When I was a young child, I was afraid of the dark. Actually, it wasn’t the dark I feared; I was afraid of what was in the dark, those indescribable monsters that lurked under my bed or in my closet. It was a long way from the light switch beside the door to my bed on the other side of the room, but I could cover the distance in two long leaps and dive into bed before I was grabbed by one of those denizens of the dark.
Medieval cartographers often depicted sea serpents or other mythological creatures on their maps to indicate dangerous or unexplored territories. One map from the early sixteenth century, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, even included the phrase hic sunt dracones (“here are dragons”). The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of their known world they would fall off the edge and be eaten by dragons. The darkness of unknown places was a fearful thing in those days.
It still is. The dark, unexplored territory of life can still scare the dickens out of us. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her new book Learning to Walk in the Dark [New York: HarperOne, 2014], describes some of the darkness that may make you afraid.
If you’re a young person, you may have discovered that the faith you inherited from your parents just doesn’t do it for you anymore, and you want a faith that’s more real, more relevant, more original. You guess there’s a faith like that out there for you, but you haven’t encountered it yet. And it may take more than two long leaps through the dark to get there.
If you’re in your middle years, you may know another kind of darkness. “Maybe some of your dreams of God,” Taylor writes, “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 changed or come to their natural ends.”
If you’re somewhere in the latter season of life, “you are losing a lot more things than you once did – not just your keys and your vision, but also your landmarks and your sense of self. You are going to a lot more funerals now than before. . . . You know full well where all this is heading, but you also know that you are not ready yet.” There may be a season for everything and a time for every purpose under the sun, but is that time nearing already? And what lies beyond, in the darkness that no eye can penetrate?
I used to think the disciples to whom Jesus passed the spiritual baton were not burdened by such darkness. They were totally enlightened, uplifted by clarity, I thought. They had mounted up with wings like eagles so they could run and not be weary, walk and not faint. They knew first-hand the one who had mastered life, and there was good reason why Jesus said they would do even greater works than he had done (John 14:12) and why they would be called “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27).
But according to Matthew, in the crucial moment when the risen Christ departs and transfers all the authority of heaven and earth to the church, we learn what a motley crew they were. Enough of them doubted to rate a place in the gospel. So many of them labored in the darkness of doubt, Matthew simply could not ignore them; in creating the foundation story of the church, he had to acknowledge them. The darkness may not have overcome the light, but the light did not completely dispel the darkness even for Jesus’ closest followers.
Are the forces of evil that strongly entrenched, and is the battle between light and dark that long? Or have we misunderstood? Isaiah, the greatest prophet of the Hebrew scriptures, writing in the bleak darkness of Israel’s exile in Babylon, heard God promise “the treasures of darkness” (Isa. 45:3). What is dark to us is not dark to God; to God the night is bright as day, and darkness the same as light (Ps. 139:12). Darkness is not in conflict with light; it is only the garment God wears to cloak the treasure of divine presence (Ps. 18:11).
It’s only in the darkest night that the stars are at their brightest and clearest. It’s only when we venture beyond the boundaries of the world and the life we have known that we discover the eternal more of life that is yet to be apprehended and lived. Farmer and essayist Wendell Berry wrote about how we come to such a discovery.
“Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them – neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them – and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again” [Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (Berkely, Calif.: Counterpoint, 2002)].
What doubt and darkness may hold, what treasures they cradle to birth, I cannot say. But I’m learning to accept my doubts, to trust the silence and the darkness of life as things I need like I need the air I breathe. In them, in the realm beyond my knowledge or control or imagination, I grow humble before the God who forms light and creates darkness and holds them both in perfect harmony. And I find the place where I may be born again.