The new moon this week reminds us that phases of the moon often provide a cue to begin a religious observance. Ramadan for Muslims, Passover for Jews, and Easter for Christians are all lunar holidays. But how about lunar spirituality? Barbara Brown Taylor, priest, professor, theologian, preacher, and author, has written a book on that subject, and discusses lunar spirituality in the current edition of Trinity News magazine with Jeremy Sierra. Feature photo by davejdoe via Flickr.
Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, is written for all those who feel unsettled in their faith. “If I have any expertise,” she writes, “it is in the realm of spiritual darkness: fear of the unknown, familiarity with divine absence, mistrust of conventional wisdom, suspicion of religious comforters, keen awareness of the limits of all language about God and at the same time shame over my inability to speak of God without a thousand qualifiers, doubt about the health of my soul, and barely suppressed contempt for those who have no such qualms.” With characteristic grace and wisdom, she uses this expertise to explore literal and metaphorical darkness, offering a “lunar faith” as an alternative model to the “full solar spirituality” that does not admit any room for shadow and doubt.
"I have not found anyone who does not have qualms about his or her faith,” she said in our interview, conducted over email and phone. “All I have found are people who are afraid to express their qualms—or who have been taught they should not have them.”
Taylor is the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College, Demorest, Georgia and her speaking and writing have made her an influential voice in the Episcopal Church, landing her on TIME Magazine’s 2014 list of 100 Most Influential People. Two of her previous books, Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, also explore the darker or often-forsaken parts of life and faith. This book serves as a much-needed reminder that, as she writes, “Dark and light, faith and doubt, divine absence and presence, do not exist at opposite poles. . . . As different as they are, they come from and return to the same source.”
You explore many different kinds of darkness, often literal, in your book. Why is it important now, in 2014, for us to learn to walk in the dark?
At the literal level, I think it’s important because the human fear of darkness is affecting everything from our view of the heavens to the migratory patterns of birds. Artificial light has only been widely available for about a hundred years, which means that we’re conducting a scientific experiment on ourselves and other species for which no one signed permission slips. At the spiritual level, I think it’s important because we’re entering a period of global transformation that calls for new vision and new thinking. Trying to operate by our old lights will not serve us. It’s time for a walk in the dark.
Can you say more about the global transformation we’re experiencing?
Karen Armstrong, Phyllis Tickle, Harvey Cox—most of the great observers of spiritual movers in our time all say it in different ways. Karen Armstrong says we’re in the midst of a new axial age. Tickle says we’re experiencing a 500-year rummage sale of Christian ideas, and Harvey Cox says we’re entering the age of the spirit. Those are three of my guides into what’s happening at the global level. I’m a very local person and local thinker, and they are global thinkers and I trust them.
Do you think many people share your lunar faith? I could certainly relate to your book, and I wonder if you have a sense that many others feel that waxing and waning.
Based on the mail I’m receiving, the book speaks to people in a lot of different ways. I don’t think it says anything particularly new, but perhaps it gives people some new language for saying what they have known all along—that the light comes and goes in any life of faith.
What sort of mail have you received?
A lot of mail from people who are simply happy to have their love or attraction to darkness named as something that isn’t perilous for their soul. They’re grateful to hear that if they’re sitting in the dark it doesn’t mean they’ve taken a wrong turn or been abandoned by God. I’m glad to be a part of normalizing the experience of darkness as part of the life of faith.
How do you think the Episcopal Church might benefit from exploring its darkness a bit more?
That’s above my pay scale, but I think The Book of Common Prayer is rich in resources for those who want to learn more about walking in the dark. The daily offices of Vespers, Compline, and Evening Prayer are there, along with the Easter Vigil and the entire book of Psalms. I have always been grateful to the Episcopal Church for teaching me how to live by the church calendar, with its varying seasons of dark and light.
Did you learn anything surprising about yourself while writing this book?
The most surprising thing was how many of my fears about the dark were outdated. Some were fossils left over from childhood and others were religious teachings I never bothered to investigate. After exploring them a little further, I discovered that what I was most afraid of was not the dark. I was afraid of being afraid!
Could you give me some examples?
Childhood fears, like things put in place by fairy tales, which were really helpful to put in place ideas of good and evil, but they had to be revisited. Religious teaching about dark and light—Scripture is full of language that cautions people against darkness, especially 1 John 1:5—“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” God comes to Moses in a dark cloud. If God has no darkness at all, what’s God doing in a big dark cloud? Even Scripture needs an update.
Even urban teachings—I lived in a city and moved to the country, and when I got here I was locking my doors. It took me awhile to realize I didn’t need to take a flashlight every time I went out, I could go out alone and walk as far as I wanted. Our fear of darkness gets in at a primordial level, and it takes a lot of effort to get it back up to the critical level again.
Is there any kind of darkness you find it especially difficult to walk in?
The darkness of death is pretty daunting, even for someone who hopes she still has some time left to prepare. Who looks forward to taking that last breath? Whatever we believe comes next, the letting go is never easy. Plus, faith and certainty are not the same thing. At this point in my life, learning to walk in the dark is how I practice learning to walk by faith and not by sight.
Have you spoken to any of your students or other young adults about accepting or living in darkness? Is it more difficult for them to see why it’s important?
One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, once wrote that teaching religion at a prep school was like instructing young princes in the use of crutches. Piedmont College isn’t a prep school and my students aren’t royals, but I see his point. When you’re young, the sun is your best friend. I would worry about a 19-year-old who spent too much time in the dark. But insofar as learning to walk in the dark is a metaphor for figuring out how to move forward even when the way ahead is not clearly lit, young people have as much need of that skill as anyone else.
I noticed you sent an email at 1:30am. Has writing this book encouraged you to spend more time in the dark (or was it just a busy day)?
Writing a book is a piece of cake compared to launching it. I like to spend my night hours on the porch, not in front of a computer, but right now I’m burning the midnight oil just trying to keep up.
What is your advice to someone who also finds that full solar spirituality doesn’t work for them, who feels as if “they are shutting themselves off from something vital for their souls” when they avoid darkness?
There is no advice that will help anyone in that situation. If something vital is missing, the only thing to do is to go looking for it—to explore your own darkness at your own pace—with a good companion or two if you can find them.
There are kinds of darkness. I am nobody to tell people what they ought to do about their own kinds of darkness. Some people have darkness, and they should run from it as fast as they can. We have excellent instincts. But to be asked to ignore that is not good for your soul. Take adequate care.
In my experience, good writing has a bit of darkness in it, and you hint at this in your book. Do you think there is a connection between darkness and/or sadness and good writing? Is there openness in the church to this kind of writing?
There are lots of different kinds of Christians and lots of different kinds of churches, but when I go into an Episcopal Church bookstore I see books by Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, Nora Gallagher, Marilynne Robinson, Lauren Winner, Richard Rohr—I could go on and on—all writers who know how to balance on the edge of exquisite faith and sadness.
You mention, as Miriam Greenspan puts it, that there’s a close relationship between “individual heartbreak and the brokenheartedness of the world.” Do you think it’s more difficult to have empathy for others who are sad or broken without letting yourself be sad or broken or accepting darkness?
Of course! It takes one to know one. You have also put your finger on the reason why we so often flee those who are brokenhearted—because we do not want them to remind us how that feels.
Is it any easier to explore darkness when you know that darkness and heartbreak are a part of life?
I don’t flee rooms where people are experiencing heartbreak. It is so much easier for me to sit in a hospice or visit a hospital. It is such a relief not to have to run out of those rooms and know that I don’t have to be afraid. It’s a lot easier to stay now. I actually look forward to that going into some of the hardest places. That may just be my predilection. Give me a jail or a hospice or an emergency room, and I’m pretty ready to stay.
Do you ever find it difficult to be a priest with the kind of faith that provides “no permanently safe place to settle?” How do you deal with it?
What’s more interesting to me is how any of us ever got the idea that faith would offer us a safe place to settle. How did the followers of Jesus ever come up with that? He was the son of man who had no place to lay his head, the son of God who died believing he had been abandoned. Urban T. Holmes was one of my earliest teachers about what it meant to be a priest. He said it meant living on the boundary between the human and the divine, the sacred and the profane. Anyway you shake it, there’s nothing safe about that.
At one point you write, “As a young priest I became a different kind of stranger to people who had no one else to tell their stories to.” As the son of a priest, it seems to me that there’s a kind of loneliness in being a priest, because you’re a pastor but also in some sense a stranger to your congregation. It’s almost as if you’re representing a kind of accepting darkness for your congregation that provides a space for their stories and questions rather than filling it with light and answers. Does that resonate with your own experience? Is it a difficult position to be in?
That’s a lovely way to say it. Yes, I think being a priest entails emptying yourself out on a regular basis so that you can be of some use to other people. Of course, I think being a Christian entails the same thing, but since clergy do it both publicly and professionally, the stakes are higher. As you noticed earlier, I teach college now.
What made you write this book now?
The truth is I wanted to write a book on the Book of Job. I think the Book of Job explores the dark side of God, but my editor wasn’t interested in another book on Job. I’m a contrarian. When everybody’s looking in one direction and saying this is the way to go, I like to look at what’s behind us—that’s usually just as important, but no one wants to look because it’s gloomy or scary. In the Book of Job, God didn’t take away the suffering or give him all the answers but showed him a vision that Job said is too wonderful to behold. There’s something so beautiful in that. So this was a way to approach that.
You mention starting a moon garden in your book. How is your moon garden growing?
It’s in the design stage. The person who is helping me says my clothesline has to go, and I’m not giving up my clothesline, so we’re still in discussion. Plus, I don’t have to weed a garden that is still in my head.
What are you working on next?
Are you kidding? This field will have to lie fallow for a while before anything new can grow.