Embracing Darkness

As we begin our month-long reflection on the spiritual theme of "Mystery" and we recognize the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the Christian season of Advent, Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Ed Mathis share their thoughts about the mystery of the darkness and our yearning for the light. 

Sermon: "Embracing Darkness"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

Happy Hanukkah to all of those who celebrate it. It’s a story that’s familiar to most of us, isn’t it? The miracle of the oil that was only enough to last a day actually burning for eight. It’s a story of the victory of good over evil. It’s a story of hope and a story of faith. And it’s a story of the light overcoming the darkness. That’s a common theme at this time of year: Light overcoming darkness. We see that theme in the celebration of Diwali, sometimes called “The Festival of Lights.” Diwali is a Hindu celebration of good defeating evil, of light conquering darkness. We see it in winter solstice celebrations, when Yule logs and bonfires are lit to chase away the darkness and to summon the return of the sun. We see it in sacred and secular celebrations of Christmas, with brightly lit trees and houses and lawn displays, and the birth of the Christ child, who is often called “The Light of the World.”

As our days in the northern hemisphere shorten and the cold of winter settles in, these holidays make sense. The light we receive these days is slanted and angled and obscured. We feel the absence of light deep in our bones and so, like a dog who finds the slash of sunshine cast on a carpet, we move toward the light, both literally and figuratively, shifting our position throughout the day to stay in the its healing warmth. Some of us even use special lamps to try and get an extra dose of sunlight to help chase away our seasonal depression.

Today, though, I want to urge us to resist the rush toward the light. I want to invite us to explore the hidden gifts of the dark, and to consider how we might at least accept, or even, perhaps, come to embrace the darkness. Now, let me say right up front that, as a kid, I was deathly afraid of the dark. I remember being paralyzed by the fear that something was lurking under my bed, and it was just waiting to grab me by my ankles if I dangled my feet over the edge. I even have a distinct memory from when I was about 11 or 12 years old of lying in my bed at home, listening to the sounds of the night, and deciding that I could never be a parent because I was too afraid of the dark to ever be able to get up and search for the source of some mysterious thing that went bump in the night. There’s no doubt that the dark can be a scary, scary place, and not just for kids.

But let’s take a little closer look at the dark. Could it be that the dark has gifts to offer, gifts that we might overlook in our race toward the light? Before I try to answer that question, it’s probably important to flesh out what I mean by “the dark” and “darkness.” Because, as you’ve probably guessed, I mean more than just the physical absence of light and the time between sunset and the dawn. In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor says “darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I don’t have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” That’s a pretty good working definition of the dark. Another way to think of the dark is as a synonym for “mystery” or even “uncertainty.” To be in the dark is to be in a place of not knowing. It’s facing the unfamiliar and encountering the unknown. And that can be a scary place, right? Because in these dark places we’re not in control. We can’t see what’s ahead of us. We don’t know what will happen. We don’t even know what our options are, much less how to choose one. To be in the dark is to have no idea whether the next step we take will plunge us into the abyss or be the first step up the basement stairs toward the light of day. Is there any wonder we’re afraid of the dark?

But do we have to be? Is there another way to look at darkness, at uncertainty, at mystery? UU minister, the Rev. Gordon McKeemon, offers us this invitation:

How does one address a mystery?

Cautiously—let us go cautiously, then, to the end of our certainty, to the boundary of all we know, to the rim of uncertainty, to the perimeter of the unknown which surrounds us.

Reverently—let us go with a sense of awe, a feeling of approaching the powerful holy whose lightning slashes the sky, whose persistence splits concrete with green sprouts, whose miracles are present in every place and moment.

Hopefully—out of our need for wholeness in our own lives, the reconciliation of mind and heart, the conjunction of reason and passion, the intersection of the timeless with time.

Quietly—for no words will explain the inarticulate or summon the presence that is always present even in our absence…

Simply be in the intimate presence of mystery, unashamed—unadorned—unafraid.

And at the end say—Amen.

Cautiously. Reverently. Hopefully. Quietly. Simply. Those sound like pretty good ways to approach the darkness, the mystery, the not knowing of our lives. Notice what Gordon doesn’t say, too: He doesn’t say to run from it. He doesn’t say to hide from it. He doesn’t say to try in any and every way we can to avoid or extricate ourselves from the darkness. Yes, we should be cautious, we should take baby steps lest there be unseen obstacles in front of us. But we need not necessarily be afraid of the dark. We need not rush to the light, to the answers, to the comfort of the familiar, to the quick fix that relieves our anxiety.

What would it be like if we approached our uncertainty with reverence and hope, instead of frustration and fear? What if we shifted our perspective and came to believe that the darkness has things to teach us that we could never learn in the light? What if we came to accept our unknowing, instead of being threatened by it? Can we give ourselves permission to not have all the answers? When my daughters were younger, I thought that one of the roles a father played had to be “the answer-man.” No matter what question they threw at me, I gave them an answer. Whether it was the right answer or not. Whether I knew the answer or not. I would make my answers sound plausible and, as I’d always been told, when you speak with authority others will believe you. So I did and they believed me. And, you know what? It was exhausting! And, even worse, as I think back on it now, I fear that in my need to have answers, in my rush from the darkness to the light, we lost something. We lost out on the opportunity to join in an exploration to discover the answers together. To learn together why the sea is salty and how horses sleep standing up.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells us that the dark has things to teach us. She writes: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that being in the dark, in that place of uncertainty and not knowing could save our lives? That we need the questions as much as we need the answers?

The darkness has wisdom to teach us, if we can but stand to stay in it for a time. They may not be easy lessons to learn, I grant you that. Consider a time, perhaps, when you looked up at the night sky and took in the immensity of the Universe and faced your own insignificance. And consider, too, that those stars are always up there, but we can’t see them when the sun is out. In the dark, and often only in the dark, we encounter our deepest thoughts and feelings, the emotional monsters that lurk under our beds. And when we invite them to come out from under there, we might just find that they’re not quite as scary as we feared, and we may even find ways to come to live with them in harmony. To grow into a peaceful coexistence with our grief and our pain, our feelings of inadequacy, or simply our uncertainty about who we are and where we’re going. Jungian psychology is based on the idea that we need to integrate the shadow part of ourselves with our public persona – the one we reveal to others – to be fully human. We need to face our shadows, our darkness, the things that lurk and thrive in the night.

To willingly stay in the dark is not to promote our own obliviousness, or to accept that we don’t want to know the answers to our questions. I’m not suggesting that willful ignorance is good, or that we be climate change deniers in the face of scientific proof. As Unitarian Universalists we are called to trust the provable parts of our lives and to critically examine fantastical stories of divine conception and virgin births. But there are so many questions that our rational, left-brained selves can’t answer. So many things about which we’re stuck in the dark. Like “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose in life?” and “What happens when we die?” The beauty of our faith, and, I might add, its greatest challenge, is that we are called simultaneously to love the answers and to embrace the unanswerable questions. We are encouraged not to rest in reflexive, easy answers that provide quick comfort, but to admit our own human limitations, our own human frailties. There are times, particularly in times of tragedy, times of deep darkness, when we might wish for the solace that certainty provides. I know I have. And we can admire the faith that a grieving parent has when they lose a child and they are confident she’s up in heaven with the lord. I know that I do. And there’s room in our church for you if that's what you believe. But for the most part, that’s not who we are.

I have often said that our greatest spiritual challenge as human beings, the ultimate journey that we’re on from the cradle to the grave, is to come to a place of accepting, and even loving, our uncertainty. Our not knowing. To come to a place where we can embrace our doubt not as an impediment to our belief, but as a partner of it. To be as comfortable sitting quietly in the dark as we are dancing in the light.

I hope you enjoy this season of light. Truly, I do. And I also invite you to consider, if only briefly, stepping away from the candles and the menorahs and the Christmas lights strung from every eave and gutter. To find a place of darkness and to rest there for a while. You might just discover that unforeseen gifts await you there.

This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

Closing Words

Our Closing Words today come from poet Wendell Berry, his poem “To Know the Dark:”

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. 
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.