This sermon was preached on February 26, 2012 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock in White Stone, VA.
This poem by David Whyte has been one of my favorites for many years now. It has been sitting with me through these winter months. It was the text that would not leave me as I was asked to provide a description for my sermon this morning.
The poet calls us into the dark, not as a place of death and decay but rather a place of renewal and re-birth. This runs counter to the messages of our culture. We fill our homes with artificial light and we even adjust our clocks to give us “daylight savings” rather than just flowing with the natural rhythms of the season. Now don’t get me wrong, I love electricity and was totally miserable following Hurricane Irene when we were without power for 5 days. Yet in our quest to avoid the darkness, we miss out on the gifts it has to give.
Our culture’s desire to avoid darkness is not just being without light as in nighttime and short daylight hours in the winter here in North America, it also refers to our avoiding the dark and painful times and places in our lives. After all we are fed a steady diet that says if we just had this product or service, or this job or the right whatever it is…we would always be happy and satisfied.
Yet darkness is as part of life just a night follows day and winter follows fall and summer. We will have dark times in our lives. Times of grief and uncertainty, times when our vision has gone and no part of the world can find us. What are the gifts of darkness and what might it have to teach us, if we surrendered to it rather than fought it?
Some in this room I know have faced deep darkness in their lives; maybe even battled deep clinical depression so a word of caution here. There are some who fall into the darkness of depression and cannot find their way out. They seek help and despite all the therapy and medications, they cannot find their way out of the dark. This kind of depression should not be dismissed or simply chalked up to a phase. Parker J. Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation and many other books, speaks eloquently of his battles with clinical depression and from which he has found deep spiritual meaning, warns us that what works for some will not work for others. For some seeing a deep spiritual journey will be helpful and for some it will not. Palmer when asked by another person battling with depression why some recover and others do not; he answered honestly “I do not know.” We do not know and while we can accompany others on their journey, we cannot truly know what another is experiencing.
Palmer tells us that he shares his story of depression in part to let the young know that darkness and pain are a part of life. I think Palmer is right when he tells us that we disservice the young when we do not talk about the hard times of our lives; about loneliness, loss of vision, uncertainty. We need to speak that it is a part of the human experience to have periods of darkness and that that are part of the cycle of life. It may not make the challenging times easier but maybe at least less shocking when they come.
What can this loss of vision look like? Thankfully most of us will be spared the pain of deep clinical depression. The kind of despair that does not allow one to get out of bed in the morning or that prevents us from enjoying the beauty of a sunny day. Yet we have had those times when maybe we have said how “stressed out” we are, or things that once brought joy and meaning are no longer the same. Maybe the bleakness comes as a result of a loss … loss of a person, a job, a dream. Sometimes we know exactly why we are now in a period of darkness and other times it can catch us unaware and off guard.
This fall and winter, the darkness came as I was so immersed in the doing. Rev. Jennifer Ryu, Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists minister, who I work with, was on sabbatical and it was incredibly busy fall. As so often happens when things get busy, two things happened, I stopped taking care of myself and I tried to do everything myself. In being so busy, I fell out of touch with me. I stopped paying attention and being aware – I kept doing and didn’t take much time to just be. For me I experienced that first line of the poem “When your vision has gone.” The busier I was with the details of all that needed to be done, the more I lost sight of the bigger picture. If you will … all I could see were the trees and no forest. I didn’t feel like I could take the time to stop, to step back, to breathe. I needed the ‘sweet darkness’ that David Whyte speaks of.
So what does sweet darkness look like? The darkness for me truly was this desire to enter into a place that would hold me, nurture me and remind of who I am. I knew that I needed to step back even as I kept doing. So as the fall fell into more of rhythm and Jennifer returned in December I acknowledged how tired I truly was. I was more gentle with myself. I reached out to friends and while I was still busy, I had a heightened sense of awareness that I needed to be gentle with myself. Did I do this perfectly? Absolutely not.
I am grateful for the time I took off between Christmas and New Year’s. I had hoped for a time to focus on the house and getting things done there or maybe even to do some reading … expecting once again that doing more would be the remedy. Entering and embracing the dark as renewing force is not easy; surrender is not an easy thing to do. Yet for the first week, all I wanted to do was nothing. I needed to do nothing. I slept; I hung out with my family and did a lot of nothing. This time allowed me to relax into the darkness and recognize a need to taste its sweetness.
So, once I returned to work after vacation, I made plans for my silent retreat. Silent retreats are amazing and have been a place for me to return to myself. I have done numerous group silent retreats, the first time when I was a senior in college. A different type of community is formed when as a group you consciously chose to enter silence. I have always done directed retreats, meaning that I have met daily with a spiritual director. In meeting with a director, I get a listening ear, sometimes a practice to try or a text to reflect on. It is important for me to get that feedback so I don’t just stay stuck in my own head. In this retreating and deep relating I begin to taste the sweetness of the deep.
I just came off three days of silent retreat at Richmond Hill. It is a little different when you are in silence and others are not. Yet it is just as powerful. I spent my days in prayer, participating in the daily prayer life of Richmond Hill, walking the labyrinth and reading. In stepping away from e-mail, phone, work and even home, I was able to get quiet and listen.
Part of the retreat, was to intentionally step into the darkness, to embrace the horizon that one can only see in the dark. For me that meant spending a lot of hours alone, in prayer and in reading; I paid attention to what drew me, so the library at Richmond Hill had Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle and I re-read it along with the two sequel novels. I also re-read Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. On the one hand it was incredibly renewing and restful and yet I was also struck as I came home that I had done a lot of work. I had gone deep into myself. I kept my journal with me constantly, writing in it multiple times a day. It truly was a journey deep within.
Palmer writes of this downward, inward journey. He is not alone, there is also Thomas Merton, the mystics like Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross and many others. Poets, artists, theologians of all traditions, speak of this journey deep within. For Palmer this downward, inward journey is necessary for an authentic spiritual life. The spiritual life is not all about beautiful sunsets and walks on the beach; it is also about death and dying for we live knowing that we will die. It is about dealing authentically with evil. The spiritual life is about embracing all of life – its joy, sorrow, good, bad, the most holy and the most profane. It is the world that tries to sell life without death, joy without sorrow, and an endless string of satisfaction and happiness. Embracing this journey, we can gain clarity around what we need to let go of in order to make room for something else.
The downward, inward journey will require us to be real with ourselves, to confront our gifts and blessings, as well as our faults and failings. It is becoming our whole self. Florida Scott Maxwell puts it this way, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.” You are fierce with reality. This downward, inward journey is not an escape from ourselves and the world, it is a journey to reality, a journey to become fierce with reality.
The poet says it another way, this journey into the dark, will remind you that the world is meant to be free in and to give up the world in which we don’t belong. What might some of these worlds be? Again, Palmer provides insight. On the journey to the authentic self and authentic vocation, there are those in our lives who will tell us who we are and who we are meant to be. Often we spend much of our lives living up to these expectations of others. Maybe these expectations come from family or friends or the culture at large that seeks to tell us what will make us happy, fulfilled, and successful. Often however these signs of success are based on external things like status, income and wealth. After all we privilege certain kinds of work over others – like the work of the mind over the work of the hands. Isn’t this at the heart of the “mid-life” crisis? This crisis of identity, the “Is this all there is?”
The poet calls us to give up all these other worlds, to only be in the one in which we belong, the one in which we can be our authentic selves. Sometimes the only way to find that place is to enter into darkness, into silence, into solitude where we find “the sweet confinement of our aloneness.”
The poet ends leaves us with the injunction to give up anything or anyone that does not bring you alive. This is a tough injunction. In essence the poet calls us to live authentically and to release ourselves from the expectations of those things and those people who want us to live their lives, their dreams, their expectations rather than a life of the authentic self. In discussing his depression, Palmer speaks of those who were most helpful to him. Those who were most helpful did not try to “fix” his depression, did not offer advice, they sat with him often in silence – silently witnessing to his pain. One man came every day and with Palmer’s permission, removed his shoes and socks, and massaged his feet. He witnessed and stayed with him in the pain. So often when we see another’s suffering we want to rush in with advice and the desire to fix it. Sometimes, all that is needed, and what is most hard to give, is to simply stay present, in the moment, bearing witness to another’s pain and suffering. Palmer quotes poet Rainer Maria Rilke “love … consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” To say it another way, Palmer writes, “By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.”
The darkness is not an easy place to journey, this journey downward and inward. It can feel like avoidance and denial are much better alternatives. Yet without the darkness, how are we to know the light? Without pain, how can we truly know joy? Without tears, laughter? In Wrinkle in Time, the children travel to another planet completely shadowed in darkness, completely controlled by a singular entity that does all its thinking for it. This is not the sweet darkness of the downward, inward journey but rather the darkness of those powers that would seek to annihilate the authentic life. IT, a huge brain controls the entire planet and it has imprisoned Mr. Murray and will not let him go. IT promises peace, freedom from thought, no pain, no sickness, no suffering. Everyone on the planet operates on the same schedule every day, every week through the year. The children bounce their balls and jump rope in the same rhythm…no diversity, no need for independent decision making. There may be no suffering on this planet, but there is no joy either. The people are not truly alive.
To be truly alive is to know pain and darkness. It is also to know love and joy. To become fully human, fully alive is to become fierce with reality. To become fierce with reality we must embrace the totality of who we have been and who we are.
Palmer ends Let Your Life Speak with a meditation on the seasons. For the journey to the authentic self is not a linear journey that one takes once and then is done. It is more like the labyrinth, the spiral. As many of you know, when one walks a labyrinth, one walks around sometimes drawing close to the center and other times walking on the edge. To reach the center, you must circle around and around, in and out until you arrive and then you take the same journey out. It is a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life. We spiral around, sometimes close to the center and sometimes way out on the edge. It is an endless cycle like the seasons of the year. Palmer writes, “Our lives participate in the myth of eternal return: we circle around and spiral down, never finally answering the questions Who am I? and Whose am I?” In his reflection on winter he writes, “Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives.”
So I invite you to embrace this journey. I invite you to explore the gifts darkness can offer, gifts of vision and insight. I invite you to accompany others by standing next to them, witnessing their journey, without the need to fix, to offer advice and without turning away. I invite you into the sweet confinement of your aloneness. Blessed Be.