions is through them — not denying them, not burying them, not pretending they have no sway. But examining them, there in the dark, seeing what they are saying about you, about your circumstances, what they might be telling you about God. (Note that she differentiates between this process and depression: her book is not a suggestion to forgo medication if you need it.) Her final wish for us is that we get curious about our darkness.
I found this wonderfully freeing. I’ve always been a rather passional feeler of my feelings, and in the last five months, I’ve certainly let wash over me whatever the daily wave of feeling was: grief, sadness, pain, joy, determination. Not denying them. Not pretending them away. I appreciate Brown Taylor’s assurance that this can be a spiritually healthy practice.
So, of course, now I read about darkness everywhere.
In How To Live Life, John Vorhaus talks about facing a situation we’re sure is hopeless:
If this feeling is strong enough, it snuffs out all thoughtful reflection. Night descends and the spirit quails, brought low by the assumption of failure (p.30).
You don’t need to fix a problem the minute you see it. (Yikes! I’m in a bad situation! Must flee!) And you don’t have to assume that it can’t be solved. You can choose to look at your circumstances frankly and gently, with acceptance….It’s so weird. We won’t look at ourselves honestly for fear of feeling worse, yet every time we look at ourselves honestly, we end up feeling better (p.70)
Vorhaus is so wonderfully blunt: ask yourself the big questions, dare to answer them, use your imagination and your curiosity, gather information to equip yourself with new insights, eagerly engage with the world and investigate any mystery it presents (including the mystery of you).
It’s even showing up in my fiction. I’ve been reading the last books of the City Watch books of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and Commander Sam Vimes confronts darkness, his and a mythic darkness, very directly. In Thud!, he becomes possessed by an ancient entity called the Summoning Dark — but not taken over. As a copper who’s worked the night shift most of his career, he knows all about darkness, both literal and internal. He knows the darkness in his soul, and he’s prepared to shake hands with it, use the zeal it gives him to pursue justice, but to not let it overtake him so that he ignores his values. This enables him to use the Summoning Dark, and to develop a relationship with it, without it possessing him. The S.D. leaves when it discovers how at home Sam is in his own darkness, but it gives him a scar, and gives him gifts: Sam can see in the dark, and converse with the S.D. when he needs to for a case.
This is the conversation from Thud! between the S.D. and inside-Sam (the first line is his):
“…Who watches the watchmen? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”
“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”
“One who fears the dark.”
“And so he should,” said the entity, with satisfaction.
“Indeed. But I think you misunderstand. I am not here to keep the darkness out. I am here to keep it in.” There was a clink of metal as the shadowy watchman lifted a dark lantern and opened its little door. Orange light cut through the blackness. “Call me… the Guarding Dark. Imagine how strong I must be.”
The Summoning Dark backed desperately into the alley, but the light followed it, burning it.
“And now,” said the watchman, “get out of town.”
I also love this one, from Snuff, about the distinction between being acquainted with the dark and being the darkness:
he wondered if one day that darkness would break out and claim its heritage, and he wouldn’t know … the brakes and chains and doors and locks in his head would have vanished and he wouldn’t know.
Right now, as he looked at the frightened child, he feared that moment was coming closer. Possibly only the presence of Feeney was holding the darkness at bay, the dreadful urge to do the hangman out of his entitlement of a dollar for the drop, thruppence for the rope and sixpence for his beer. How easy it is to kill, yes, but not when a smart young copper who thinks you are a good guy is looking to you. At home, the Watch and his family surrounded Vimes like a wall. Here the good guy was the good guy because he didn’t want anyone to see him being bad. He did not want to be ashamed. He did not want to be the darkness.
Don’t you just love it when everything seems to conspire to communicate with you about the same topic?
And don’t get me started on the other one — ASK. This post is already too long.