“Learning to Walk in the Dark” is the latest book by Barbara Brown Taylor to come my way. I had read “An Altar in the World” earlier and found it wonderfully refreshing. Just the image of an altar in the woods or meadows, even on the beach or a mountain top, seemed so appropriate in a time when some seem to believe Christianity is best known behind closed doors; often closed to specific kinds of people; and in the meantime we cut down the forests, pollute the oceans, and continue to trash God’s good Creation.
We were talking about Taylor’s book “Holy Envy” at the Brookings Interfaith Council meeting the other evening. What is it we like about other faith traditions? It was a helpful conversation that allowed me to look closely at the gifts other traditions have given me, especially the practice of meditation I’ve adopted (or more likely, adapted) from Zen Buddhism. For me, it has been a practice of “listening” prayer, where one keeps the mouth shut and ears open.
As I was leaving the meeting I was handed another Taylor book that I just finished. This one is titled “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” Darkness has bad press! People are afraid of the dark; it’s when bad things happen. Darkness is the home of sin. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the darkness makes us soul-less.
Taylor deliberately explores the dark, including going caving, (not without considerable fright and trepidation), where she experiences total darkness. She spends an evening watching the darkness approach as the sun begins to set; observing the sunlight as it leaves and the darkness descends. She is more attentive to the seasons of the moon and the kind of light it gives to the earth. She ponders how we are so attached to artificial light, whether night lights along the floor, a lit clock or watch face, a light switch within a few steps all over the home. Oh, and don’t forget security lights that automatically come on with the slightest movement outside.
Reading this book reminded me of my camping experiences, especially in New Hampshire. For a few years I spent my summers working for the American Youth Foundation at one of their camps in the White Mountains. The campers lived in what looked like covered wagons, spread throughout the woods. Since most of the campers came from more developed environments, it was important they became comfortable with the darkness of their environment, especially as the woods closed out even the shimmer of the moon. I don’t think it was on my job description, but I became the person who took campers on night hikes.
The first rule was, “no flashlights!” We would start our walk in the meadow where we could see, and gradually follow the trail into the darkest part of the woods, all the way in the darkness for what seemed like half a mile, to the openness of the beach on Dan Hole Pond. Along the way we would stop and listen for sounds. The frog hopping in the leaves sounded like a raccoon, or even a bear to some. One camper would travel some distance away from the group and light a match, so we would see how one small light illuminated a whole area of the forest. The feel of the feet on the path became more important than the eyes for telling the trail. By the time we returned to the meadow campers had a better developed sense of comfort in the darkness. Besides, they could always use a flashlight in an emergency to help them find their way to the outhouse in the middle of the night.
The camp was also the place where I chose to retreat for a few days one winter. I stayed in the director’s cabin; no heat except the fireplace; no running water, so I got it with a bucket from the lake; no electricity for lighting; no clock or watch. I rose with the dawn and retired with the dark.
One evening I read until late and the fire died. When I awoke, thoroughly rested, it was still dark outside. I made a fire, put the coffee pot in, and started reading. After one chapter, two, three; it didn’t appear that it had gotten any lighter outside. I went out to look. I could still see stars out over the lake and there was no light in the East. Curious, I went back inside to read some more. It was still dark as I read the last chapter. It was then that I wrote a poem titled, “What if the Sun Didn’t Rise?”
The sun; it’s our source of light and life, isn’t it? Even the moon reflects it. Hanging in our dining room window, we have a glass star given to us by our daughter. There are several facets that make up the points of the star. As it hangs in the window in the early morning sun, as it swings around from the energy of the heat radiating up from below, it casts these wonderful moving bubbles of light all over the dining room walls and everything in it. Some of that light goes into the darkest corners of the room. It’s mesmerizing!
I know people like that! They can throw light in the darkest corners of our world. They can take us on night hikes through the forests of our lives and help us feel the path and learn to love the dark as much as the light. I think maybe they can do this because they have gone caving. They learned to enter total darkness and experienced a new kind of light that comes from the inside out, not the other way around.
As Taylor says, “It takes practice to keep stepping into la noche oscura, to keep seizing the night as well as the day. My hope is that when the last big step comes, both my legs and my heart will know the way.”
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