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I am not Afraid of the Dark

May 28, 2014

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Earlier this spring, Amazon let me know that one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, had a new book coming out.  It immediately went into my wish list–I had read three or four of her other books:  An Altar in The World, Leaving Church, and Bread of Angels (one of her greatest hits of sermons books), and they all helped shape my spiritual growth and development.

In my onslaught of spring reading, I kinda forget about the release date of Learning to Walk in the Dark until it showed up as a recommended book from our public library.  I reserved the book, and eagerly dove into it last weekend, anticipating the poetry and wisdom of Brown Taylor’s words.

I didn’t like the book.

I can’t communicate how sad it makes me to say that.  In my time since I finished the book (in fact, I skimmed the end because I was just done with it, but I had to read it, just in case…), I’ve been asking myself why I didn’t like it.  What does that say about me?  Bear with me as I attempt to process the book, with stories of my own darkness.

I grew up in a rural community.  While it wasn’t extremely rural–we were a mere two hours from Washington, DC, home to a state university, and had a population of around 25,000 during my youth.  We were a farming community though, tucked in a Valley, with mountains making the sky smaller in every direction I looked.  It was a short drive back into the mountains–either down in a hollow or the top of one.  In August and December, we would look for the darkest spots we could find for the best viewing of meteor showers.

I wasn’t ever scared of the dark–darkness brought it’s own magic–the fireflies of dusk, the opening of the night blooming cirrus, the first stars emerging, a view of the milky way, the moon glowing gently on us, and even playing hide and seek/tag games in the dark.  I worked at a camp for two summers, tucked back into the mountains were no lights from the “city” could reach us.  At night, we had the warmth of lanterns and then nothing.  I chose not to use a flashlight–I liked seeing if I could make it to my destination without ample of light.  I could often see the light on the bathhouse, guiding me to the bathrooms, but whether or not I stayed on a path to get there was anyone’s guess.

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Even now, I love night and darkness.  Camping gives us a chance to turn off lights, following the natural light.  Granted we use a lantern, a flashlight, or a fire for light when we want light.  However, we also enjoy walking through the darkness, watching the stars emerge.  On the cold nights, or rainy nights, we go to bed much earlier than we normally would.  I huddle in my sleeping bag, somewhat awake, wondering when sleep will come.  A few years ago, we camped in a wetter area than we usually do.  There was pond close by and once the stars came out, the pond came alive with noises.  I set out, with my flashlight off, to listen to the cacophony of frogs and insects, whose noise was almost deafening.  Every couple of years, we try to camp at the darkest place in the continental United States, to sleep in the dark and to look at stars.

I have found over the years that the darkness that comes at night is neither silent nor pitch black dark.  There is always light in the darkness–from the stars and moon.  One those cloudy evenings when the moon is obscured, there is some light, trapped from escaping by the clouds.  Even in the darkest part of the ocean, out of the reach of sunlight, animals create their own light in strange ways.  The darkest place I can think of is hotel rooms….not sleeping outdoors without my own light sources.  Between the blackout curtains (I know they’re not really that, but that’s how I think of them) and poorly placed bright, bright lights, sleeping in a hotel room is dark place.  Granted, there’s the glow of the alarm clock, but even with that, it seems much darker than sleeping outside.

Darkness has multiple uses in language though–it not only describes a physical state, darkness also describes an emotional, mental, and/or spiritual state.  Again, I am not afraid of this darkness either.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t eagerly look for spiritual darkness like I seek out physical darkness.   I don’t view spiritual darkness as an adventure nor do I find it much fun.  I have had my share of spiritual darkness–it may not have been as severe or dramatic as others, I have never lost a child, which I think would be the most darkness I could ever encounter–but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been visited by darkness.

However, I know the spiritual darkness is part of it.  I don’t remember who talks about “leaning in” to the darkness, whether it was Sarah Bessey or Micha Boyett or Brene Brown (or all of the above).  I have learned in my dark times over the years, those times when I wondered why God was so distant from me, why I seemed so alone, so cold, to not fight the darkness.  I learned this with acedia I struggled with a couple of years ago–that listlessness and loneliness of a day–to say it’s name, to take deep breaths, and to let acedia know I wasn’t scared of it.  From my dear women and my authors who are my best friends (they just don’t know it), I’ve learned to relax and let the darkness be.  I watch for the first stars to emerge, for the noise of the frogs to begin, for sleep to come.

I have not known the darkness of caves deep underground or blindness.  I do not know what total absence of light is like, in either physical or spiritual darkness.  There has always been some light, trickling through a crack, whether it be the first stars of the night, a sliver of moon, the songs of frogs, the kind word of a friend, a meal delivered to our house, or the morning after a rain (that ever present gratitude list I cling to whenever darkness comes).  I can not imagine the cold that would come if no light were present.  The darkness is fleeting for me, it may seem to last ages, but light and warmth will come again, in some form or another.  Always.

And the book?  I am still not sure why I didn’t like.  Maybe it was the vulnerability that was present that made me uncomfortable.  Maybe it was Brown Taylor’s attempts to create darkness that felt contrived.  Maybe it was the assumption that I too was afraid of the dark and tried to avoid it.  Maybe I just can’t identify with it right now.  Whatever, the reason, I am thankful it was a library book.  I am thankful I read it, so I could remember my experiences with darkness.  For it is looking back we often find our way forward.  It is remembering the darkness, the pain, won’t last forever, that allows us to sink into the darkness without fear.

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O bent by fear and sorrow, now bend down.

 

Leave word and argument, be dark and still,

And come into the joy of healing shade.

Rest from your work.  Be still and dark until

 

You grow as unopposing, unafraid

As the  young trees, without thought or belief,

Until the shadow Sabbath light has made

 

Shudders, breaks open, shines in every leaf

VI  (1980) by Wendell Berry in A Timbered Choir:  Sabbath Poems, pg. 31.

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