By Beth Saner, FSPA
Back in September, a small group to which I belong agreed to read and
discuss the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor.
The book is about the author’s journey with and into darkness. Her
memories and experiences invited me to pay attention to my own
encounters with darkness and to interact with the wisdom she is
sharing as a result of her reflections and encounters.
My own early memory of encountering darkness is hearing my mother say
to her grandfather, “she’ll be alright. She’s not afraid of the dark.”
I am the ‘she’ they are talking about and I was not more than 3 years
old at the time. I was exploring the old family farm house we were
visiting. Some of the rooms were very shadowy; or maybe it is my
memory of the scene that is shadowy. What is crystal clear is the
sound of my mother’s voice and those words she spoke.
We all have a relationship with darkness and that relationship shapes
experiences of all sorts across a lifetime. Contemporary culture
glorifies light by eliminating darkness with artificial light. It is
somewhat rare to hear anyone speak of darkness as a positive
experience and we have all kinds of ways to indicate our bias against
darkness. Church culture also participates in demonizing darkness by
using darkness as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness,
and death. It is against this backdrop of cultivated ‘fear of the
dark’ enlightened by her own very real fear that Brown Taylor,
explores darkness both physical and metaphysical.
Her journey into darkness takes her out of doors to ponder the world
around her under the dark night sky. It has her experimenting with
unplugging as she considers the necessity of darkness to health. It
invites her into inner space to consider the darkness that resides
within each of us. She spends an evening considering how it is for
those who have no sight and another day deep inside of a cave where
without flashlights there was only deep impenetrable darkness. She
ponders the inner darkness often referred to as “the dark night of the
soul.” Each of these steps along the way result in significant
reflection shared in a way that invites the reader to take their own
journey, to consider their own relationship with light and darkness.
She tells us that she has “learned things in the dark that she could
never have learned in the light,” which leads her to the conclusion
that we “need darkness as much as we need light.”
I think of my mother’s voice: “She’s not afraid of the dark.” I know
the deep truth of her observation about her little girl and I know the
many confrontations with darkness that suggest that a lifetime offers
encounters we cannot imagine and perhaps would never choose.
As I write this reflection, the Christian world prepares to celebrate
the Paschal Mystery – a classic festival of darkness and light. It
offers each of us an opportunity to pay attention to how we experience
both darkness and light in our own lived reality.
It is my hope that whether or not you choose to read Learning to Walk
in the Dark by Barbara Taylor Brown, you will consider your own
encounters with darkness and spend some time wondering about the
import of those encounters and the treasures they offer to a fuller
experience of being whole in this world in which we live, and move and
have our being.