Monday, September 08, 2014

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 200 pages


The title of this book intrigued me.  I have long been a fan of Barbara Brown Taylor and have read most everything she's published.  An Altar in the World  and When God is Silent are favorites and I have recommended and lent these two volumes to many people.  Back in the 90s, I was blessed to have been spent a week in San Francisco with a small group led by Taylor and came to admire not only her careful use of language but also her love of the natural world.  When I saw she'd written a book about darkness, I ordered it and immediately started reading, sitting aside other books that I was already reading. 

Taylor describes her book as a journal instead of a "how-to" manual.  She begins her book with a phrase most of us who grew up in an age when kids played outside all day have heard: our mom's calling us, saying, "Come inside now, it's getting dark."  From an early age, we are taught to fear the dark.  Darkness also becomes a metaphor for all that is bad, which is seen through the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Yet, as Taylor points out, the God of the Scriptures is responsible for the darkness, too, having separated day from night.  And besides, there are many good things that happen at night in Scripture (44f). She also raises questions about our "full solar spirituality" which only focuses on the light, the pleasant, the sunny.  Such spirituality sees everything as positive and upbeat, but such theologies fail to provide support when things fall apart.   Quoting theologians and others who have written on darkness and what we might learn from such experiences, she sets off on her journey.  Along the way, she ponders the idea of restaurants where one eats in the dark.  As you are served, you are told where your food is at on your plate (93ff). She goes through a "blind exhibit" where she gets to experience what's it like to move through the world without sight (96ff).  She crawls through a cave in West Virginia.  And she spends the night alone in a cabin in the words, experiencing night in a new way (153ff).

By exploring darkness, Taylor has an opportunity to explore an overlooked branch of theology that expresses what God isn't, instead of what God is.  There is an ancient root to this.  Augustine, in the 4th Century, said, "If you have understood, what you have understood is not God" (144).  She spends time with the writings of John of the Cross who believed "positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing."  By teaching what God is not, John attempts "to convince his readers that their images and ideas about 'God' are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing" (38).

The lunar cycle provides the structure for the book.  She recalls the parallel between the three days separating the old (waning) moon and the new (waxing) moon to the death and resurrection of Jesus (108).   At the end of Taylor's journey, she experiences a moonrise, a new experience for her (166ff).  I was shocked at this, perhaps because I grew up close to the ocean and have experienced many moonrises, especially in the fall of the year while surf fishing at night.  Before the moon appears, there is a light on the distant horizon, and when it rises, it appears to be much larger than it does when overhead, and its rays seem to shimmer across the water as if they were directed at you.   Taylor's moonrise was moving enough that she decided to make a point to experience more such events.   I also found myself wishing that she had experienced a night sleeping under the stars in the desert or high in the mountains, where you wake and gauge the time by how far the stars appear to have moved across the heavenly sphere. 


Although the book may fail to teach us to walk in the dark, it does help us appreciate what we gain from the absence of light.  Quoting Carl Jung, we're reminded that "one does not become more enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." (86)  There is much we might learn from the darkness and Taylor's book is a beginning guide to help us see when the lights dim and the shadows overtake us.  

18 comments:

  1. I think it's a book very worth reading, and I shall add it to my library list. Yes, I'm still a major library fan, and for the little readers in my life, so very important to visit as often as possible. My mother lived much of her life being prepared for a life of darkness, even when I was quite young. Everything had to be put back where it belonged (the exact spot in fact) just in case you found yourself in the dark. Oddly enough, when she died, her sight was one of her best senses.

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  2. Cool my library has two copies so I put a hold on one. Life is just filled with a touch of key here and click there and presto just like magic.

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  3. Sage, for reasons I won't go into I am very glad you devoted a post to this book.

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  4. I'm so glad you reviewed this book, Sage - it's a peaceful read, I think. And you've captured its essence perfectly.

    I've head her speak a number of times now and every time - the crowd swells more and more.

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  5. Sage this sounds like a very intriguing book indeed. Hope all is well sir!!

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  6. Been quite a long time since I've read any book with specifically spiritual aspects. This sounds like something I might enjoy.

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  7. A lovely review.

    I tend to worry a bit about such writings for we've had more than 2500 years on light and darkness. And very few when the meaning of the terms are the same from one year to the next. Sometimes we've had light and darkness being one split in twain in a yin-yang type of thing. Sometimes we've had them equal but opposed. Sometimes we've had apolline references to light mistaken for the Christian and driven with the authority of society into something unholy indeed.
    During the era when Byzantium held the sway over the Church after the fall of Rome I've not read any great split/iconoclasm that didn't have light and it's mediation someplace at it's core.
    Then in the West post the Schism we have 'all' the major churches with stained glass.
    It's one of the things noted that when churches pre 1000AD are explored archaeologically very thin clear glass is found.

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  8. Although I never liked Jung as a Psychology major in college, this book sounds interesting!

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  9. The person next to me on the plane was reading it… coincidence?

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    1. Maybe a sign? Was the moon shining through the cabin's portholes?

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  10. Sounds like an intriguing book to make you think about some spiritual things.

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  11. Thanks for the recommendation. It will join the quay.

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  12. It sounds interesting, thanks for recommendation.

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  13. Sounds like a very interesting book, I'll look out for it!

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  14. How wonderful to be able to have spent time with an admired author. No wonder you put aside time to read this one. But you set aside books.. plural? How many books can you read at one time?

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  15. Very interesting, not just the book, but your review. Your opening paragraphs had me nodding along. I, too, was taught to fer the dark and yet, I am attracted to it. A project I would like to undertake at some point in my adopted city is to walk a good portion of it at night. From dusk till dawn

    Fascinating review, iIreally enjoyed it. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

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  16. The lunar cycle observation was interesting.

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