The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Walking in the dark

Posted by Ron George on June 20, 2016

Barbara Brown Taylor: Walking with God is not always sweetness and light.

Walking with God is not always sweetness and light.

It’s so seldom that a book leaves me gasping for breath, especially when it’s one of multitudes on the market these days about religion and/or spirituality. Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor, grabbed me by the throat last week as the author described her first walk into the total darkness of a wild cave; that is, one that hasn’t been turned into a tourist attraction with lighting, handrails and walkways.

I meet with a group of friends each week to discuss books we’re reading together. Taylor’s bestseller seems to have landed amid our group like a large stone in a quiet pool. That’s my impression, anyway. I was moved to tell about the darkest place I’d ever been, a sacred cave in Espinazo, Mexico, home of the folk-healing cult of El Nino Fidencio. Then, that very afternoon, I read the next chapter of Taylor’s book, the cave chapter, which I finished in the moral equivalent of a cold sweat.

I shuddered viscerally when Taylor wrote about remarkably narrow spaces through which cavers are willing to crawl while exploring wild – sometimes “unfriendly” – caves. It made my skin crawl to imagine – simply imagine – slithering on my belly through a long, tight, tunnel even for a few moments. The author of a book about caving, Barbara Hurd, told of her first experience, how she literally fled the cave rather than crawl through such a space. She managed to overcome that fear and write a perceptive book, Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark. Not I, though. If it means crawling through a tube – let alone one with water in it requiring that I slither on my back with my nose just above the water’s surface – I’ll stay outside with hurricanes and tornadoes.

I’ve always known how fearful I am of being trapped, enclosed with no way out. Just the thought of straightjackets give me the willies; being in one would drive me nuts. I once endured an MRI by imagining a choir singing “Surely the Presence.” Can’t imagine what I’d do now. Maybe the same thing – anything to keep my mind off being trapped in a tight place. Taylor recommends acquainting one’s self with the rock, and there is something to be said for living into one’s fear rather than fleeing. In this case, though, I’m not at all interested in that test, and I hope I never have to deal with it by necessity.

Pilgrims to the cave in Espinazo trudge up a mountainside strewn with rocks and cactus and populated by poisonous critters. A significant rattlesnake was once found over the cave entrance itself after many people already had passed into the cavernous first chamber. It’s a measure of one’s devotion to make this climb without complaint, and it’s not uncommon to see the elderly and lame struggle up the hill as though it were a test of faith.

Our group, though, was not composed of pilgrims. We were led by a man reared in Espinazo, whose home had become a kind of hostel for visitors from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi led by Professor of Ethnic Studies Leo Carrillo. I was there as a journalist on vacation with my wife, a photojournalist, who had been to Espinazo twice before. The climb was arduous under a clear, fall sky. The cave entrance small but not tight. Our flashlights only began to illuminate the large, seemingly vast main chamber, where hundreds of pilgrims are able to gather with candles to sing and pray.

The approach to La Cueva, Espinazo, Mexico Photo by Luis Martinez

The approach to La Cueva, Espinazo, Mexico
Photo by Luis Martinez

We picked our way along a relatively wide ledge, then were led up what seemed to be a broad, flat incline of stone. We stopped climbing beyond the reach of any light from the mouth of the cave. We turned off our flashlights and found ourselves in darkness so profound that it seemed to hold us in place. As we sat in silence, I became acutely aware of the great weight of the mountain just a few feet above our heads and then imagined the great depth to which this cave system must plunge into the roots of the earth. I had the sense of darkness gathering around us but also, paradoxically, of a kind of spaciousness that made bodily movement seem boundless. Strangely, this absolute, paradoxical darkness made me feel as though I might be able to fly or at least to reach out and touch that which I would not be able to reach in the light. No one has ever followed the cave to its end, said our host, for whom the cave was a boyhood playground. Stories abound, he said, of some who tried and didn’t return from La Cueva. For just a moment, I wondered whether I could be one who tried.

Bottom line: The darkness of La Cueva was spiritually invigorating even for an alienated Christian and former Episcopal priest.

I don’t know how long we sat in the dark. Probably not long, but when we turned on our flashlights, something within me wanted to stay longer, to sit within that sense of mountainous presence as long a it could be borne, even though it was disorienting and even frightening not to be able to see my hand in front of my face.

“Learning to walk in the dark” is an elusive concept. The darkness may indicate a rough patch of life, or it may mean the presence of God; or, perhaps, it’s that God is present, even in the darkness, so just get used to it, people. Walking with God is not all sweetness and light; in fact, perhaps very often, it’s walking in the dark as your faith hangs by a thread. (Sounds familiar.) I don’t want to push the metaphor too far, but it’s significant, perhaps, that when Barbara Brown Taylor was most in the dark in West Virginia’s Organ Cave, she and her companions simply sat in silence. Waiting for God? (Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen would agree.) And if there’s no god to await, what then? Doesn’t matter. I think we can agree that there’s no walking in absolute darkness.

Dark Room By Heather Paraday

Dark Room
By Heather Paraday

A genuinely caring, spiritual friend pushed on me a little bit last week to express more of the feeling about being in the cave in Espinazo – the weight of the mountain above, the depth of the cave below, the silence, the darkness, the stillness, the awesome sense of presence; the sense that there was something in the cave with you, something alive, perhaps something sinister; the disorientation. It became clear to me after our group meeting and then after reading Taylor’s experience that we were dealing with an overplus of meaning – the psychological soup from which religious and spiritual discourse emerges.

What are our minds to do with such experience? Our minds certainly do something. We tell the story; that is, we mythologize, and then we extrapolate meaning in shared language that affirms our being in the world together. We need not only to know but to believe. We humans are meaning makers, and who wouldn’t want to derive meaning from such an overwhelming experience?

How? We write songs. We create art. We create religion. We make meaning with symbols, such as darkness, and we perceive metaphors that lead us into spirituality. We create and re-create the world, again and again, through the eyes of what Alan Watts calls “the which than which there is no whicher” – that which is larger, much larger, than ourselves. The God of all creation, creator of the cave, the darkness and, of course, me, us, all humanity.

It may well be that the prehistoric religious impulse of humanity was due more to darkness than light; or, at least, that the impulse stemmed from fear of the darkness in hope of the light. It’s not that simple, but it’s a likely overview of how and why we humans want there to be something or someone supernatural in our lives. It’s real if we believe it’s real, whatever it is. God. Wood sprites. Faeries. Trolls. Orcs. Hobbits. Wizards. We are mythological creatures. Our lives would be meaningless without stories.

Barbara Brown Taylor: Darkness elicits lunar spirituality

Barbara Brown Taylor: Darkness elicits lunar spirituality

The problem with science is that it doesn’t mythologize. It theorizes and begs us to be awed by nature itself, the thing itself, rather than that which we can create, not by way of explanation – a facile theory for this complex impulse – but by way of engaging that which seems to be more than the sum of our parts: creative imagination in conscious awareness not just of our experience but also that we’ve experienced it and have embarked upon the project of making it mean something symbolic – something more than the sum of its parts. We yearn to rise to that level, somehow, and bind ourselves to that meaning, which we believe is ultimate: the truth itself. God.

It all begins with our sense – and it’s true – that there is more to this world and our experience of it than we can possibly comprehend. Our efforts seem always to fall short; our ideas, finally, appear to be wanting. We content ourselves with partial understanding, our little piece of the whole, but we yearn for comprehension – to wrap our minds around all there is to know and, in some way, believe.

But first, Barbara Brown Taylor might say, we must learn to walk in the dark; or, at least, to sit in silence and wait for God.

Could take a while.


4 Responses to “Walking in the dark”

  1. Fred Capps said

    I had an “underearthly” experience once that gave me a new reverence for the silent power of the earth when one is or may come to be trapped in a tunnel (or a cave) in the dark. Waiting is all there is to do.

  2. janintx said

    Thank you, Ron. I am grateful for your writing, speaking, you.

  3. Patsy Durham said

    Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my FAVORITE Priests/Writers!! Thank you for bringing her new book into my “field of vision.” Tour guides always do that “turn off all the lights” thing in caves, and I must admit I find it disorienting. I can’t ever tell if I standing upright or beginning to list to one side of the other and I can’t even tell if my eyes are OPEN or not. I’m always glad when the lights are turned on again. But, on my next cave tour I shall try “waiting” as you suggest. Meanwhile, I’m off to the bookstore to purchase a new book!

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