When I was in the second grade I received a Bible, a gift from my Sunday school. In the New Testament, Jesus was depicted as a blond, blue-eyed man, surrounded by a supernatural light. This is my earliest memory of spiritual imagery. Ms. Sherman, my Sunday school teacher, told us that Jesus was surrounded by light because he was so good and pure. I was a child who was terrified of the dark and who slept with the bedroom door open, the hallway light on, and a flashlight under my pillow until I was a teenager. I yearned for the light, and the imagery of my religious education in the 1960s confirmed and fueled all my fears of darkness. Like most of my contemporaries, I learned to view not only the spiritual realm but also the secular one through the dichotomy of light and darkness. I took up the imagery of our culture, accepting as a matter of course the triumph of light over darkness and Jesus, the Light of the world.
For many years I did not question this use of imagery. I took comfort in the notion of a beacon that would guide me in times of uncertainty. Even when I parted ways with the religious training of my childhood, I hung on to the imagery and the values that imagery implied. I never wondered why the good guys always wore white and the bad guys always wore black. I wasn’t bothered by references to evil depicted as the "forces of darkness." Eventually I found my way to Friends and discovered the spiritual home I had longed for since my days with Ms. Sherman. My connection to the source of all divine love was deepened, but I was so embedded in the imagery of my culture that I failed to notice the ways in which my imagination was limited.
My concern for spiritual imagery took a sudden turn when my youngest child was born. As I sat in meeting for worship holding my dark-skinned, newborn son, I began to hear the ministry of others in a new way. As people spoke about seeking the light, struggling through the darkness, equating the darkness with evil, I began to hear their messages through the ears of my son. What would it be like to grow up as a dark-skinned person, hearing messages like these over and over? How could I raise my child to be a proud and righteous dark-skinned man if over and over again he heard his darkness equated with evil? Why was darkness so frightening?
These questions transformed my own ability to hear. I was no longer listening through my child’s ears but through my own, filtering all messages through my newly raised consciousness of the privilege that came with having light skin. I knew that the ministry of these Friends came from a place of deep spiritual connection, and that made the messages even more painful. How could I teach my child to respect the source of ministry if the product of that ministry was so painful, or even poisonous, to the listener?
I struggled with these questions for several years, seeking to reconcile the sincerity and kindness I knew existed in the hearts of many Friends with the pain their messages caused me. As an antidote, I began to experiment with imagery on my own, seeking out positive references to darkness and inviting darkness into my own meditations. My quest spilled over into my daily life in unexpected ways. Always a spontaneous list-maker, I bought a notebook with black pages to keep in my handbag. When choosing art materials for my work with children I looked for black and other dark colors. I challenged myself to think of all the positive ways darkness could be described and to expand the list over time. I sought positive references to darkness in popular songs and in poetry.
What started as a concern for semantics, undertaken on behalf of someone else, led me to a new frontier in my own spiritual life where I have found a depth and richness unavailable to me before. I now see that it is not just other, darker people who suffer from our lack of spiritual imagination: we all suffer. The dialogue with the Divine in which each one of us is engaged occurs in a place beyond words and images. In order to communicate this dialogue with each other we must choose words and images that convey what we hear in our hearts. Both light and darkness are necessary to sustain life. By avoiding darkness in favor of light, we have cut ourselves off from a deeper understanding and experience of the full spectrum of spiritual experience available to us.
The darkness is a place of mystery and rest: rich and warm and fertile. Life begins and ends in darkness. Seeds germinate and take root in darkness. The womb is a place of darkness. Our dreams come to us during the darkness of our sleep. The heavens are visible only in darkness.
Our experience of the Divine takes place in darkness, as well. We feel the presence of the sacred in darkness, and then must filter that experience through the words and images available to us. Without the contrast of darkness we would not be able to know the light.
My journey in darkness has led me to change the way in which I seek the Divine. Now when I meditate, I try to enter the place in my mind that is completely empty so that I can wait to see what will be called forth by a greater spirit. The best way I can describe this place is to say that it is like being in a room that is completely dark—no moon, no stars, no artificial light, no visual images. If I sit in this room quietly and expectantly, sometimes I can feel myself being opened, as though I am able to be in other places as well as where my body is. In these moments I am filled with a love so powerful, so all encompassing, that I know it comes from a place beyond my own heart. It is not just that I feel the love, but that I become the love. I breathe in the deep rest of darkness and breathe out tenderness and compassion. The phenomenon is difficult to explain, but the route to my experience is simple: I seek the darkness.
This is a startling turn of events for someone who was once afraid of the dark. When I first began to use darkness in my meditations I often felt the same fear I had as a child. I was uneasy at best, and downright terrified some of the time. I told myself those feelings were silly, but they persisted. I had to discipline myself to be still and to wait in the darkness to see what might be growing. It took a long time to remember that the respite I seek in meditation is deeper and more restful in the dark. The seeds of my spiritual life are germinating.
I have begun to see that for me, darkness serves as a physical and emotional metaphor for faith. My struggle to be faithful is always carried out in darkness. By inviting darkness into my meditations, I am seeking uncertainty, rather than avoiding it. By seeking and honoring the darkness I have been able to understand faith in a new way. The darkness is a good place to begin as I seek to have my life and everyday actions guided by my sense of the Divine. I cannot know at the outset what path I will take, but through faith I allow myself to be guided, because I trust that I am on the right path. In darkness I must let go of where I think I am going and allow myself to be guided, because I have no way to see my path or my destination. I have only the belief that I will be safe.
I have also had to change my understanding of the outcome of spiritual seeking since I began this practice. A journey that begins and ends in darkness is qualitatively different from one that seeks the light. For me, this is the most useful gift I have received. I try to let go of my expectation that I will arrive somewhere particular when I pray. It helps me to live this intention when I know that the darkness is where I mean to stay.
I still have the Bible Ms. Sherman gave me. I look at the pictures now, the godly light surrounding the figure of Jesus, and I think that perhaps Ms. Sherman was afraid of the dark, too. I wish someone had been able to tell me that sight is only one way of knowing things; that the other senses sometimes lag behind because they aren’t used as frequently, but that when we rest our eyes, our other senses have a chance to grow stronger. I wish that someone had taken my hand and offered to sit with me in the dark until I felt safe on my own. I wish that I had been invited to love the darkness as a child, to know all the beautiful ways the darkness can be described, but I think the adults in my life, including Ms. Sherman, didn’t know the gifts of darkness. I hope that our children will not say the same thing about us.