And the winner for the best book that I’ve read so far this year goes to…Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. Are we surprised? No, it’s Barbara. Is my mind now blown in the best way possible? Of course, it’s Barbara. And just in case you haven’t hear me rave of her or know of my obsession, Barbara Brown Taylor is an incredible preacher and author who is simply the best. If you’re looking for a book to read, I would highly suggest picking up her book, An Altar in the World (see here and here for past blog posts on that), or dive right in and read this new one! You won’t be sorry you did. And once again, with this book on darkness, she has pointed out the true beauty and spirituality in the everydayness of life. Profoundness like that deserves to be noticed.
The premise of the book is that BBT was longing for more than the perspective that the sunny version of Christianity offered. She presents here her studies and experiences with darkness and shares how she has come to desire more than just half of the story. She says towards the end, “Blessing the day means accepting my full quota of light and of dark… With limited time left on this earth, I want more than the top halves of things–the spirit but not the flesh, the presence but not the absence, the faith but not the doubt. This late in life, I want it all.” Chapter after chapter of this book is filled with thoughts that will challenge your perceptions of darkness, stories that will have you longing for darkness and challenges that will have you a little more curious about your own darkness.
But this blog post isn’t so much about the book. You should just read it and we’ll all be on the same page. Here I want to share about some of my own experiences with darkness, based on the reading of this book.
Last weekend, Easter weekend, I decided I wanted to Sabbath from Friday night, post-Good Friday service, to Sunday morning, post-Sunrise service. For this time, I turned off my phone, shut down my computer and avoided all temptations to do anything with a screen in front of my face. I can’t remember the last time I did that. And honestly, it was strange. I didn’t really miss the weight of the phone in my pocket or the time killing powers of hulu, but it really was something to just have hours to fill and a life that was dictated by natural light. Saturday I spent a good portion of my day reading this book. I cannot even begin to describe the significance it took on as I read a book of darkness in a weekend of darkness, in a reenactment of what life is like without “The Light”. By the end of the day, I was in awe of the rich complexity of the darkness I had spent so much of my life afraid of. (Yes, I was a kid with a night light and I was fearful enough to make a leap for my bed every night once I turned the lights off, just to be sure nothing from underneath could get to me). But here, the darkness and the moon became so much more than that fear. So Saturday night, as I saw the first signs of dusk, I couldn’t help but set out a blanket in the backyard to see what there was to discover.
That night, I covered up almost every inch of my skin, wary of the mosquitos who have already made their reappearance in town. It was still rather light out at first, but I didn’t want to miss anything, so I laid back, my face to the sky, and simply let the breeze sweep over me. But with the breeze came a full cloud of gnats just above me. After a day of centeredness, swatting them away just didn’t seem like an option, so I covered my mouth and decided to enjoy the show. She cloud would swarm close to my face within inches until the breeze would take them a few feet away. As we played this game for a while, I noticed just how high this cloud went, reaching taller than I can stand for sure, and even in the simplicity of gnats, I was in awe. But it didn’t take long for a new friend to take to the sky, causing the gnats to make their exit.
But hold on a second. Let’s not forget, this is the Westside we’re talking about! It would be unjust to continue without mentioning the chorus of dogs that was constantly serenading the night, as well as the pumping Cumbia music, featuring a dramatic singer and a powerful tuba, coming from a few houses down. Again, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself thinking, I’m not really sure this is what Barb had in mind, but hey. We’ll roll with it.
Back to the sky. By this time, the vast canvas above me was a deep grey and the only disturbance came from the breezy flight path of the bats. Only a few seconds elapsed before another bat made a quick, daredevil like dive across the sky. I watched as they soared and flipped, an excitement that really can capture your attention if you allow it to. Actually, they seemed a little close. I began thinking to myself, bats don’t ever land on the ground, right? I mean they just hang out in trees…I hope. Luckily we both kept our distance and before I knew it, a bright star had occupied the sky.
I stared deep into the sky, trying to make out any other stars, but was mostly just left following planes, a little envious of those on board, some undoubtedly taking off to see the ones they love. But after a while, I scanned across a flickering, much smaller star. It amazed me how different the stars could be, and yet we call them all the same. And before long, a few more began to populate the scene. It started with two, then another would join and another. I would count over and over the starts I had found, memorizing their place in the sky, especially the ones that were difficult to see. After who knows how much time passed, I had my eight stars visible from my backyard memorized. Satisfied, I came back inside, doing my best to avoid lights and all in all, so very thankful for the experience of being an observer of the night.
Tonight, I finally got the time to finish that book. What an incredible gift it is to get lost in a book and not even notice the lapse of time. But as Barbara completed her lunar cycle of the moon in the final chapter, I realized something. From my own night below the stars, I couldn’t actually remember seeing the moon. I mean, as Barb informed me, “Easter Day is always the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox…” so the moon that Holy Saturday should have been as full as ever. But why couldn’t I place it? Reading the end, the moon as “our lady of the underground” had captured my curiosity so much that I decided to go outside to view the endarkening light show once again. I really wanted to see the moon.
Tonight felt different than just a week ago. This time I gave in and dosed myself in the incense of bug spray, allowing the breeze to embrace me further. This trip out to the dark was just after a long day, not a holy day, and so laying down flat had a whole new meaning of rest and relief. The dogs continued their yelping as usual, and at one point an ice cream truck joined in the chorus in classic Westside fashion. But as the bats began to appear again, I became entranced. I followed them with my eyes so dearly that before I knew it, three stars were already in the sky, welcoming in the start of the Sabbath. I was amazed to recognize these stars in the same brightness and location as they were before. It was a familiarity like seeing a dear friend once again, and it immediately brought me back to that to that peaceful fullness of before. I recognized the eight starts and even noticed a few more through my ritual of counting and recounting, memorizing their placement. Twenty stars in the sky tonight. But no moon. I had not noticed her absence before, but now I longed to see her. I walked to my front porch to see if I could get a better view, but she was no where to be found.
So I set out on a mini search party for her. I got my bike and decided to just ride down to the end of my street, hoping that somewhere along the way I could catch a glimpse of her through the trees. It’s not hard to orient yourself when your life is defined by what side of the city you live on. But the problem is, the city is to the east of me, and when you live in the seventh largest city in the US, I figured the odds of seeing my friend along the skyline were against me. And it’s true. I never did find the moon, the thin sickle that she is tonight. But there was plenty enough to learn about my own darkness from riding down a street at night, unable to stop myself from the fear of stray dogs or people along my path. And yet, truthfully the view was worth it. Because getting out of my backyard, I got a front row seat to the changing sky of stars as I rode along. And maybe I didn’t find the moon, but for tonight, the vast web of stars was enough for me.
All that to say, I cannot declare that I had some great revelation from God in my nights under the sky. In the practice, I mostly just learned to test the boundaries of what I could discover as blessed by God. And I found that I really like the night sky. I can stare at the beauty of the stars and the moon all I want, a brightness that is willing to be seen. But I wouldn’t submit that this is all some great metaphor were God is the moon or the eight stars or even the breeze. Instead I allow the night to be a token of God’s presence. Not trying to figure out what it means, but simply taking it all in. Tonight it is possible to accept this peaceful darkness as a token of the divine presence…
So here’s my challenge to you. Try this out! Watch the spectacle of endarkening. See if you can find your own moon. Tell me about your experience if you do. And read this book if you really want to become a student of the dark. But it doesn’t take being a darkness expert to try it. It just takes some willingness to broaden our perspective. And really, I think God is all about that.