If you are in the middle of your life, maybe some of your dreams of God have died hard under the weight of your experience. You have knocked on doors that have not opened. You have asked for bread and been given a stone. The job that once defined you has lost its meaning; the relationships that once sustained you have changed or come to their natural ends. It is time to reinvent everything from your work life to your love life to your life with God -- only how are you supposed to do that exactly, and where will the wisdom come from? Not from a weekend workshop. It may be time for a walk in the dark.
-- Barbara Brown Taylor
When we were in Tuscaloosa, my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding mentioned to me that he was reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. "That sounds like a book I need to read," I said. Not long thereafter, I found his copy in my mailbox, waiting for me to read it.
And oh, wow, did I need to read this book. The copy I was reading wasn't mine, so I didn't give in to the temptation to underline and highlight -- but if I had, it would be marked up everywhere, because so much of what Barbara Brown Taylor writes here resonates with me. Like this:
Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with your language for calling it to your aid... but darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.
Sometimes we feel that God is agonizingly absent from our lives, but this is a matter of epistemology, not ontology -- a matter of how we experience the world around us, not a genuine indicator of how that world actually is. This is a core tenet of my theology. I felt a happy spark of recognition, reading it in Brown Taylor's words.
Barbara Brown Taylor is clear that in our antipathy to darkness, we also manifest a discomfort with everything that isn't simple and solar and bright... but a full human life contains both light and darkness, both literally and metaphorically, and that's as it should be. She writes:
The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one's bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.
[W]hen we run from darkness, how much do we really know about what we are running from? If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn't there a chance that what we are running from is God?
Isn't there a chance that what we are running from is God? As a spiritual director, I adore that question. I want to return to it often.
On waking in the night, she writes:
What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them? What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going? Isn't there a chance of being surprised by what happens next? Better than that, what if I could learn how to stay in the present instead of letting my anxieties run on fast-forward?
What if I could learn to stay in the present: yes, that's it exactly.
Like any parent struck down by such loss, she woke up every morning in the salt sea of grief and went to bed in it every night, doing her best to keep her head above water in between. This went on for weeks, then months, during which time she could not help but notice how uncomfortable her grief was making those around her, especially when it did not dry up on schedule...
[She explored] the idea that emotions such as grief, fear, and despair have gained a reputation as "the dark emotions" not because they are noxious or abnormal but because Western culture keeps them shuttered in the dark[.]
It is easy to imagine (or to hope) that grief has a schedule and will go away on a set timetable. It does not, and it will not. But that doesn't make grief or sadness a bad thing: sometimes they are the only reasonable reaction to the realities in front of us. And I believe wholly that the only way through them is through them -- not pretending them away.
This puts me in mind of Jay Michaelson's writings about sadness. (I posted about that a while back -- see my review of his book The Gate of Tears.) We get ourselves into trouble when we resist our sadness and our grief, or when we imagine that we are supposed to be able to sidestep them, or when we imagine that they will go away on schedule.
Brown Taylor cites Greenspan here also on spiritual bypassing -- "using religion to dodge the dark emotions instead of letting it lead us to embrace those dark angels as the best, most demanding spiritual teachers we may ever know....It is the inability to bear dark emotions that causes many of our most significant problems, in other words, and not the emotions themselves." Yes, yes, and yes. (A lot of my reactions to this book boil down to yes!)
For those of us who cherish religious practice, there is real risk of spiritual bypassing -- using our religious rituals or practices to distract us from what we're feeling, or to paper over what we're feeling. But authentic spiritual life calls us to do something different: to bring what we're feeling into our religious practice, even when what we're feeling hurts. (I've written about this before: see Sitting with sadness in the sukkah, 2015.)
There's so much else in this book that speaks to me. Like this brief passage on Jacob's night-time wrestle with the angel that earned him the new name Yisrael, God-wrestler:
Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape? The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.
"Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things," Lusseyran wrote. One of his greatest discoveries was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid, the light decreased at once. Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind. When he was joyful and attentive, it returned as strong as ever. He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.
The best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love: yes, that feels right to me. I know that in my own darkest times, my own times when God's presence has felt so occluded as to seem absent altogether, my best way to open myself again to that presence is to cultivate love.
I don't want to minimize the dark night of the soul, and neither does she:
[T]he reality that troubles the soul most is the apparent absence of God. If God is light, then God is gone. There is no soft glowing space of safety in this dark night. There is no comforting sound coming out of it, reassuring the soul that all will be well. Even if comforting friends come around to see how you are doing, they are about as much help as the friends who visited Job on his ash heap. There is an impenetrability to the darkness that isolates the soul inside it. For good or ill, no one can do your work for you while you are in this dark place. It has your name all over it, and the only way out is through.
(She immediately distinguishes between the dark night of the soul as a spiritual condition, and depression as a medical condition, and I'm grateful that she does. Having experienced both, I can attest to the fact that they are qualitatively entirely different, even though some of their outward markers -- grief and tears chief among them -- are the same.)
In the end, what the darkness asks of us -- she says -- is simple presence:
When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God's protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God's presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.
I would argue that that's what life asks of us in general: our "dark" times, and our "light" ones alike.
Toward the end of the book, she writes about the moon -- which is a quintessential part of the Jewish religious calendar (and even more so the Muslim one), though not the Christian one, most of the time. The moon is a great teacher about the ebbs and flows of spiritual life. She writes:
Sometimes the light is coming, and sometimes it is going. Sometimes the moon is full, and sometimes it is nowhere to be found. There is nothing capricious about this variety since it happens on a regular basis. Is it dark out tonight? Fear not; it will not be dark forever. Is it bright out tonight; enjoy it; it will not be bright forever.
Is it dark out tonight? Fear not: it will not be dark forever. And even though darkness will inevitably return, so will its end. For me, right now, that is a profound theological statement about the return of hope and the hope for a future that is better than what we have known in the past. May it be so.