Monday, May 2, 2016

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Learning to Walk in the Dark
Barbara Brown Taylor (2014, HarperOne)

    We don't give darkness much time or space in our lives these days. Electric lighting first appeared fourteen decades ago, television and computers and smart phones within living memory; light follows us everywhere we go, in a way that is historically new. Like quiet, darkness is now something we have to go to some trouble to experience.

    In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor explores the consequences of this shift for the natural world, and for our spiritual lives within it. After she'd left her job as rector of an Episcopal Church in 1998, she and her husband moved to a farm in the hills of rural Georgia, where the Milky Way is actually visible, and it makes sense to notice the seasons of the moon. That the flood-lit neighbors down the road deny themselves this part of country life is a minor irritation, but not much of a surprise. They very likely have never lived with real nighttime darkness.

    Nor, if they happen to be churchgoers, have they heard anything positive about it. The usual servings of holy writings tend to lead to what Taylor calls the 'full-solar version of Christianity.' (We heard just such a reading in today's lectionary. The twenty-second chapter of Revelation told of a vision that "there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun.") In the fundamentalist youth group where Taylor first experienced Christianity, darkness was regarded as a thing to be avoided at all costs, and the precursor to eternal damnation.

    Yet, she says, "even in the Bible, that is not the whole story about darkness." Abraham met God by starlight, and his grandson Jacob wrestled all night with the angel, in a way that changed the whole story of the world. And when Moses made his covenant with God, in the presence of the people of Israel, a cloud obscured the mountain-top. "While this darkness is dangerous, it is as sure a sign of God's presence as brightness is, which makes the fear of it different from the fear of snakes and robbers."

    Darkness can be mystical, then, and even holy. There are truths to be found there that are unavailable to the bright light of day, like the stars that shine unseen overhead, at noon. Taylor goes into one of the great caves of West Virginia with a guide; they stop several times to sit in the dark. "There is no way to tell time, which means there is no rush. There is no light, which means that I do not have to worry about how I look. There is no one beside me, which means that I do not have to come up with something to say. Above all, there is no threat."

     And what of the darkness that is a threat, when loss, pain, or sorrow makes it seem like God has departed for good? We can pray to be able to pray; we can read Job and the Psalms, with more resonance than before; we can look for trusted guides. "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."

     Such times come to all of us who live long enough, I think, and they are the crucible of wisdom. Taylor, now in her sixties, is wise about life, in a way I'm grateful for: "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."

    May we have grace to want a whole life.

Email, May 1, 2016

My reviews of some earlier books by Taylor:

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