Study Guide for “Learning to Walk in the Dark”Posted: October 13, 2014
Study Guide for Learning to Walk in the Dark
Barbara Brown Taylor teaches at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. She attended Emory University and then graduated from Yale Divinity School one year after myself. She was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood and served as a Parish Priest until she left parish ministry to teach full time and write. Our own Kimberly Allen Hudson was a student of Taylor’s at Piedmont. Barbara has been a prodigious writer:
• The Preaching Life. Cowley Publications. 1993.
• Gospel Medicine. Cowley Publications. 1995.
• Bread of Angels. Cowley Publications. 1997.
• God in Pain. Abingdon Press. 1998.
• Mixed Blessings. Cowley Publications. 1998.
• When God is Silent. Cowley Publications. 1998.
• Home By Another Way. Cowley Publications..
• Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. Cowley Publications. 2001.
• The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion. Cowley Publications. 2001.
• The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. Westminster. 2004.
• Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. HarperOne. 2007.
• An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. HarperOne. 2009.
• Learning to Walk in the Dark. HarperOne. 2014.
• Co-editor with David L. Bartlett, Feasting on the Word Commentary Series. Westminster John Knox Press. 2008.
Learning to Walk in the Dark is a short but intriguing almost autobiographical reflection about physical and spiritual darkness. Hopefully we will all find insight into the darkness in our own lives.
Page 2: I never questioned the need for all this light, since the dangerousness of the dark was more apparent to me inside the house than out. . . . Once the smell of my parents had faded away along with their footsteps; once I could feel their protection dissipate as they moved away from me; once it became apparent to me that they had check me off their list for the night and had turned their attention to other things, then all the loose darkness in that room started to collect in the closet and under the bed, pulling itself together with such magnetic malevolence that I could not keep my mind away from it.
Without benefit of maturity or therapy, I had no way of knowing that the darkness was as much inside me, or that I had any power to affect its hold on me. No one had ever taught me to talk back to the dark or even to breathe into it. The idea that it might be friendly was absurd. The only strategy I had ever been taught for dealing with my fear of the dark was to turn on the lights and yell for help. Even then, when my parents came back to ask what I was afraid of, they took my answers at face value. “There are no monsters under your bed,” they assured me, getting down on their knees to look. “There are no witches in your closet,” they said, opening the door to show me, as if scientific proof would make a bit of difference once they had turned out the lights and left the room again.
What were your experiences with the dark as a child? Were you afraid of the dark? Did you have particular going to bed rituals? Did you ever experience fears while trying to go to sleep? Do you think some fear of the dark is a natural human phenomenon? What would we do if we weren’t afraid?
Pages 3 – 4: Since I am only five years old in this memory, there is no telling what I might have said if they had asked me what color the monsters’ eyes were, of what the witches were planning to do to me. If they had, I might have learned to become more curious about what the darkness inside me was dishing up. I might have learned to look more deeply instead of looking away, but one thing my parents and I shared was the wish for a quick fix. They wanted to get back to whatever they were doing in the living room and I wanted to stop being afraid, so we settled on a solution that worked for both of us: eliminate the darkness. Leave a light on in my room at night so that is was never dark.
What are some examples in our own lives of the desire for the quick fix? Can you think of any social examples of the desire for the quick fix? Is leaving the lights on really the answer?
Page 4: You would have to ask an anthropologist how well this childhood history matches the history of the human race, but when I look around the world today, it seems clear that eliminating darkness is pretty high on the human agenda – not just physical darkness but also metaphysical darkness, which includes psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual darkness. What do I mean by “darkness”? I guess that depends on what color your monsters’ eyes are. Most people do not know what they mean by “darkness” except that they want to stay out of it. Just say the word and the associations begin to flow: night, nightmare, ghost, graveyard, cave, bat, vampire, death, devil, evil, criminal, danger, doubt, depression, loss, fear. Fear is the main thing. Almost everyone is afraid of being afraid. Beyond that, no one’s list is exactly like anyone else’s. It fits the way a shadow fits, because darkness is sticky. It attracts meaning like a magnet, picking up everything in its vicinity that is not fully lit.
Do you think eliminating “darkness” is night on the human agenda? If so why? What color are your monster’s eyes? What are your associations with darkness? What are the fears that follow you?
Pages 4 – 5: . . . “darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me. . . because I am sure I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me. So is the melting of the polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love – if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.
What scares you? Do you fear dementia? For you what are the right night-lights to leave on?
Page 5: . . . I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.
What can we learn in the dark we cannot learn in the light? Are there other important ways we need darkness?
Page 6: I wish I could turn to the church for help, but so many congregations are preoccupied with keeping the lights on right now that the last thing they want to talk about is how to befriend the dark. Plus, Christianity has never had anything nice to say about darkness. From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today. . .
Do you think this is a fair appraisal of Christian faith and the church. Are you aware of any other religions that are more “dark” friendly? How do you think the church’s contemporary struggle for institutional survival is distorting the message of Jesus?
Pages 7 – 8: . . . . Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5).
To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayers. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationships, and unwavering in faith. This sounds like heaven on earth. Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?
What do you think of Barbara’s description of “full solar Christianity?” Do you know any people or churches that reflect this kind of “full solar faith?” How would you rate your own faith: full solar, mostly sunny, partly cloudy, over cast, stormy? What would be the advantages of “full solar faith?” Can you see any disadvantages to “full solar faith?”
Page 8: . . . The first time you speak of these things (doubts, fears, depression) in a full solar church, you can usually get a hearing. Continue to speak of them and you may be reminded that God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. All that is required of you is to have faith. If you still do not get the message, sooner or later it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.
Having been on the receiving end of this verdict more than once, I do not think it is as mean as it sounds. The people who said it seemed genuinely to care about me. They had honestly offered me the best they had. Since their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark, I had simply exhausted their resources. They could not enter the dark without putting their own faith at risk, so they did the best they could. They stood where I could still hear them and begged me to come back into the light.
Have you ever experienced the feeling that other people thought you simply didn’t have “enough faith?” If so, what was happening in your life that you think triggered that response? Have you ever found yourself encouraging other people to “have faith?” Have you ever experienced a period of spiritual darkness? If so, what resources did you find for living through the darkness?
Page 9 . . . I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. . .
After I stopped thinking that all these fluctuations meant something was wrong with me, a great curiosity opened up: what would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights? Did I have enough faith to explore the dark instead of using faith to bar all my doors? How much more was in store for me if I could learn to walk in the dark?
How do you feel about a lunar spirituality? Do you recognize in rhythms in your own spiritual life? Have the rhythms of your spiritual life changed at all as you have gotten older? Do you think women are more able to respond to a lunar spirituality than men? For you what would it mean to learn to walk in the dark?
Pages 12 – 13: . . . the days of their lives are not easily divisible into good and evil, spirit and flesh,; that some of the best things that have ever happened to them have happened in the darkest places, and some of the worst in well-lit churches; that their bodies have been the source not only of great pain but also of great pleasure; that they experience the world as a place of wonder as well as brokenness; and that they have a hard time warming up to any kind of salvation that divides reality in two and asks them to forsake the bottom half.
. . .If there is any truth to the teach that spiritual reality is divided into halves, it is the truth that those pairs exist in balance, not opposition. What can light possibly mean without dark? Who knows spirit without also knowing flesh? Is anyone altogether good or altogether evil? Where is the church that exists outside the world? People of faith who are committed to fullness of life have our work cut out for us, if only in changing the way we talk.
How do you feel about experiencing spiritual reality as a balance of opposites? How might our spirituality be different if we embraced the whole of life rather than trying to leave behind the messy parts. What can light mean without dark, spirit without flesh? What would a fleshy faith fell like?
Pages 13 – 14: Maybe you are a young person in deep need of faith right now, but the kind you inherited from your parents is not cutting it. . .
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 change or come to their natural ends. . . .
If you are my age, you are losing a lot more things than you once did – not just your keys and your vision, but also your landmarks and sense of self. You are going to a lot more funerals now than before. . . What is the work you have left to do before you enter the Great Beyond? Clearly, it is time for a walk in the dark.
Among these examples Barbara provides what is closest to your own experience? Can you think of any other reasons one might be ready to try a walk in the dark? What is most frightening or disorienting for you about trying to walk in the dark?
Page 21: One night, on our evening walk, we decided to haul anchor and move someplace where we could be on more intimate terms with the moon in all her seasons. If this does not sound important to you, I am not sure I can explain it. It had something to do with the growing awareness that our own seasons were numbered and we did not have forever to start paying attention to them. . .
Have you started counting “seasons?” Do you think you are more or less aware of your surroundings than when you were younger? Where do you go to be more aware of nature around you? Do you have a good place to experience the dark?
Page 22 – 24: Since literal darkness is both the trigger and the metaphor for almost all the other kinds, this seems like the place to start. There is so much folklore about darkness, so much baggage packed by people whose hopes and fears are far different from mine, that it seems important to pay attention to the arrival of it for once. . .
According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, every days ends with three different twilights. Civil twilight begins a little before dark, when you first notice that it is time to use the headlights on your car. . . .
Civil twilight is over by the time I take up my post in the yard. . . . The sky still has enough light in it that every now and then I see something that looks like a miniature biplane flying past – either a dragonfly or a pair of insects in adventurous sex. . . .
Nautical twilight comes next, when the brightest stars are visible enough to steer by. That means Venus will be a front-runner, showing up low over the western horizon while the cicadas kick up their chorus of thrumming in the woods. . . .
Above our heads, the arrival of nautical twilight is not looking good. The thin gray blanket of clouds has grown, covering the moon along with the rest of the sky. . . .
When the thickening clouds leaven no doubt that nautical twilight will not be happening tonight – much less astronomical twilight, which begins when even the faintest starts are visible – I think I should go inside, but I do not go inside. The shy changes every couple of seconds. The breeze is slight but delectable. . . .
To go inside would be like putting down a glass of cool spring water to go drink a store-brand cola. It would be like blowing out a pearl-colored candle to go read by a compact fluorescent light. Why would someone do that? The only reason I can think of is because she does not know what to do with so much night, especially since nothing she can do in it counts as productive, useful, or even moderately aerobic.
Have you ever just sat in the gathering night to observe the changes from day to night? Do you have a place without light pollution where you can actually see the stars? To what extent do you find yourself driven to be productive? Do you find yourself drinking the “store-brand cola” rather than the “cool glass of spring water?”
Page 28: . . . On warm evenings we headed back to the river after dark, the adults scandalizing the children by leaving their clothes on the dock and diving into the water with nothing on.
They did not need to tell us to leave them alone. The idea of our naked parents in the muddy river was so repellent to us that we would not have gone near the water for anything. All we could see from the shore were pale shapes circling each other in the dark water, calling out occasionally to make sure we were still there. Like the skinny-dipping adults, my sexuality floated just below the surface of my consciousness in those days, half in and half out. Although it was the nakedness and not the darkness that was most disturbing to me, the two got all mixed up in my mind.
The image of adults skinny-dipping with children near-by seems risqué to me even today much less in the late 50’s or early 60’s and in Alabama on the Black Warrior River! How do you see the relationship between darkness and sexuality? As a child when did you first become aware of your sexuality? How disturbing do you find consciousness of sexuality even today?
Page 29: Since religion would eventually change my attitude toward the dark, it is worth mentioning that I received no religious education at home. My family celebrated Christmas but not Easter. We did not pray before meals. . . .
How do you think Barbara’s lack of religious exposure as a child affected her? What was your exposure to religion as a child? How has your childhood experience of religion affected your development as an adult?
Pages 30 – 31: When three thousand British parents were polled in 2009, they listed these stories among the top ten fairy tales they no longer read to their children. . . When asked what they did read to their children at night, they put The Very Hungry Caterpillar at number one. . .
What I learned from the original Cinderella story and others like it is that mysterious things happen in the dark. Sometimes the mystery is frightening. . . . Other times it is redeeming. . . . I was so sure all these things happened in the dark that I am surprised fifty years later to discover that they did not. They did not happen in the literal dark, anyway. Instead, they happened in the dark of one child’s imagination, confirming her sense that what is most true is not always evident by the bright light of day. . . .
What stories did you enjoy as a child? What stories did you read to your own children? Can you remember any of the darkness in your childhood imagination? What are the strengths and weaknesses of childhood literature today?
Page 35: . . . Heading back up the hill, I found Anna by following her sobs to the place where she had stopped, immobilized by fear, in the wet grass on a beautiful moonlit night.
It was not her fault. It was mine, for forgetting that she was a city girl and that walking in the dark takes some practice. But it was also the fault of everyone who taught her to fear the dark, convincing her that it is dangerous – all of it, all the time, under every circumstance – that what she cannot see will almost certainly hurt her and that the best way to protect herself from such unseen maleficence is to stay inside after dark with the doors locked and sleep with the lights on.
Are there legitimate reasons to fear the dark? Are there places where you are comfortable with the dark? Are there other places where you find the dark frightening? How do you learn to walk in the dark?
Page 37: But while his fear of the dark may have been baseless, the bravery it drew out of him stayed with him for the rest of his life. “Courage,” he writes now, “which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous.” Darkness, he says, fits that bill.
Would you agree that “courage is the management of fear?” What circumstances are the greatest challenge to your courage? As a child what challenged your courage? As a child when were you afraid of the dark? Were there times as a child, when darkness was not scary?
Page 41 – 42: Before too many weeks had passed, I asked to be baptized the way someone on fire asks to be hosed down. I wanted to be saved from the devouring power of darkness, I wanted Satan to know that I had gone over to the other side. The love of God had very little to do with it, though I spent a lot of time afterward trying to conjure the light of Christ inside of me so that it could fill the formerly dark cavern of sin.
I was suffering from the full solar version of Christianity, dedicated to keeping young people like me out of as many dark places as possible, including but not limited to smoky nightclubs, back alleys, dark bedrooms, shady dope dens, and dim jail cells. In many ways it was just what I needed at that point in my life. It scared me straight. It turned my face to the sun. It offered me a map with a clearly marked path on it and answered all my questions about why I should not stray from it. But it also saddled me with a kind of darkness disability that would haunt me for some years to come.
If Barbara’s parents had introduced her to a more benign form of spirituality do you think she would have been so vulnerable to the “Full Solar Christianity” she became caught up in as an adolescent? Is there any virtue to being scared straight? What were your struggles as an adolescent? Was “darkness” associated with any of your own struggles? How do you think adults and communities of faith can best help adolescents to struggle with their own inner darkness?
Page 43: . . . Sunday services at my university chapel were so different from the church where I had been baptized that it was hard to believe they were the same religion. I was so relieved to find a community of faith that did not run on the fuel of fear that I became a religion major, eager to learn whatever there was to learn by the light of this kinder Christianity. But if I had hoped for a better Bible to go with it, I did not get one.
There were only about a hundred references to darkness in the Bible, but the verdict is unanimous: darkness is bad news. In the first testament, light stands for life and darkness for death. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. Locusts darken the land. People grope in the dark without light, for the day of the Lord is darkness and not light. In the second testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance. “If thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness,”” Matthew says in the King James Version.
Do you ever marvel at how different churches, temples and synagogues can be from one another? How do you think people can take the same images and symbols of faith and come up with such different meanings? Do you think there is something besides the images and symbols of faith and intellect from which we construct meaning? Would you agree that the Bible has a negative take on darkness? Is there a more balanced view of darkness and light?
Page 47: The darkness that dominates this story has nothing to do with what time of day it is. . . It is an entirely unnatural darkness – both dangerous and divine – that contains the presence of God before whom there are no others. It is so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say “dark” that it has its own word in the Bible: “araphel,” reserved for God’s exclusive use. This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it, the same way the brightness of God’s glory does. Both are signs of God’s mercy, since ordinary human beings are not equipped to survive direct contact with the divine, in the dark or in the light.
This view of darkness is far more nuanced than the one that demonizes darkness. 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. When Biblical writers speak of “the fear of the Lord,” that is what they mean: fear of God’s pure being, so far beyond human imagining that trying to look at it would be like trying to look into the sun.
How do you respond to the notion of the fear of God? Do you think most people can handle a more nuanced image of God that includes both darkness and light? If God is pure energy, can human beings make unshielded contact with a source of pure energy and remain unscathed?
Page 48: In the same way Gregory said, those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God. If we decide to keep going beyond the point where our minds are of any help to us, we may arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness.
How do you respond to this image of “complete and dazzling darkness?” Are you comfortable with a spirituality that leaves the mind behind? What are we without our minds? What kind of insight is there without light?
Page 51: . . . I learned that people will confess things to a stranger in a nightclub that they have never admitted to anyone they know by the clear light of day. Because I was the least significant person they knew, such people would tell me things they should have been telling a doctor, a lawyer, a psychiatrist, or a judge. I would not hear such stories again for years, until as a young priest I became a different kind of stranger to people who had no one else to tell their stories to.
Why do you think people “open up” with strangers? Have you ever experienced meeting people on a journey with whom you shared more than with the people in your everyday life? Is there anything about darkness that encourages people to open up?
Page 53: All these years later, I like to think that I learned as much about human nature waiting tables at Dante’s as I did writing papers for my seminary professors. One happened in the dark and one happened in the light, but together they offered me a better education in the “mysterium tremendum” than I could ever have gotten by attending just one of them. Later, when I stood in front of an altar waving incense, I would remember standing in front of the bar at Dante’s waving cigarette smoke out of my face, and the exact same feeling of tenderness would wash over me, because the people in both places were so much alike. We were all seeking company, meaning, solace, self-forgetfullness. Whether we ever found those things or not, it was the seeking that led us to find each other in the cloud even when we had nothing else in common. Sometimes I wondered if it even mattered whether our communion cups were filled with consecrated wine or draft beer, as long as we bent over them long enough to recognize each other as kin.
Has your experience in faith communities been one of recognizing one another “as kin?” Do we need experience in community to help us construct meaning, find company and solace? What are some of the places in our lives, where we pause long enough to recognize one another ask kin?
Page 55: 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.
What are your favorite fantasies about the way things ought to be? How have you come to terms with life the way it is? For you what is the darkness you would most like to do without?
Page 56 – 57: . . . But one of the scariest things that has happened to me after dark on the farmed happened one night while I was collecting eggs. I knew the henhouse so well that I did not bother to take a light. I just went in, said hello to the hens, and started feeling around in their laying boxes for the day’s yield.
There was a little moonlight coming through the window, which I admired while I felt around in the first box. I found three eggs: a perfect handful. After putting them in my apron, I stuck my hand in the second box and felt something cooler than hay. Maybe it was a piece of plastic that had gotten bailed by mistake? That had happened more than once, so I kept feeling around for eggs – only there were not any, and when I touched the cool thing again it moved, uncoiling itself until I could see the head of the big black snake in silhouette, sliding noiselessly through a hole in the chicken wire.
Remembering that night now, I can dissect it better than I could then. The snake scared me, but it did not hurt me. Based on its behavior, it was as frightened of me as I was of it. It was not a biblical snake, come to talk me into disobeying God so that my offspring and I would suffer from my sin forever. It was not even a Freudian snake, come to remind me how strong my id was. It was a hungry black snake in search of supper, with a brain so small that there was no room in it for any intentional malice toward me. That snake’s opening of its mouth for those eggs was a natural as my jerking my hand away from its cool body in the dark. Everything else was my invention, made all the more vivid because I could not see.
Have you ever had an encounter with a snake? Was it scary? Is there something about the dark that stimulates our imaginations? Have you ever handled any snakes? What do you think of religious groups who have incorporated snake handling into their worship and devotion?
Page 57: While this darkness was only a poor cousin of “araphel,” it alerted me to a question that would preoccupy me for months to come: when 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?
The author asks two compelling questions. How do you begin to answer them?
Page 58: . . . The God of Moses is not the grandfatherly type, a kind old deity who can be counted on to take the kids exciting places without letting them get hurt. The God of Moses is holy, offering no seat belts or other safety features to those who wish to climb the mountain and enter the dark cloud of divine presence. Those who go assume all risk and give up all claim to reward. Those who return say the dazzling dark inside the cloud is reward enough.
What do you think of this God who offers no seatbelts or other safety features? What do you think it means to assume all of the risk and give up all claim to reward in relationship to God? Do you think you might be willing to try to feel your way into the “dazzling dark?”
Pages 59 – 60: Anyone in need of a tutorial on the cost of too much light does not have far to look. Every time a new gas station goes up on an old country road, the lights designed to attract sleepy motorists kill another layer of stars. Why does it matter? I can think of two reasons. First, because the Milky way. . . is no invisible to two-thirds of those living in the United States. . . . (When you really get lost in the Milky Way) you risk wondering things that will make you dizzy for days. Where does that path of stars lead? Where does the cosmos end? What lies beyond it, and who are you to wonder about such things? If you are ever in doubt about your place in the universe, this is a good way to remember.
The second reason to care about the cost of illuminating the night is because our inner and outer worlds are so closely related. For a candid photo of what is on your mind, take a look at your desk. For a measure of your comfort with the dark, notice how many lights you leave on at night. . . our comfort or discomfort with the outer dark is a good barometer of how we feel about the inner kind.
When was the last time you were able to see the Milky Way? Do you think we lose something, when we cannot truly see the night sky? How many lights do you leave on at night? Do you believe the way you light the night is a reflection of your relationship to your own inner darkness?
Page 61: . . . Darkness turns out to be as essential to our physical well-being as light. We not only need plenty of darkness to sleep well; we also need it to be well. The circadian rhythm of waking and sleeping matches the natural cycle of day and night, which affects everything from our body chemistry to our relationships. When we tinker with it, we tinker with the well-being of very creature whose pupils shrink when we turn on the lights. . .
Have you ever considered that you may have a need for darkness? Here are links to several articles on the internet about the human need for darkness:
How much darkness do you figure you need? Can you imagine any other effects of “light pollution?”
Page 64: There is one cure for me on nights like this. (Sleepless nights.) If I can summon the energy to put on my bathrobe and go outside, the night sky will heal me – not be reassuring me that I will be just fine, but by reminding me of my place in the universe. . .
Do you have sleepless nights? How do you them when they occur? What is your best method of locating yourself in the Universe?
Pages 66 – 67: If the human fear of the night affected only humans, there might be justice in that. But our nyctophobia affects every creature within reach of the light we have invented to push back the dark. . .
She (the logger head turtle) was still alive just barely, her shell hot to the touch from the noonday sun. We both knew what had happened. She had come ashore during the night to lay her eggs, and when she had finished, she had looked around for the brightest horizon to lead her back to the sea. Mistaking the distant lights on the mainland for the sky reflected on the ocean, she went the wrong way. . .
. . . . Ed and I helped the ranger unchain her and flip her back over. Then all three of us watched as she lay motionless in the surf.
Every wave brought her life back to her, washing the sand from her eyes and making her shell shine again. When a particularly large one broke over her, she lifted her head and tried her back legs. The next wave made her light enough to find a foothold, and she pushed off, back into the water that was her home. Watching her swim slowly away after her nightmare ride through the dunes, I noted that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down. . .
Do you think we should care about the survival of logger head turtles? Is the survival of other wildlife worth our being inconvenienced by eliminating light pollution? What if we need to limit light pollution for our own sakes? Have you ever wondered whether you were being killed or saved by the hands that were turning your life upside down?
Page 69: Every time we turn on a light after dark, receptors in our eyes and skin send messages to our adrenal, pituitary, and pineal glands to stop what they are doing and get ready for the new day. Fluorescent lights and computer screens both flicker on and off at about 60 – 120 cycles a second, which is enough to fool your brain into thinking that the sun is coming up, but even the light from a cell phone charger or glow-in-the-dark clock can cue your body that morning is under way. When that happens, your adrenal gland starts pumping more adrenaline into your bloodstream to handle the stress of an ordinary day. This tells your pituitary gland to back off on the human growth hormone your body uses to repair your muscles and bones at night. It also signals your pineal bland to stop making melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep, which it can only do in the dark. . . .
The effects of chronic sleep deprivation include elevated blood pressure and blood glucose levels, depression of the immune system, increased risk of ulcers heart disease, memory loss and heightened appetite. . . .
Can you recognize any symptoms of sleep deprivation in yourself? Are you willing to experiment with turning out more lights at night?
Pages 74 – 75: . . . when I start thinking about all the things I do not want to think about, . . . That is when I can feel the dark angel come into the room and sit down on my bed. Perhaps this is Nyx, but I do not think so. He or she, I cannot tell, but the presence feels less like the queen of the night than a heavenly chaperone come to sit with me while I visit feelings I would rather not have.
A friend of mine says he turns over and over in bed when he wakes up like this, until he has all the bedclothes wrapped around him like a bandage. One night his wife tried to get some of the covers back, yanking at them and telling him to go back to sleep.
“I can’t,” he whispered. “I think it’s God that’s bothering me.”
“Well, God’s not bothering me,” she said, “so get up and pray, but do it somewhere else.”
That is probably the best idea, but if the prayer is a plea to be returned to unconsciousness, then it is just another evasion. 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 are your most potent anxieties? Do your ever address your anxieties or fears in prayer? Do fears or anxieties ever prevent you from sleeping? How do you get back to sleep?
Page 77 — 78: According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV, sometimes called “the psychiatrist’s Bible,” patients grieving the death of a loved one are allowed two months for symptoms such as sadness, insomnia, and loss of appetite. If their grief goes on longer than that, they may be diagnosed with depression and treated with prescription drugs. “Grief,” Greenspan noticed, “perhaps the most inevitable of all human emotions, given the unalterable fact of mortality, is seen as an illness if it goes on too long.” Her mother, a Holocaust survivor, had actively grieved for the first ten years of Greenspan’s life. “Was this too long a grief for genocide?” Greenspan wondered.
That wondering led her to explore 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 with other shameful things like personal bankruptcy or sexual deviance. If you have ever spent time in the company of dark emotions, you too may have received subtle messages from friends and strangers alike that you were supposed to handle them and move on sooner rather than later.
Some of us have even gotten the message that if we cannot do this on schedule, we may not have enough faith in God. If we had enough, we would be able to banish the dark angels from our beds, replacing them with the light angels of belief, trust, and praise. Greenspan calls this “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.
One of the main things that tip people toward garden variety depression, she says, is a “low tolerance for sadness.” It is the inability to bear dark emotions that causes many of our most significant problems, in other words, and not the emotions themselves. When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights, including but not limited to drugs, alcohol, shopping, shallow sex, and hours in front of the television set or computer. There are no dark emotions Greenspan says – just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act.
Do you think two months is an adequate time to mourn a significant loss? Do you have any sadness in your life that feels inadequately grieved? Granger Westberg, a chaplain in Chicago wrote an important book years ago entitled Good Grief. In it he outlined the need to grieve losses well in order to grow, mature and move on in life. His work with grief came out not too long after Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s important study On Death and Dying was published. It was probably no coincidence that both books came out of Chicago. In fact my faculty advisor Phil Anderson was the seminary professor who sent a group of students to study with Kubler Ross that motivated her to conduct the research that led to On Death and Dying. What is often treated as illness and psychology at its root is actually spiritual. Do you think recognizing the roots of the “dark emotions” as a spiritual phenomenon can be at all helpful in bringing people healing? Have you ever seen religion used as an avoidance of difficult emotions? What do you think of finding energy in the dark emotions of sadness, grief and despair?
Pages 84 – 85: Nights like that taught me the importance of letting emotions flow – even the loud and messy ones – because if they are kept from making their noise and maybe even tossing the furniture, they can harden like plaque in a coronary artery, blocking anything else that tries to come through. Eruptions are good news, the signal that darkness will not stay buried. If you can stand the upsetting energy, you may be allowed to watch while dark and light come back into balance. . . .
Greenspan says that painful emotions are like the Zen teacher who whacks his students with a flat board right between their shoulder blades when he sees them going to sleep during meditation. If we can learn to tolerate the whack – better yet, to let it wake us up – we may discover the power hidden in the heart of the pain. Though this teaching is central to several of the world’s great religions, it will never have broad appeal, since almost no one wants to go there. 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.
The kinds of massive outpourings of feelings that often occur in crisis ministries are similar to what the Bible describes as exorcisms. Have you ever been present for that kind of massive out flowing of dark emotional energy? Henry Nouwen authored a book about ministry entitled The Wounded Healer, can you see how Barbara’s description of her time in crisis chaplaincy might fit that title? Are you in deep need of a blessing? Are you willing to be wounded in order to gain a blessing?
Page 86: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” Carl Jung wrote, “but by making the darkness conscious.” Reading this, I realize that in a whole lifetime spent with seekers of enlightenment, I have never once heard anyone speak in hushed tones about the value of “endarknenment.” The great mystics of the Christian tradition all describe it as part of the journey into God, but it has been a long time since The Cloud of Unknowing was on anyone’s bestseller list. Today’s seekers seem more interested in getting God to turn the lights on than in allowing God to turn them off. Full solar spirituality strikes again.
Carl Jung told us that in order to become integrated we must embrace our shadow side. Perhaps the star wars series had some insight that there is great power and energy in the dark side of the force. Maybe the real question is how to access the power and energy of the dark side without being ruled by the dark side. What do you think? Have you ever sought to embrace your shadow side? What are the dangers and difficulties of accessing your dark side? What experiences might help you become more “integrated?”
Page 87 — 88: . . . . In a book called One Taste, he makes a distinction between two important functions of religion. The first function, which he calls translation, offers people a new way of translating the world around them so that their lives take on more meaning.
One function of Christian faith, for instance, is to offer believers a new way to translate their hardships. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” . . . . In these beatitudes, spiritual poverty and grief are moved from the “loss” side of the ledger to the “gain” side, enabling those who suffer to view their hardships as blessings. . . . it strengthens the believer’s sense of self, holding out the promise of contentment to anyone who can live by their new translation. In this mode, religion offers hope that the self may be saved.
But translations is not the only function of religion. The second function, which Wilber calls transformation, exists not to comfort the self but to dismantle it. “Those who find their life will lose it. . . .” The Greek word for “life” in this passage is psyche: the human breath, life, or soul. While Greek has no word for “ego”. . . psyche comes close. The salvation of the psyche begins with its own demise.
This function of religion does not sell well. . . . It locates the problem in the spiritual grasping of the self, which is always looking for ways to improve its own position. . . “soul” has come to mean little more than “the ego in drag,” and much of what passes for spiritual teaching in this country is about consoling the self, not losing it. Translation is being marketed as transformation, which is why those who try to live on the spiritual equivalent of fast food have to keep going back for more and more. There is no filling a hole that was never designed to be filled, but only to be entered into. . .
Do you see the difference between religious translation and spiritual transformation? Do you think there are appropriate uses of religious translation? Do you think your own spiritual journey is more about translation or transformation? What would it be like to be able to let go of your ego? Are there healthy functions of the ego? What do you think might be your next step on your journey toward transformation?
Page 93: . . . Sight and sound both come at me with such velocity every day that I have learned to defend myself against them. If I do not limit their access to me, I will grow such think calluses that I am no longer capable of seeing or hearing things that really matter.
In a world of a million words ten thousand images and so much sound that becomes noise, how do you filter out the stimuli in order to be able to focus on what is important? How do you filter your inner world so you can focus on what is important?
Pages 93: . . . .With the day’s barrage of sights and sounds toned down, it is possible to savor things that slip right past me in the light. Foot tastes better by candlelight. Conversations last longer. The smell of the vineyard is in the wine.
This is the basic idea behind the Blindekuh restaurant in Zurich. . . . The restaurants owners were inspired by a blind Swiss pastor. . . who routinely blindfolded the dinner guests who came to his house. He said they paid more attention to the food that way, and they also listened to each other better.
Do you think eating in the dark would change your experience of your food and the other dinner guests? What might learning to eat in the dark have to teach us? Are there other “darkened” experiences that might also teach us in new ways? What about worshipping in the dark?
Pages 97 – 98: . . . “Starting now,” the voice said while the light dimmed , “notice how much you rely on sight in the course of an ordinary day. Notice how much this costs you in terms of your other senses. . . If you need help, do not be afraid to ask for it.” . . .
. . . Then I missed the step down at the end and landed hard against the back of the person in front of me.
He was definitely a he – taller than I — and this shirt smelled clean, though for once I had nothing more to go on. I did not know if he was old or young, white or black, pleasant to look at or not. There was no body language for me to read, no visual data to help me form judgments about who he was or what he was like. . .
How much is our ability to make judgments about things related to our visual perception? Are there other forms of perception that may be even more important for making judgments? How much do we miss by forming making most of our judgment based almost solely on visual cues?
Page 100: . . . Maybe someone should start an Opaque Church, where we could learn to give up one kind of vision in hope of another. Instead of wearing name tags, we would touch each other’s faces. Instead of looking around to see who’s there, we could learn to listen for each other’s voices.
How do you think most people would respond to an Opaque Church? What would be scariest about having to learn to relate to other people in darkness? Can you image any benefits from such an experience?
Pages 103 – 107: In this way, Lusseyran learned that he was not a poor blind boy but the discoverer of a new world, in which the light outside of him moved inside to show hhim things he might never have found any other way. . . “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.
“Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. . .
This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.” . . .
The problem with seeing the regular way, Lusseyran wrote, is that sight naturally prefers outer appearances. It attends to the surface of things, which makes it an essentially superficial sense. We let our eyes skid over trees, furniture, traffic, faces, too often mistaking sight for perception – which is easy to do, when our eyes work so well to help us orient ourselves in space. . .
If this does not sound particularly spiritual to you, that may have more to do with you than with the table. Every major spiritual tradition in the world has something significant to say about the importance of paying attention. . .
“Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things,” Lusseyran wrote. One of this 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.
In January 1944, the Nazis captured Lusseyran and shipped him to Buchenwald along with two thousand of his countrymen. Yet even there he learned how hate worked against him, not only darkening his world but making it smaller as well. When he let himself become consumed with anger, he stated running into things, slamming into walls, and tripping over furniture. When he called himself back to attention, the space both inside and outside of him opened up so that he found his way and moved with ease again. The most valuable thing he learned was that no one could turn out the light inside him without his consent. Even when he lost track of it for a while, he knew where he could find it again.
What do you think of the story of Lusseyran? Can you relate to his experience of an inner light? What does it mean to really pay attention? When the Buddha was asked, “Who are you?” He responded, “I am awake.” Do you think you are awake? How might you become more aware of your self and your inner light? Are there any people you allow to dim or turn out your light? How does fear, anger, or anxiety affect your inner light? When your light grows dim who you know where you can find it?
Page 112: . . . When he heard that I was writing a book on darkness, he asked if I would like to experience the total darkness inside a “wild” cave. The idea scared me, which made it a good opportunity to practice courage. Plus, I knew that the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad had all spent significant time in caves, along with Saint Patrick and Saint Francis. What drew them to those dare places, which others worked so hard to stay out of, and what did they find there that made them go back? Yes, I said, I would like to go into a wild cave.
Have you ever considered that Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad spent time in caves? Have you ever spent any time in caves? What about a cave might be spiritual?
Page 115: In the Buddhist view, even panic can be instructive. Wasn’t that what I taught students in my world religions class? Learn to watch your thoughts, I coached those who wanted to meditate. Notice how your mind leaps from thought to thought, creating emotions as it goes. Pay attention to which thoughts give rise to which feelings, and what causes them to recede again. Do not judge yourself, and do not forget to breathe. . . .
Have you ever learned something from panic? What happens when you try to be aware of our thoughts? What thoughts do you have that trigger strong feelings? How important do you think is breathing? What term does the Hebrew Bible use for spirit?
Page 122: After that, I listened to more nothing until I could near something that sounded like the hum of a high-voltage wire. Since there was no wire for miles around, the sound was obviously coming from inside of me. Through trial and error, I learned that I could make it louder by clenching my jaws and softer by letting them go again, but nothing could make it stop altogether. I had never heard my life before, but that was what it was. It was the sound of my life in the silence of the desert.
Years later, I would hear the American composer John Cage describe the same thing. Famous for exploring silence as seriously as he did sound, he once isolated himself in a sound proof chamber at Harvard so he could experience true and complete silence. When he noticed two distinct sounds in the room – one high and one low – he asked the sound technician what they were. The higher one is your nervous system, the soundman told him, and the lower one is you circulation.
Silence and dark have been conditions that have inspired spiritual experience. Have you ever found any spiritual insight in the silence or the dark? Have you ever thought of your nervous system or your circulatory system giving off sound?
Page 126: . . . The difference between the therapy and the cave is that the therapy wants me to look back so I can find another way out, no so I can return by the same way I came. Maybe that makes the save more like a labyrinth. As long as you stay on the path you cannot get lost — in time, maybe, but not in space. The path is circular. The way out is the way in. The path, like the cave, never changes. It is literally set in stone. Only the walker changes, not by looking back but by moving ahead, trusting the path to teach her what she needs to know.
Can you see how a labyrinth might also be a kind of spiritual journey? Can a labyrinth also connect us with our shadow?
Page 129: As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sin in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.
Have you ever thought of the resurrection occurring in the dark? What other religious events have happened in caves? What other kinds of darkness are part of the Universe?
Page 129: When it is time to go, I follow Rockwell and Marrion back out of the cave again, thinking about what good guides they are. They kept me safe while letting me practice courage. They pointed me in the right direction without telling me what to see. Though they have been here many times before, they let me explore my own cave. Maybe that is the difference between pastoral counselors and spiritual directors. We go to counseling when we want help getting out of caves. We go to directors when we are ready to be led farther in. I hope I can remember that the next time someone comes to me with a cave problem. The way out is the way in.
Have you ever had a good spiritual guide? Do you think you might become a good spiritual guide for others? How do you keep people safe, while allowing them to practice courage? Do you think that is what really good parents do? What do you think it means the way out is the way in?
Page 130 — 131: Back in my room that night, I unpack my backpack, surprised to find the stone at the bottom. Remembering how it glittered in the darkest part of the cave, I hold it under the reading lamp anticipating miniature fireworks. Instead, it looks like a piece of road gravel – pigeon colored, with a faint sparkle along one side. If I tossed in my driveway, no one would even lean down to pick it up. . .
But the stone is not the problem. The light is the problem. . .
. . . When I entered the cave hoping for a glimpse of celestial brightness, it never occurred to me that it might be so small. But here it is, not much bigger than a mustard seed – everything I need to remember how much my set ideas get in my way. While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards? At least one of the day’s lessons is about learning to let go of my bright ideas about God so that my eyes are open to the God who is. . . .
What treasures have you stumbled across when you weren’t even looking? Can you imagine there are treasures you have missed? How do you think you can become more attentive to life, so you do not miss the God that is unobtrusive or even hidden in the ordinariness of life?
Pages 134 – 135: Like darkness itself, the dark night of the soul means different things to different people. Some use the phrase to describe the time following a great loss, while others remember it as the time leading up to a difficult decision. Whatever the circumstances, what the stories have in common is their description of a time when the soul was severely tested, often to the point of losing faith, by circumstances beyond all control. No one chooses the dark night; the dark night descends.
When it does, the reality that troubles the soul most is the apparent absence of God. If God is light, then God is gone. . . There is an impenetrability to this 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.
Have you ever experienced a dark night of the soul? What circumstances or events seemed to trigger it? Did you get through it, or did it just go away? I remember a Catholic Priest a long time ago complain about the absence of God in his life, but it wasn’t even accompanied by a long dark night of the soul. Quite frankly he would have accepted a dark night of the soul in preference to nothing.
Page 135: What can this mean? For some people, it means that it is time to see a good doctor who can help right the mysterious chemistry in the brain. Anyone on a spiritual path needs help from time to time in telling the difference between divine disturbance and mental disorder. It can also help to learn the different tones of voice that your fear uses to warn you away from something. . .
What do you think is the difference between divine disturbance and mental disorder? Carl Jung claimed that whenever a patient came to him claiming he was having a religious problem, it was really a psychiatric disorder, and whenever a patient complained of having a psychological difficult it was really a spiritual problem. How do you think we can discern the difference? Can you discern your fear speaking in different tones of voice?
Pages 137 – 138: . . . His language is passionate and speaks directly to the senses. For him, the dark night is a love story, full of the painful joy of seeking the most elusive lover of all. In the second place, he is no help at all to anyone seeking a better grip on God. One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. In John’s native Spanish, his word for God is nada. God is no-thing. God is not a thing. And since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.
In theological terms, this makes John a teacher in the negative way, which does not mean that he is a pain to be around. It means that he does not try to teach by saying what God is, since positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing. John works in the opposite direction. He teaches by saying what God is not, hoping to convince his readers that their images of and ideas about “God” are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing. . . .
How do you relate to God as “nada?” John’s God as no-thing may be why the Buddha refused to talk about God, any God, and why Buddhism is sometimes referred to as an atheistic religion. It may be that theism gets in the way of being “fully awake!” What do you think of the “negative way” of thinking about God?
Pages 138 – 139: The slippage started with the language of faith. . . words began to mean less and less to me. . . those same words began to sound more like stuffed pillows – things to be placed between a person and the hard bones of life so that less bruising occurred. Although I knew what “sin” meant, there were other words with more nuance in them that struck with more force: “betrayal,” “brokenness,” “forgetfulness,” “deadly distance from the source of all life.” I could never figure out what made these words less meaningful to people of faith than the word “sin,” but they noted the difference. “Why can’t you just say ‘sin’?” But I had questions of my own. When had the language of faith stopped offering a handle on lived experience and become a container for it instead? Wasn’t that like asking God to act inside a box?
Can we really grow by reading about other people’s ideas and experiences, or does our spiritual journey have to involve our own experience? Do the words really matter? What are some of the boxes people commonly try to fit God into? A prayer of confession I ran into a long time ago tries to speak to this problem:
We have tried to capture you, God.
We have, consciously or unconsciously, tried to put you
in little boxes.
We have put you in the box marked “Christian.”
We have put you in the box marked “church”.
We have put you in the box marked “funeral”.
We are afraid to set you free, Lord,
for you are an embarrassment to us.
We do not want you at the war front or on skid row.
We do not want you at our place of work or in politics.
We do not want you getting involved with sex, nor
hobnobbing with drunkards, nor in the gambling
We do not want you observing our home life, nor
watching what we read, nor monitoring our
Don’t call us, God, we’ll call you…
that has been our attitude, perhaps our prayer.
We ask for forgiveness, now, o lord,
We have been foolish to try to limit you, utterly stupid to
try to keep you out of the hard places of life.
No wonder our lives and our world have been in such a mess. Forgive us.
Give us the grace now, we pray, to set you free.
We pray for the courage to let you freely enter into every
phase, every portion of our life and our world.
Give us the desire and the will to give you a passport
to enter even the most secret places of our lives.
We want you to be free, Lord, free to be God in all things…
in all things. Amen.
Pages 140 – 141: . . .After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to nada. There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea, steering by stars. Yet as dark as this sounds it provides great relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.
While the dark night of the soul is usually understood to descend on one person at a time, there are clearly times when whole communities of people lose sight of the sun in ways that unnerve them. This seems to be what is happening to a lot of church people right now, especially those in denominations that are losing members at an alarming rate. . . The one thing most emerging Christians will say is that the faith they inherited from their elders is all worn out.
Do you have a sense that Barbara is on to something in terms of the decline of the church? Do you think the church can be renewed? What do you think faith will look like one-hundred years form now?
Pages 143 – 144: At the fifth stage, which Fowler says is unusual before midlife, people know the “sacrament of defeat.” They live with the consequences of choices they cannot unchoose. They have been permanently shaped by commitments they cannot unmake. Yet there is still a lot of undoing at this stage as people let go of many of the certainties about themselves and the world that they earlier worked so hard to put in place. . . .With the gravitas that arrives when life is more than half over, people at this stage are ready to spend and be spent, emptying their pockets in one last-ditch effort to make meaning.
. . . .Religion, faith and belief are not the same thing. . . In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon,” or “to give the heart to,” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief” and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than about the furniture of one’s mind. . .
The great pity of this conflation, Fowler says, it that when faith is reduced to belief in creeds and doctrines, plenty of thoughtful people are going to decide that they no longer have faith. . .
Can you see how defining faith as something intellectual has helped lead to the downward spiral of religion? Have you experienced the “sacrament of defeat?” Where are you on your spiritual journey?
Page 145: . . . John’s answer is not simple, but in the simplest possible terms, he says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.
All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God’s way. The late Gerald May, who wrote his own book about John, called them addictions. In many cases, he said, we should give thanks for them, because it is our addiction to some God substitute or another that finally brings us to our knees, by helping us realize how far we have strayed from our heart’s true desire.
If there are no benefits for believing in God, no “correct” ways of believing in God, no right way to think about God, then why go to church? Why pray? Why do anything religious? If God cannot be manipulated then what is the point of religion? Would you describe any of your religious behavior as addictive? What is your heart’s true desire?
Page 146: John knows there is more than one kind of darkness out there. He makes a distinction between “tinieblas,” the kind of darkness you would be wise to turn away from, and “oscura,” which simply means obscure, or difficult to see. Clinical depression should not be mistaken for the dark night, May says, though the two can overlap. Like “tinieblas,” depression can take people apart without putting them back together again, while “la noche oscura” is for healing. To paraphrase another writer on the negative way, when depression passes, all is restored; when the dark night passes, all is transformed.
Yet is would be a mistake to attach the promise of more spiritual benefits to a night that is designed to obliterate them. Those who have come through dark nights of their own, not just once but over and over again, often cannot find the words to say why they would not trade those nights for anything. “Yes, they were nights of great loss. Yes, the soul suffered from fearful subtraction. Yes, a great emptiness opened up where I had stored all my spiritual treasures, and yet.” And yet what? “And yet what remained when everything else was gone was more real than anything I could have imagined. I was no longer apart from what I sought; I was part of it, or in it. I’m sorry I can’t say it any better than that, There was no place else I wanted to be.”
Can you sense the difference between the dark night of the soul and clinical depression? For those who suffer clinical depression what is the best path for spiritual development? If there are no “benefits” why go there? What kind of healing comes at the cost of giving up one’s spiritual treasures?
Pages 146 – 147: God puts out our lights to keep us safe, John says, because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. 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 I to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.
How do you feel about being lost? Have you ever sensed you were most lost, when you thought you knew where you were going? What was your most unlikely experience of the presence of the divine?
Page 149: We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light. – Hildegard of Bingen
Have you found your own voice? Have you seen your own light? How might you begin to interpret the world for yourself? What is your hope?
Pages 150 – 152: . . . . the invention of the incandescent light-bulb changed life on earth in ways that most human beings remain largely oblivious. . . . the light-bulb allowed us to make advances in every area of human enterprise, convincing us that there was nothing we could not handle with just a little more light.
The only casualty was darkness – “a thing of little value. . . or so we thought.”
. . . .Before the invention of the light-bulb, almost no one slept eight hours at a time. That is a modern convention made possible by an abundance of artificial light. In the long centuries before the advent of electricity, people spent as much as fourteen hours of every day in the dark, which affected their rest as well as their activity. When the researchers at NIMH recruited some of the most normal people they could find to replicate that pattern, those people began to discover states of consciousness that they had never experienced before.
At first they played catch-up, sleeping an average of eleven hours a day. Eventually they settled down to eight hours again, but the hours were not consecutive. With fourteen full hours of darkness available to them, most lay quietly in bed for a couple of hours each night before falling soundly asleep. Four hours later, they woke up and spent another couple of hours resting before falling asleep again. The rest hours turned out to be the most interesting ones to the scientists, since during those hours the sleepers were neither actively awake nor soundly asleep. Their body chemistry hovered somewhere in between, just like their brain waves did.
The director of the study said that it was like finding a fossil of human consciousness, a state of awareness that had largely withered away. In prehistoric times, this rest state may have provided a channel of communication between dreams and waking life, supplying rich resources for myth and fantasy. It may also explain why so many biblical stories are powered by big dreams.
Does your dream life play any role in your spiritual life? What might be the link between altered states of consciousness and the experience of the divine? Many “primitive” spiritual rituals were conducted in the dark. How might our worship lives change if more of our rituals were conducted in the dark? How is the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service different from other worship services?
Pages 156 – 158: . . . It sounded like someone walking on loose floorboards toward my room – impossible but audible – though as soon as I sat up the sound stopped. . . When the crack changed to a shuffle, the fear came on me so fast that I literally could not move, though I willed myself to stand up and turn on a light, or call out a question to whatever was in the hallway. “Who are you and what do you want?”
The dread of it sat on my chest like a rock. Before long I was sure I could hear breathing just outside my closed door. I was sure that the presence was malign, though it is impossible now to say why. Though closing my eyes was out of the question, I did not look down for fear I would see something dark and foggy pushing its fingers under the door. I looked up instead, in the general direction of God, but God was not present in any way that helped.
I recited the Lord’s Prayer as the next best thing. The frightening presence outside my door did not come in, and it did not go away. Whatever power kept it where it was, I gave thanks with shallow breaths, afraid to make any noise that might shift the balance. This was on the chest of drawers and I was pinned to the bed, where the only thing I wanted in the world was for the sun to come up.
When the room began to lighten, I started to cry. The weakness of the thing outside my room grew in direct proportion to the light coming in my window. Worshipping the sun made all kinds of sense to me. While I lay counting the brightening minutes, the dark fog thinned and hat The paralysis ebbed. I held my hand up in front of my face and practiced breathing in and out while I flexed my fingers. The dark night was over. I had been delivered into the bright light of a new day.
What do you think Barbara experienced that night? Why do you think she included the story in the book? Have you ever experienced a malign presence? What did you do? Did you ever discover the source of your experience? What time of day was it? Do you think there might be such a thing as disembodied evil?
Page 158: . . . . Night terrors usually affect people during the first three hours of the sleep cycle, when they only partly surface from deep sleep on schedule. Their minds stay down while their bodies come up for air, so that they are able to move and speak without being fully conscious. This makes the experience scarier and more dangerous for both them and for those who live with them. . . .
Have you known anyone who suffered from night terrors? Have you known anyone who walks in their sleep? Do you know anyone who suffers from insomnia? How do sleep disorders affect our lives?
Page 161: Yet for all these minor irritations, there is nothing threatening about this night. It is as far away from my most frightening night as it can be, which leads me to wonder about the difference the next time I wake up. When I do, the sky is still not dark, though the lighter portion that was once in the west has shifted to the east. . . . I wonder if that is the main difference between this night and the frightening one: there are no people here. . . . Am I more afraid of people than I am of the dark?
It is also summer instead of winter, I am lying in my bed instead of someone else’s bed, and there is a dog beside me on the floor. Come to think of it, I have never heard a single ghost story that involved a dog. Maybe Dancer makes all the difference? Or maybe the cabin is simply a friendly cave.
What do you think of Barbara’s observation that maybe she is more afraid of people than the dark? What difference would a dog make to your fears? Have you heard of a ghost story where a dog was present?
Page 162 – 163: One thing this night and the other have in common is the conspicuous absence of God. During the frightening night, I actively pleaded for divine intervention. Here I have simply announced my readiness to listen, but all I hear are the normal sounds of a summer’s night in the north George woods. It is not that I expect to hear and actual voice, but I have courted the beloved long enough to know what it is like to receive a divine visit: it is like coming home after a long time away; it is like remembering a dream that opens a door. . .
Tonight it is possible to accept this peaceful darkness as a token of the divine presence, but what about that frightening night? . . . In the absence of any sense of God, I wish I had known that it was still possible to trust God. Since I remained conscious, maybe I did. All these years later, when I think back to whatever was snuffling outside my door, I wonder if it was a lost thing or a lonely thing that was looking for some company. It was certainly a dark thing, but that does not mean it was a bad thing. It did not harm me. My fear did that. It did not open the door, which was not locked. All night long, it sat outside my door waiting for me to decide whether to open up or not, and I decided not – a decision that has come back to haunt me in a whole new way.
,frightening mask? Or was the Beloved out there without a mask for once, asking only that I handle my fear long enough to let the divine darkness in? . . . . How many times since then have I rejected Love because it did not present itself the way I expected, in a form acceptable to me. . .
Do you have trouble receiving Love, when it comes in a form that is unfamiliar or even a little frightening? How do you manage the darkness? What do you think might have happened if Barbara had opened the door?
Page 166: As much as well meaning Christians have tried to convince me that I cannot love creation with anything close to the love with which I love God, I remain unconvinced. If I am allowed to love the water of baptism, the bread and wine of Communion, the oil of healing, and the wood of the cross, why am I not allowed to love the heavenly moon? I resolve to watch the last moonrise of the year.
How does nature figure into your spirituality? Is loving creation the same as loving God? What special significance does the moon have for women’s spirituality?
Page 168 — 169: There is nothing to hear but our own breathing, unless you count the muted bark of a distant dog or the acceleration of an engine a couple of miles away. The darkness around us is thickening like syrup, though there is not yet a single star visible in the sky. . . . The evening is already so beautiful that it is easy to see why Jews imagine the Sabbath as a bride. When three stars appear, she will arrive. Even now, she fills the space without saying a word. She is present even in her absence, with everyone waiting on tiptoe for a glimpse of her, wanting to be the first to see her and let everyone else know she is here.
And yet the Sabbath is never only about the bride. When she appears, it means the wedding can begin. When she comes through the door, everyone in her presence becomes as rich in God’s love as she is. She is the mirror, not the light. As beautiful as she is, she is this night’s reminder of every other night like this, when the last day of the week lies down in the grass so the new day of God’s own rest can begin – not with light but with darkness. “And there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.”
In the book of Genesis, darkness was first; light came second. . .
If this primordial story of separation plays a role in our problems with darkness, that is because we turn it into a story of opposition by loading it with values that are not in the story itself. Nowhere does it say that light is good and darkness is bad. . . .
We no longer speak of a Sabbath, because it has all but disappeared in our modern culture. What wisdom do you think there was in starting the Sabbath at Sundown? What if we looked forward to a day of rest like preparing for a wedding? How has the “separating of things” resulted in judgments about good and bad?
Page 169: “How long since we have done this?” Ed says in my ear. . . .
“Twenty years,” I say.
“Why is that?” he says.
He and I both know why, but the answer makes me so sad that I cannot say it out loud. We have been busy. For twenty years.
Are there any things you have been too busy to do for twenty years? When our lives get off track, how do we set them right? Is there anything you can do about your business?
Pages 171 – 173: If Christians look to creation for wisdom about the spiritual life, seeing resurrection in springtime, divine promise in a rainbow, or the flight of the Spirit in a dove, why don’t we look to the moon for wisdom about our relationship to God? 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. . . .
Although I am not Catholic, I am devoted to Mary. Part of it is that she is a she; the other part is that she is entirely human. Most of the time I think she understands me better than her own son does, since she has a whole DNA spiral and a body that operates on a lunar cycle – or did. Even if she has left that part of her life behind now, as I have, she remembers what it was like to fill like the moon every month and then to empty. She knows what it is like to go through this routine diminishment without ever getting used to it, the same way one never quite gets used to a night with no moon. Maybe the moon has not risen yet? Perhaps it has already set? As often as the three dark days come around, it is easy to forget them. Yet they are part of the natural way of things, as predictable as the tides.
How much of your own spirituality is linked to nature, the sun, the moon, the stars, the seasons? What affect does the light and dark, and change of seasons have on you? What is your favorite image from nature? How does this link to your spiritual life?
Pages 178 – 179: Our Lady of the Underground never asks me to choose between day and night. If I want to flourish, I need the ever changing light of darkness as much as I need the full light of day. “Give you heart to them both,” she says. When I complain that I cannot see as well at night as I can during the day, she tells me this is a good thing. “Maybe it will slow you down.” When I tell her that I cannot get as much done at night because darkness makes me sleepy, she says yes, that is the plan. “Maybe you will get some rest.” When I point out that slowing down just makes me think about things I would rather not think about, she laughs. “Do you think that no thinking about them will make them go away?
She is always right.
“What do you want from me?” I ask her. “Nothing,” she says.
At first I think she means that she does not want anything from me, but that is not what she means. She means that she wants nothing for me, because she knows how scared I am of it – of being nothing, doing nothing, believing nothing, being good for nothing, ending up nothing. Nada. She seems to think there is more to it than that, which is why she wants it for me. If I could lean into it a little more, she says, I might be surprised. I tell her I will take it under consideration.
For you, what is the most frightening part of “nothing?” How might your life be different if you had more time to rest? What do you still need to do? What would happen, if it didn’t get done?
Page 185: This is not a how-to book, but if it were, the only instructions would be to become more curious about your own darkness. What can you learn about your fear of it by staying with it for a moment before turning on the lights? Where can you feel the fear in your body? When have you felt that way before? What are you afraid is going to happen to you, and what is your mind telling you to do about it? What stories do you tell yourself to keep your fear in place? What helps you stay conscious even when you are afraid? What have you learned in the dark that you could never have learned in the light?
Try searching within yourself for answers for Barbara’s questions.