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Learning to Walk in the Dark – Barbara Brown Taylor

March 5, 2017

ltwitdSince Christianity seems to have become predominantly happy clappy, there are few resources for Christians who are encountering the dark night of the soul.

For those of us who have read every other book by this author, she brings us up to date with her life story so that we can know how she got to her current state.

She argues that we need to move away from our “solar spirituality” and ease our way into appreciating “lunar spirituality” (since, like the moon, our experience of the light waxes and wanes). Through darkness we find courage, we understand the world in new ways, and we feel God’s presence around us, guiding us through things seen and unseen. Often, it is we are in the dark that we grow the most.

She guides us through a spirituality of the night-time, teaching us how to find our footing in times of uncertainty and giving us strength and hope to face all of life’s challenging moments.

Her chapter on the writings of St John of the Cross offers a brilliant introduction to his insights and the continuing relevance of Fowler’s stages of faith to Christian experience today.

I remember seeing on TV the turtles whose inner navigation system have been knocked out by too much light, who wash up on the beach, stranded, after laying their eggs. I have watched bird circling minarets without realising that the same thing had happened.

She believes that children should be exposed to the gruesome parts of fairy tales that are usually censored.

Surely she is wrong when she says that the word ‘ego’ didn’t exist until the Victorian era. It’s in the Greek New Testament especially in the fourth gospel.

Someone who lives as close to nature as she claims would know that bats ‘see’ wioth their ears so why: the small bats that hang from the low ceiling. I get so close to one that it opens its sleepy eyes to look at me, then pulls the velvet cape of its wing higher so that the eyes disappear from view.

The author: The light lasts longer some days than it does others. A year has dark seasons as well as light ones. No one would dream of telling us to avoid December because it has more dark in it than June, yet when it comes to faith we are taught to steer clear of darkness. Why is that? Living a full life includes accepting the full human quota of light and darkness. The moon is a steady reminder of that.


The good news is that dark and light, faith and doubt, divine absence and presence, do not exist as polar opposites. Instead they exist with and within each other, like distinct waves that roll out of the same ocean and roll back into it again…..This faith will not give me a safe place to settle but practicing it will require me to celebrate the sacraments of defeat and loss, and since the religion I know best has a lot to say about losing as the precondition for finding, I can live with that.
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 prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in con­viction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith. This sounds like heaven on earth. Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?

If you have ever belonged to such a community, however, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when dark­ness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, Your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says. The first time you speak of these things 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.

When they have heard the blast of the trumpet and seen the mountain smoking—every single one of these people who have prayed and prayed to hear the voice of God does a complete about-face. “You speak to us, and we will listen,” they say to Moses; “but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

The darkness that dominates this story has nothing to do with what time of day it is. It has nothing to do with the posi­tion of the planets in the sky or the rods and cones in people’s eyes. It is an entirely unnatural darkness—both dangerous and divine—that contains the presence of the 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,” this is what they mean: fear of God’s pure being, so far beyond human imagining that trying to look into it would be like try­ing to look into the sun.

When I took my first course in Christian mysticism at the age of nineteen, I learned to call this the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the terrible and fascinating mystery of Gcgi—which exceeds human ability to manage it in any way. “This darkness and cloud is always between you and God, no matter what you do,” wrote the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, “and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”‘

A thousand years earlier, a Cappadocian monk named Gregory of Nyssa was the first to see Moses’s cloud as a cipher for the spiritual life. “Moses’s vision began with light,” he wrote. “Afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the dark­ness.”2 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 a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God. If we decide to keep going beyond the point where our eyes or minds are any help to us, we may finally arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness.

What? God exists in darkness? Cloudy vision is a good thing?

“There is a tendency for us to flee from the wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods to idols, to kowtow before them ad approach their precincts only in the official robes of office. And when we are in the temples, then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness. Who will hear the reed shaken by the wind? —Chet Raymo, “The Soul of the Night.”

“half-baked images of God,” “peepholes into God,” “salt sea of grief.”

“I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now.”

“Among the other treasures of darkness I have dug up along the way are a new collection of Bible stories that all happen after dark, a new set of teachers who know their way around the dark, a deeper reverence for the cloud of unknowing, a greater ability to abide in God’s absence, and–by far the most valuable of all–a fresh baptism in the truth that loss is the way of life.”

It is late August. I am lying in my yard on a blow-up mattress waiting for Friday to become Friday night, which is how I know people are wrong when they say, “It’s as clear as the difference between night and day.” That might be true at noon or midnight, but here at the liquid edge between day and night, the difference is so unclear that there are many words for it: sundown, twilight, nightfall, dusk. When I sit up for a better look, the mattress hisses like a rubber raft drifting on eventide. According to the rabbis, the Sabbath begins when three stars are visible in the sky, in which case I am not there yet. As it turns out, there is a lot of ground to cover between one sunset and three stars.

I am here to begin my study of darkness with the real thing, paying attention to it the way an artist or an astronomer might, instead of using it to gauge how much more I can get done before bed. Most nights sundown is useful only insofar as it tells me that the horses are stamping their feet at the pasture gate waiting to be fed. Once they and the three dogs have emptied their buckets and bowls, it is back to the kitchen to make supper, sort through the debris that collects on every flat surface during the upheavals of an ordinary day, start a load of laundry, and maybe watch an old episode of West Wing or Grey’s Anatomy before settling down with a good book until the words run together and sleep puts the lights out.

Some nights the distractions are so plentiful that I do not even know what phase the moon is in, which was the whole point of moving to the country in the first place. When my husband Ed and I lived in the city, we almost never looked at the sky. When we were in the car, we looked at traffic. When we were on foot, we looked at the sidewalk while we talked about work, the weekend, and the kids. There was little reason to look up, since the night sky was almost always the same color. The reflective dome over the city took all the light that came its way, mixed it up, and painted the sky a metallic taupe that admitted few heavenly bodies. Even when the moon was full, it was hard to get a glimpse of it between the tall buildings that ringed the city in every direction.

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. Plus, there is something promising in the cycles of the moon—now you see her, now you don’t—for those who are more than halfway through what feels for all the world like a linear life with a period in view.

I took a cut in pay when I moved to the country, but the sky alone is worth it. Tonight, for instance, I am lying on a circle of flagstones still warm from the day’s sun. The house is right behind me, at the top of a small hill. In front of me the view opens in every direction, with the hill falling away into darkness and the silhouette of a big bald-faced mountain dominating the horizon. There are no other dwellings visible in any direction, which means that there are no house lights, porch lights, security lights, or headlights to compete with whatever is about to show up in the sky.

The sky over my head has changed from blue to saffron to an inky plum color, which the thin gray clouds on the horizon are soaking up like cloths dropped on a spill. The air is not cool yet, but it is cooling fast. The light cotton sheet I have thrown over my legs is starting to feel damp. Dew is condensing on my upper lip. Above my head, a single bat is making loop de loops as it hones in on hapless insects and plucks them from the air. If the rabbis had said that the Sabbath begins when you see three bats in the sky, then I would be a third of the way there—but there are still no stars in the sky. I thought I saw one a minute ago, but when I blinked it was gone.

During the day it is hard to remember that all the stars in the sky are out there all the time, even when I am too blinded by the sun to see them. While I am driving to the post office to pick up my mail, a shooting star could be flying right over the hood of my car. While I am walking to the library to return an overdue book, Orion’s Belt could be twinkling right above me. It is always night somewhere, giving people the darkness they need to see, feel, and think things that hide out during the day.
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, letting curiosity take the place of evasion. Even if it is just for one night, what can I learn about darkness by lying in wait for it like this?

According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, every day 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. For some, this realization does not come until the last three approaching cars have blinked their headlights at you. Mild confusion ensues—did you leave your pocketbook on top of the car again? —until the brain puts dark and dark together and turns the headlights on.

Civil twilight is over by the time I take up my post in the yard. The moon is at half-mast, lying low over the darkening horizon. It will be full tonight—what the first people who lived here called a Grain Moon since the hay in the field is ripening for the second time this summer. 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 into adventurous sex. The bat has apparently called it a night.

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. There are fewer crickets tonight, but they send their messages too, along with a pair of night birds trying to find each other in the dark. When the compressor for the air conditioning in the house turns on, I feel apologetic. I had no idea how loud it was out here, clearly interrupting a whole valley full of creatures that are trying to say something to one another.

Above all 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. What do people do, on nights like this, in countries where the start of a festival or a month of fasting depends on a clear view of the moon? Every now and then it shows through the clouds that are moving across its face. One moment it looks like the eye of a hawk in profile. The next it looks like the eye at the top of the pyramid on a dollar bill. Why does it never look simply like the moon behind clouds? I do not know. All I know is that I never tire of pulling the moon to earth by likening it to something I know down here.

When the thickening clouds leave no doubt that nautical twilight will not be happening tonight—much less astronomical twilight, which begins when even the faintest stars are visible—I think that I should go inside, but I do not go inside. The sky changes every couple of seconds. The breeze is slight but delectable. The sounds come from all directions at once. If I put out my hand to touch the flagstones beneath my raft, I can still feel the heat of the day in them, as if the earth were a sleeping animal giving off warmth.

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.

This struggle goes on for about twenty more minutes before productivity wins out. Rolling off my raft, I stand and fold the cotton sheet, dragging the mattress up to the porch behind me. Then I say good night to the moon and go inside the house to deal with the detritus of my day.

Later, lying in my bed, I feel cut off from everything that is going on outside my windows. I feel too loose, like a baby who has been unwound from her swaddling clothes and does not know what to do with her limbs. Outside, the gentle weight of the night had put me in my place and held me there, so that I could not ignore the spectacle of an ordinary summer evening. On a night like this, it is hard to understand why anyone would choose a reading lamp and the hum of the air conditioner over a box seat at the sound-and-light show outside, where it is always opening night.

“What can you fear 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 have you learned in the dark that you could never have learned in the light?

“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.”
“…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.”

“The only real difference between Anxiety and Excitement was my willingness to let go of Fear.”
“There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”
“The real problem has far less to do with what is really out there than it does with our resistance to finding out what is really out there.”
“I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now. Most of the time, I feel so ashamed about this that I do not own up to it unless someone else mentions it first. Then we find a quiet place where we can talk about what it is like to feel more and more devoted to a relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about.”
“Or my eyes go back to seeing it that way. 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.”
“our comfort or discomfort with the outer dark is a good barometer of how we feel about the inner kind.”
“Busy? The word loses all meaning under the canopy of this sky.”
“To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings. —Wendell Berry”
“those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God. If we decide to keep going beyond the point where our eyes or minds are any help to us, we may finally arrive at the pinnacle of the spiritual journey toward God, which exists in complete and dazzling darkness.”
“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.”
“During the day it is hard to remember that all the stars in the sky are out there all the time, even when I am too blinded by the sum to see them”
“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”
“If I have any expertise, it is in the realm of spiritual darkness: fear of the unknown, familiarity with divine absence, mistrust of conventional wisdom, suspicion of religious comforters, keen awareness of the limits of all language about God and at the same time shame over my inability to speak of God without a thousand qualifiers, doubt about the health of my soul, and barely suppressed contempt for those who have no such qualms. These are the areas of my proficiency.”
“This is not a how-to book, but if it were, the only instruction 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?”
“According to a recent article in the New York Times, few parents expose their children to those works in the original these days, and some of their reasons make sense. Who wants children growing up with the idea that stepmothers are wicked, ugly people are evil, women can get by on their beauty, and princesses are all white? At the same time, I worry about children who grow up thinking that every story has a happy ending and no one gets permanently hurt along the way.”
“Even when light fades and darkness falls–as it does every single day, in every single life–God does not turn the world over to some other deity…Here is the testimony of faith; darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”
“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.”
“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.”
“A few years ago, Ed and I were exploring the dunes on Cumberland Island, one of the barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the mainland of south Georgia. He was looking for the fossilized teeth of long-dead sharks. I was looking for sand spurs so that I did not step on one. This meant that neither of us was looking very far past our own feet, so the huge loggerhead turtle took us both by surprise. She was still alive but 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. Judging by her tracks, she had dragged herself through the sand until her flippers were buried and she could go no farther. We found her where she had given up, half cooked by the sun but still able to turn one eye up to look at us when we bent over her. I buried her in cool sand while Ed ran to the ranger station. An hour later she was on her back with tire chains around her front legs, being dragged behind a park service Jeep back toward the ocean. The dunes were so deep that her mouth filled with sand as she went. Her head bent so far underneath her that I feared her neck would break. Finally the Jeep stopped at the edge of the water. 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.”
“When we arrived in this large room, Rockwell put a fluorescent marker down where we entered so we could find the way back out again. When Hurd failed to do that, her teacher corrected her. “In a cave,” she told Hurd, “always, always look back. Every few minutes, turn around. Nothing looks the same coming out as it did going in, so you have to memorize the backsides of every boulder, the shape of the hole you’ve just come through, see the reverse of every angle of slope.” Since my lamp is off, I think about how many hours I have spent in therapy instead, doing more or less the same thing: walking around the boulders of my childhood to see how they look from every angle, peering down into the holes where I spent months in the dark, wondering why the handholds I can see from the top were invisible from the bottom. The difference between the therapy and the cave is that the therapy wants me to look back so I can find another way out, not so I can return by the same way I came. Maybe that makes the cave 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.”
“here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“as she went. Her head bent so far underneath her that I feared her neck would break. Finally the Jeep stopped at the edge of the water. Ed and I helped the ranger unchain her and flip her back over. Then”
“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. What such people stand to discover, Greenspan says, is the close relationship between “individual heartbreak and the brokenheartedness of the world.” While those who are frightened by the primal energy of dark emotions try to avoid them, becoming more and more cut off from the world at large, those who are willing to wrestle with angels break out of their isolation by dirtying their hands with the emotions that rattle them most. In this view, the best thing to do when fear has a neck hold on you is to befriend someone who lives in real and constant fear. The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread. The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, “Tell me about it. I have all day.” The hardest part about doing any of these things is to do them without insisting that your new teachers make you feel better by acting more cheerful when you are around. After years of being taught that the way to deal with painful emotions is to get rid of them, it can take a lot of reschooling to learn to sit with them instead, finding out from those who feel them what they have learned by sleeping in the wilderness that those who sleep in comfortable houses may never know. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” Carl Jung wrote, “but by making the darkness conscious.”3 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 endarkenment. 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.”
My guess is that this idea is as incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it as it is indisputable to those who have. No one has described it better for me than Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter who wrote about his experience in a memoir called And There Was Light. Lusseyran was not born blind, though his parents noticed he was having trouble reading and fitted him with glasses while he was still quite young. Beyond that, he was an ordinary boy who did the things that other boys do, including getting into fights a school. During one such scuffle, he fell hard against the corner of his teacher’s desk, driving one arm of his glasses deep into right eye while another part of the frame tore the retina in left. When he woke up in the hospital, he could no longer se His right eye was gone, and the left was beyond repair. At th age of seven, he was completely and permanently blind.

As he wrote in a second volume, he learned from the rea tons of those around him what a total disaster this was.

days, blind people were swept to the margins of soci­ety those who could not learn how to cane chairs or an instrument for religious services often became beggars. and doctors suggested sending him to a residential 1 for the blind in Paris. His parents refused, wanting their to stay in the local public school, where he could learn to on in the seeing world. His mother learned Braille with He learned to use a Braille typewriter. The principal of his 1 ordered a special desk for him that was large enough to d his extra equipment. But the best thing his parents did him was never to pity him. They never described him as fortunate.” They were not among those who spoke of the night” into which his blindness had pushed him. Soon after accident, his father, who deeply understood the spiritual life, said, “Always tell us when you discover something.”‘

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 him things he might never have found any other way. Barely ten days after his accident he made a discovery that entranced him for the rest of his life. “The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words,” he wrote. “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. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passion­ately a few weeks before.

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.

At first I thought he was speaking metaphorically—or per haps theologically—but as I continued to read, it became clear that he was also speaking literally of an experience of light that had nothing to do with his eyes. With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He could tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body.

“The oak, the poplar, the nut tree have their own specific levels of sound,” he wrote by way of explanation. “The tone of a plane tree is entered like a room. It indicates a certain order in space, zones of tension, and zones of free passage. The same is true of a wall or a whole landscape.”‘ If Lusseyran had not already established himself as a trustworthy guide, that might have sounded crazy to me, but since he had won my Why had I never paid attention to the sounds of trees before? Surely the leaves of an oak made a different sound in the wind than the needles of a pine, the same way they made a different sound underfoot. I just never bothered to listen, since I could tell the trees apart by looking. When a sighted friend told me that she had been to a workshop where she learned how to listen to trees, I was taken aback.

“What do they say?” I asked incredulously.

“You don’t want to know,” she replied ruefully. Acid rain, pine beetles, clear-cutting developers—what did I think trees talked about?

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.

Speed is another problem. Our eyes glide so quickly over things that we do not properly attend to them. Fingers do not glide, Lusseyran points out. To feel a table is a much more inti­mate activity than seeing it. Run your hands across the top and you can find the slight dip in the middle of the center panel that you might otherwise have missed, proof that this table was planed by hand. After that, your fingers work in inches instead of feet, counting the panels by finding the cracks that separate them, locating the burn—sickle-shaped, like the bottom edge of a hot skillet—and a large burl as well. You can smell the candle wax before you find it, noting the dents left here and there diners who brought their silverware down too hard.

By the time you reach the legs, you know things about t table that someone who merely glances at it will never know You know that a patch on one of the legs came unglued fell off sometime during the past century, and that someone raised the overall height of the table by adding globes belt each foot. Until very recently, I would have said that the one thing you cannot tell without looking is what kind of wood the table is made of, but that was before I visited the violin maker who taught me about the sounds of different wood He used only spruce for the front, he said, and maple for back. Then he picked up a rough cut of each and rapped them with his knuckles so even I could hear the difference. If the violin maker were blind, I think he could have figured out that the table was made of walnut, heavy and dense from years of slow growth.

If this does not sound particularly spiritual to you, that may have more to do with you than with the table. Ever major spiritual tradition in the world has something significan to say about the importance of paying attention. “Look at th birds of the air,” Jesus said. “Consider the lilies of the field.” I you do not have the time to pay attention to an ordinary table, how will you ever find the time to pay attention to the Spirit?

“Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things,” Lusseyran wrote.” One of his 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 Nee 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 started 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.

If we could learn to be attentive every moment of our lives, he said, we would discover the world anew. We would discover that the world is completely different from what we had believed it to be. Because blindness taught him that, he listened with disbelief as the most earnest people he knew spoke about the terrible “night” into which his blindness had pushed him. “The seeing do not believe in the blind,” he con­cluded, which may help explain why there are so many stories in the Bible about blind people begging to be healed. Whoever wrote down those stories could see.

In seminary I was taught to interpret them as teachings about spiritual blindness, but no matter how you read them, it is clear that Jesus heals only a very small percentage of those who ask for his help. There is also that strange thing he says at the end of a long healing story in John’s Gospel. “I came into this world for judgment,” he says after healing a man who has been blind from birth, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”‘2

Before reading Lusseyran, I always heard that as a threat­ening judgment. Now it sounds more promising to me. At the very least, it makes me wonder how seeing has made me blind—by giving me cheap confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are, by distracting me from learn­ing how the light inside me works, by fooling me into thinking I have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road leads, of who can see rightly and who cannot. I am not asking to become blind, but I have become a believer. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.

Tonight there will be no moon in the sky. For close to three days it will rise and set with the sun, leaving the stars alone to light the night. I always wondered why it took “three days” for significant things to happen in the Bible—Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale, Jesus spent three days in the tomb, Paul spent three days blind in Damascus—and now I know.


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 sink 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.

After that, I stop thinking. I simply sit in the sweet, envel­oping darkness, letting it erase me in the best possible way.

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 counsel­ors 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.


May wrote his book on John of the Cross while he was wait­ing for a heart transplant. Years earlier he had undergone chemo­therapy for a cancer that his doctors pronounced cured, though the cure caused the heart disease that took him back to death’s door. Since his sickness had brought him closer to God and his loved ones than he had ever been before, May said he finally gave up trying to decide what was ultimately good or bad. “I truly do not know,” he wrote. He died in 2005 at the age of sixty-four.

There’s a good discussion guide here

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