To many, Barbara Brown Taylor is a leading theologian, an accomplished speaker, and an excellent writer with over a dozen books to her name. The TIME MAGAZINE cover for April 28, 2014 features an article about her life, and about her interest in “darkness” as a means of finding God.
To me . . . she is a very approachable professor at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. She taught my eldest daughter in a World Religions class about a decade ago, and I can honestly say that making her acquaintance was a delight. It pleases me to see her featured in TIME, and so highly acclaimed in the aforementioned article where she is put on the same footing as my favorite religious writer, Frederick Buechner, and others of great renown.
I certainly agree with her assessment of “darkness” and its importance in finding God. But I do not wish to cover once again the ground she has most ably covered in her writings (her latest book is Learning How to Walk in the Dark).
All I can offer is my own experience with darkness.
And it is one which began at a very early age.
As far back as I can remember I have found personal engagement with darkness very satisfying. Possibly this is because I had a penchant for escaping the light where I could be seen and compelled to do things I did not want to do. Darkness offered a cover for me. In addition, it quelled distractions which would have captured my attention in the light.
In the darkness I felt safe. Secure. It was like a blanket of protection around me. In the darkness I could be myself. Or . . . I could pretend to be anyone I liked.
In the darkness I was . . . free.
There are few things more enthralling than laying on the hood of a car (or on the ground) and staring up at the night sky. If the night is clear your eyes focus entirely on the light from the stars. And the longer you look, the longer you allow your eyes to acclimate to the dark screen in front of them, dotted with tiny specks of light – the more stars you will see. It is fascinating. An area which was formerly only a black space soon reveals a host of shining lights.
As Thomas Carlyle said, “The eternal stars shine out as soon as it is dark enough” (a quote mailed to me from my mother many years ago).
Darkness is the precursor to light, the necessary backdrop upon which light makes itself known. In the ancient Hebrew scriptures that describe the state of things before creation, “darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2).
Try this! Sit in the darkness during a thunderstorm. Make sure you are in a room with ample windows, or a glass door. Exhilarating. [My family scolds me for this, because experts say it is not wise to stand near a window during a lightning storm. So I would be remiss if I did not advise you to sit a safe distance away from windows, etc. There! Done!]
Even better is to be on a mountain and watch a storm roll into the valley below (we used to do this in the Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson, Arizona). The light display is unforgettable.
But it is only so because of the presence of darkness.
We live in a world of contrasts. Beauty and ugliness. Good and bad. Light and dark. As my black friend, Richard, used to say to me in Memphis, Tennessee years ago (we worked in a warehouse together, loading and unloading remanufactured Ford parts), “If the newspaper was all white there would be nothing to read. We need both white and black.”
Darkness is necessary, isn’t it?
But when darkness is a metaphor in our lives, a way to describe depression, difficult or unbearable experiences, evil or catastrophic tragedies – it takes on an added dimension. Often life’s pain is so deep it seems to take on a life of its own, or more accurately, it seems to take your life as its own.
Decades ago my friend Landon Saunders quoted the Indian poet Tagore, and his words have brought great encouragement to me ever since:
“Faith is the bird that senses the dawn, and sings while it is yet dark.”
Out of darkness comes light. Out of the depths comes deliverance. Out of the darkest cave comes illumination.
This theme is universal; it spans cultures and periods of time. Its ubiquitous nature is devoid of debate. It is something we all know.
But when we are in the darkness . . . we wonder if we will ever see the light of day.
Caving was never one of my favorite things to do (like it was for my brother, Ron). Caves disorient me; I lose my sense of direction and reference. And I don’t like that. Nevertheless I can say that after being in the dark for a long period of time, the path ahead of me illuminated solely by the eerie light cast by a carbide lamp, I immensely enjoyed the discovery of a small shaft of light which pointed the way out of the darkness.
One time we were in the belly of a cave, so deep in the darkness that I literally could not see the hand in front of my face. Our lamps were extinguished. We sat there . . . in silence for a time . . . then making some quiet conversation. But the weight of the still air was strangely heavy around me; I could actually feel the darkness. It was inescapable. I had no choice but to embrace it.
I have found the darkness in life to be that way, too, at times.
The popular poet Kahlil Gibran (in The Prophet) discussed this issue of darkness and pain with great eloquence, pointing out that “pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” He further said that if you were able to keenly observe your life with a sense of wonder, noting its daily miracles, “your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.”
Truly, I want to continue to learn how to walk in the dark.
I no longer spend much time in the dark, not like when I was younger. That is probably not to my credit. I do rise before dawn on most days, and that is indispensable for me. But I would do well to be more intentional about my time in the dark, especially in the evenings.
Make no mistake, the metaphoric darkness will, indeed, find us on its own timetable. But our intentional time embracing the darkness can prepare us for those moments beyond our control. And it can serve to assure us that –
“You don’t have to understand anything very complicated. All you’re asked is to take a step or two forward through the darkness and start digging in” (Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, pp. 73-74).
For when we take a step or two through the darkness . . . we are closer and closer to the light that does indeed eventually come.
And oh, how glorious is That Light!