LEARNING TO WALK IN THE DARK by BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR
I just recently finished this new book by Taylor. Below are her thoughts in the chapter explaining The Dark Night of the Soul, as it relates to the thinking of John of the Cross. She speaks of her own journey of darkness.
When I read her words here it was like she copied and pasted my own soul's journey.
In theological terms, this makes John a teacher in the negative way, which does not mean that he is a pain to be around. It means that he does not try to teach by saying what God is, since positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing. John works in the opposite direction. He teaches by saying what God is not, hoping to convince his readers that their images of and ideas about “God” are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing. If this is a disappointment to some of John’s readers, it comes as a great relief to others.
I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now. Most of the time, I feel so ashamed about this that I do not own up to it unless someone else mentions it first. Then we find a quiet place where we can talk about what it is like to feel more and more devoted to a relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about. The slippage started with the language of faith, which I had spoken fluently for a long time. After years of teaching other people what words like “sin,” “salvation,” “repentance,” and “grace” really meant, those same words began to mean less and less to me. When I had first learned them, they had helped me to make sense of the tumult both inside and outside, giving me special names for what was happening as well as a sturdy framework for managing it. Then, so gradually that it is hard to say when things changed, those same words began to sound more like stuffed pillows— things to be placed between a person and the hard bones of life so that less bruising occurred.
Although I knew what “sin” meant, there were other words with more nuance in them that struck with more force: “betrayal,” “brokenness,” “forgetfulness,” “deadly distance from the source of all life.” I could never figure out what made these words less meaningful to people of faith than the word “sin,” but they noted the difference. “Why can’t you just say ‘sin’?” But I had questions of my own. When had the language of faith stopped offering a handle on lived experience and become a container for it instead? Wasn’t that like asking God to act inside a box? Once the words began to break off, the landslide was hard to stop.
Remember when you said the Nicene Creed without even thinking about it? Remember when you memorized scripture not as a useful metaphor or a meaningful relic of first-century faith but as a direct revelation of God’s own truth? Once you have emerged from whatever safe religious place you were in— recognizing that your view of the world is one worldview among many, discovering the historical Jesus, revolutionizing your understanding of scripture, and updating your theology— once you have changed the way you do church, or at least changed the music at your church and hired a pastor who tweets, or you can no longer find any church within a fifty-mile radius in which you can let down your guard long enough to pray; once the Dalai Lama starts making as much sense to you as the pope or your favorite preacher, and your rare but renovating encounters with the Divine reduce all your best words to dust, well, what’s left to hold on to?
I do not believe I am describing a loss of faith in God here. Instead, I believe I am describing a loss of faith in the system that promised to help me grasp God not only by setting my feet on the right track but also by giving me the right language, concepts, and tools to get a hook in the Real Thing when I found it. To lose all that is not the same thing as spending eleven months in a dungeon (speaking of John of the Cross). It may not even qualify as a true dark night of the soul, but it is without doubt the cloudiest evening of the soul I have known so far.
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 nada. 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.
Barbara Brown Taylor
Thanks Barbara. Wish we could have a cup of coffee together.