I grew up in Carter County, Kentucky. About ten miles west was Carter Caves State Park. As with most Kentucky parks, there was the obligatory lake, lodge, campground, golf course, etc. But I went there for the caves, especially Bat Cave. Cave Branch creek flowed out of the cave, meandering through rhododendron, beech, yellow poplar, and sugar maple.
I always entered Bat Cave with at least one friend, each of us carrying two sources of light. About 100 yards inside, the daylight dimmed to a dull distant flicker before leaving us totally in the dark. When our lights were extinguished it was darker than any night I have ever known. Yet there was something comforting about the dark. In David Whyte’s poem, Sweet Darkness, he writes about the work of the heart that can only be done in the darkness, “The dark will be your home tonight. The night will give you a horizon further than you can see.”
The nighttime is when the distant light gets in, the kind that takes countless years to make its patient way to our perceiving eyes. In Learning to Walk in the Dark Barbara Brown Taylor suggests we go to a counselor when we want to be led out of a cave, but we go to a spiritual director when we want to be led further in. All life starts in the dark, from conception to that first Easter morning. It is when we willingly venture deep into the darkness that new life begins.
Yet the darkness is so terribly frightening. Though I loved Bat Cave, I barely tolerated the 40,000 Indiana bats that hibernated there during the winter months. A January visit brought the unsettling view of 1.4 miles of undulating walls of mouse-eared bats. It was scary in there. Yet on the other side of the fear was exotic beauty. Deep in the cave were shallow ponds with ribbon-like walls and delicate translucent fish. There were large caverns with stalactites of shimmering crystals that welcomed our temporary light. And we always knew if our lights failed us, we could follow Cave Run creek back to the light of day.
Though I learned long ago there is beauty in the darkness, I still resist going there. We all do. It’s human nature. The last 18 months have brought a lot of dark days I could not avoid. But in those dark days I discovered my true grounding in the faith that found its way through cracks and fissures into the dark night. It has been a long 18 months, but I discovered even in the deepest of caves, trusting the flow eventually leads you back to the light. Trusting the flow was all I had on which to rely, and it was enough.
Last week I returned to return to one of the churches planted by the Orchard Group, the organization I used to lead. I went to the 11:30 service at Forefront-Brooklyn and received a genuinely warm and inviting welcome. I participated in unique, meaningful worship and listened to a well-researched, imaginatively crafted message I did not want to end. I saw ethnic and cultural diversity, and observed a community moving boldly forward in radical grace. All of it the reward of trusting the flow.
Sweet Darkness ends with the wise words, “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” I was brought alive in worship on Sunday, and it was good, very good.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Dark Aura