March 7, 2016
by: Jane Bishop Halteman

My family can tell you that I don’t like being in total darkness or feeling trapped.  I recall waking up in the middle of the night clawing at the zipper in a tiny pup tent many years ago during a short-lived camping era before we had children.  I remember all too well how hard I had to work to fall asleep in the impenetrable darkness, compounded by the close quarters of a European hotel room once upon a time.  More often than not, I have cracked many a curtain or blind or shade to make sure I can “see” in the dark when in an unfamiliar place.

I was fascinated then, with a Facebook friend’s Lenten post to this link, which became the inspiration for this week’s blog post.

In her spiritual memoir Called to Question, Joan Chittister says, “Darkness, I have discovered, is the way we come to see. It creates the depressions that, once faced, teach us to trust. It gives us the sensitivity it takes to understand the depth of the pain in others. It seeds in us the humility it takes to learn to live gently with the rest of the universe. It opens us to new possibilities within ourselves.”

That find led to my recollection that Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been sitting on my shelf unread since soon after its release two years ago just before Holy week, prime time for the publication of a book about darkness.  I read it through quickly and found comments by others, some of which are recorded here, helpful as I digested Taylor’s words about walking in the dark.

Also author of the best-selling An Altar in the World, Taylor “challenges our negative associations with darkness and our attraction to light...She draws on her own experiences—from exploring caves and experimenting with blindness, to her questioning of her own religious training and faith—to explore what might be gained by embracing darkness. What she finds are the possibilities of emotional healing, a deeper appreciation of silence, living in the now, and peace of mind where there once was fear,” according to Spirituality and Health magazine’s assessment of the book.

A Booklist reviewer says this:  “Darkness, Taylor writes, is ‘shorthand for anything that scares me.’ That could include something as profound as the absence of God to the fear of dementia to the loss of family and friends.  She recounts how she became impatient with church teachings that accentuated the light while denying the existence of darkness, and comments on the difference between faith and belief, certainty and trust.  She encourages us to turn out the lights and embrace the spiritual darkness, for it is in the dark, she maintains, that one can truly see.”

In an interview with Taylor, which appeared in his On Faith & Culture e-column for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt asks her about her understanding of the use of the word darkness in scripture.  Acknowledging that most biblical references to darkness are negative (referencing ignorance, sin, evil, death), Taylor says she believes that many positive things happen in darkness as described in Bible stories.  

In Genesis, darkness exists before God even got to work. Everything was made by God from darkness. In Exodus, God promises to come to Moses on Mount Sinai in a dense or dark cloud. Here, darkness is divine and where God dwells. Abraham meets God in the darkness, Jacob wrestles an angel in the middle of the night, and angels announce Christ’s birth to the shepherds at night. There’s so much that happens in the dark that is essential to the Christian story,” according to Taylor.  “Linguistically, it (use of the word darkness) is the pits.  Narratively, it is a different story.”

Defining darkness in this interview as “everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of,” Taylor goes on to say, “But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.”

Taylor concludes in her conversation with Merritt that “the great hope in the Christian message is not that you will be rescued from the dark, but that, if you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised.”  Attempting to rehabilitate our fear of the dark, according to her book jacket, Taylor “reflects on how our lives do not work only when everything is fully lit.  We can’t always see the light.  It waxes and wanes or can go out altogether.  What we need is a spirituality that works in the nighttime.

Though she says she does not intend to underplay the importance of light in scripture, Taylor critiques some current-day churches for practicing a “full solar spirituality” with no mention of finding “healing and liberation” in the darkness as well. 

Her own experience of walking in darkness has taught her this:  “When, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life, plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, I have not died.  The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair.  Instead, 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.”

Perhaps this Lent is a good time to turn from deadly scripts we have been taught about darkness.  How might we begin to learn to walk in the dark without fear?  What tiny steps might we take to travel where the light is dim?  What props might help build up our courage to take those steps?  (See lighted pathway in the dark in the photo above, snapped at Vic and Nancy’s Longest Night observance in 2014.)  How might we encourage others to risk learning to walk in darkness?

May we continue to unearth our living stories and new narratives this Lenten season, especially amidst our timid stumbles into the darkness.