On this beautiful, bright, sunny Sunday morning, I am thinking about darkness and night - probably because yesterday the summer solstice arrived in the Western hemisphere, signaling the return of the darkness and the gradual lengthening of the night.
Most people associate darkness with sadness and melancholy. Many are even afraid of the dark, turning on every available light and locking all the doors at the first sign of twilight. But the fact is that, like all animals, human beings need darkness to survive. Without darkness and night, our body rhythms are thrown out of whack. The nighttime with its darkness and shadows is also important for our psychological well-being.
An article in yesterday's New York Times suggests:
Human beings need the shadow world, those things that cannot be easily explained, those things we suspect or imagine but do not know, and all those other areas of our lives that are defined by their gradation of uncertainty. Such ambiguity plays an important role in human thought and perception.
I believe that this shadow world of darkness and night with all its uncertainty and ambiguity also plays an important role on the spiritual journey.
We often talk about spirituality as a journey to the light- a path to enlightenment. The great paradox is that one cannot walk toward the light without entering into the darkness of mystery and uncertainty.
Saint John of the Cross, the renowned 16th century monk and mystic, writes about "the dark night of the soul" as a necessary pathway to the experience of love and light. He suggests that the dark night of "nothing," "no answers" and "unknowing" is a great gift for the spiritual seeker, liberating us from the limited and limiting ideas we have about "God," freeing us from undo "attachment" to doctrine, dogmas and spiritual practices.
St. John says that our "bright and clear" certainties about "God" are in fact substitutes for "God." The pathway to the transcendent is a shadowy, mystical path into unexplainable mystery. John says:
We are never in more danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going
In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor celebrates the darkness of her spiritual path and praises the shadows she has come to embrace along her way to the light. Her wisdom rings so profoundly true to me as I walk my on my own path at this stage of my life.
After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to 'nothing.' There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea steering by stars. Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides great relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.
I love waking up in the morning, sitting in my garden as the bright sun dawns over the desert, but I love the nighttime just as well. In fact I need the night - I cherish the shadows and the uncertainty of it all.
When night falls, I turn off the lights. I walk out into the desert or sit quietly outside my home, relishing the mystical light of moonlight and starlight in the blazing cosmos above, casting unnamed shadows on the earth below. I love the profound stillness of the desert at night, interrupted by the howling of coyotes, the sounds of hooting owls, bats flying through the night skies, the mysterious rushing of the wind sweeping off the mountains.
The nighttime of darkness and shadows teaches me that there is no permanent place to safely settle. I will always be steering by the stars. My spiritual path is a wonderful, mysterious journey into the dark as I walk toward the brightness of the light.
The nights are getting longer. "Hello darkness, my old friend!"