The Light and the Darkness, Within and Without
UU Church of the Palouse ● December 15, 2013
Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, XXIX
~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Readings for the Day
The nights are long and the days are short. Earth grows cold and life retreats. Now is the time to awaken to your place in the cycle and to use it consciously. What is darkest in your life? What loss or disappointment, fear, or terror moves through you? What powerlessness haunts you? These are given to you for your benefit. They are brought to your awareness so that you can change them. They are your avenues to the clarity and love that you are waiting for…
This is the power of the deep winter. It challenges you, confronts you, and shows you what you must change in yourself….It is your potential beckoning to you, disguised as an adversary, a tragedy, or a disaster. Will the adversary, tragedy, or disaster shape your experience, or will you shape your experience of it? Will your fears overwhelm you, or will they show you new and different ways to respond to them? –Gary Zukav
The Winter of Listening by David Whyte
No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.
All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
round every living thing.
What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
What we strive for
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
and then nourishes
What we hate
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.
Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.
All those years
listening to those
nothing to say.
All those years
has its own voice
All those years
you can belong
simply by listening.
And the slow
is born from
Silence and winter
has led me to that
So let this winter
for the new life
I must call my own.
Part I: The Light and the Darkness, Within and Without
If one side of this season is a fevered plea to bring back the light, a frenzy of activities designed to push back the dark, the other side is an invitation to embrace the dark; to sink in; to find the peace and stillness that wait in the long, cold, dark nights.
It’s not just children who are afraid of the dark, though. Humans have a natural tendency to shy away from the unknown. No one likes to dwell on the dark emotions…grief, anger, hopelessness. But today, we invite you to come to the dark side, Luke…but seriously. We invite you to embrace the darkness within. To that end, we’re going to share a number of different metaphors, stories, ideas and concepts, each of which have helped us embrace our own inner dark.
To begin…I invite you to remember the ancient Taoist symbol of the yin-yang- dark curled around and into light, light cradling dark. The yin-yang reminds us that life is joy and sorrow, woven fine…pain and pleasure, love and loss, in an endless dance. The goal shifts from happiness or success to balance…a balance of energies, male and female, creative and destructive….a balance of emotions…a balance of experiences. At the center of the light, a spot of the most intense dark; at the center of the dark is a spot of the most intense light. If we don’t ever go dark, we never find that center of light.
There is tremendous societal pressure to stay strong, to put on a shiny, bright public face. And this tendency, in our culture, to deny the dark and the difficult, has hamstrung us. It contributes to rising rate of depression. It keeps us from dealing with the critical issues of our time.
The phrase “Dark Night of the Soul” may sound kind of Catholic to some of you, but I believe it’s a universal human experience. A dark night is a time when we, for at least a time, lose hope, lose track of who we are, lose our sense of agency and resilience. They can come when we are overwhelmed…by tremendous pain, overwhelming challenges, or uncontrollable circumstances. They can also come if we find ourselves hijacked by our brain chemistry.
Sister Connie Fitzgerald suggests in her article “Impasse and Dark Night”, (published in 1984 in Living with Apocalypse, Spiritual Resources for Social Compassion (pp 93-116)) that the “Dark Night of the Soul” experience– of impasse, abandonment, and letting go of what is known to embrace what can’t be known, could be a salvific experience in our time. She writes:
If we deal with personal impasse only in the way our society teaches us–by illusion, minimization, repression, denial, apathy–we will deal with societal impasse in the same way…
… On the other side of all our technology, we have come to poverty and to dark night. We can find no escape from the world we have built, where the poor and oppressed cry out, where the earth and the environment cry out, and where the specter of nuclear waste already haunts future generations….We cannot bear to let ourselves be totally challenged by the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, refugees, the oppressed;…by the possibility of the destruction of humanity.
The work we do around impasse and dark night within ourselves is essential if we are to be able to speak to that larger impasse, to that great darkness that is shrouding our world.
I once asked a group of UU youth to describe a time when they felt broken; every last one of them had a story to tell: mental illness…their own, or that of a family member; eating disorders; substance abuse; bullying; friends or family member who committed suicide; suicide attempts of their own. Many of them had never shared these particular stories before.
Remember that these were teenagers. Frankly, I was rather shocked that they all had experienced such deep pain already. It was exhausting and heart breaking to listen. But the ritual we designed allowed them to transform their pain into strength and wisdom. And the shared honesty broke through the teenage cliquishness we’d been struggling with and helped them come together on a really deep level.
Before I invited the youth to share, I told them, “We aren’t going to ask you to go anywhere we aren’t willing to go ourselves,” and then each of the group leaders…three adults and three young adults, myself included…told our own stories of brokenness. In the dark, in the night, we gathered around a campfire and told the truth. Life is hard. Sometimes it breaks you. But we survive and we learn and we keep on going.
My colleague and the former president of the UUA, Rev. Bill Sinkford, has said that all preaching is about telling the truth and showing by example that we can survive it. We need to model for our young people that it is possible to tell the truth and survive…and more than that, we need to show them that we are healed by the telling, and that shared experiences of suffering forge deep and unshakable bonds among us.
Part II: Befriending the Shadow (Rebecca)
Who has not known some dark times in their lives, some times of ‘ill fortune’? I cannot think of anyone I know who has not had to meet some shadow that has fallen across the threshold of their Life’s door. We face these ‘dark’ challenges and see them through as best we can, don’t we – and often “with a little help from our friends,” as the song goes.
But there are other dark times that well up in us from deep within and present us with more complex personal and psychic challenges. Along with many of you, I am no stranger to these experiences of inner Darkness. I have been frozen by fear, anguished by anxieties and panic attacks, and laid low by deep emotional lethargies that I thought I might not pull myself out of. It’s never pretty, to say the least, and oftentimes, it is downright frightening. But, a funny thing happened to me one day, on my way through one of my life’s darkest journeys. I met my Shadow – literally – and that experience gave me a perspective that changed my life.
It was about 25 years ago. I had fallen into a pretty rough time and become very depressed. Relationship issues, work challenges, identity crises galore – who knows what it was all about – I only know that I had reached a point where the only thing I felt was Fear. I was afraid of everything. Being alone or being with people, sitting still or being busy, coming or going, waking or sleeping, I had no appetite, not only for food, but for Life, really. And being depressed terrified me as well.
Then one day, I was visiting my friend, Feather (yes, that was really her name) – and I was crying as usual, sobbing really, and talking about how depressed I was. Bless her heart, she dropped what she was doing (we were in her kitchen and she was cooking), and sat down and looked me in the eye and said, “Rebecca, maybe it’s not so much that you’re depressed as it is that you’re searching the Depths of Your Soul right now, rather than the heights.”
For some reason – that day, that place, whatever – her words really impacted me and I started thinking about what she’d said. What would that mean if, indeed, instead of being depressed, I was actually searching the depths of my Soul? Well, for one thing, it might mean that somehow I had chosen, however subconsciously, to go on this journey. And, if that was so, it might also mean that I could become a more active participant in what was happening to me, instead of feeling so out of control. These thoughts held a flicker of hope for me, but I was so exhausted, it was hard to grasp anything for very long. I had come to dread going to bed because of the the nightmares I was having.
But, that night, after talking with Feather, I decided that I would try doing something different. I decided to try to conjure up some kind of Guide to go with me into my sleep – for company, for protection, whatever. I had no preconceived idea of what form it would take, but remember just the feeling of surrender I had as I laid my head down and said, “Okay, I’ll go – if you’ll go with me.”
Sometime in the early hours of the next morning when I woke up, I saw a female figure sitting on the edge of my bed. Her shape was black and somewhat translucent like a shadow, but at the same time 3-dimensional and solid. I rubbed my eyes because I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. “I’ll go with you,” she said. And she did.
That experience became the start of my recovery from a very dark time. It also sparked the beginning of a long-lasting series of artistic imagery inspired by the image that I saw. I manifested her form in clay images and carved it on countless vases. I drew various versions of her visits on metal plates with sharp tools and printed them onto thick, textured paper. I wrote poetry and other words with her in mind, and have shared this story with many friends and strangers over the years at art shows and craft fairs, as well as in small groups and churches. I credit this dark experience with not only helping me discover a deeper level of my Self, but also with leading me to an expressive symbology and language that speaks deeply to others as well.
Julia Cameron, the author of acclaimed guidebook, The Artist’s Way, says, “Creativity, like human life itself, begins in darkness. Mystery is at its hearty. That, and surprise. As creative channels, we need to trust the darkness.” Ultimately, I embraced a Darkness I was afraid was going to swallow me up and, instead, I found a treasure.
Part III: Reflecting Light
The personification of my inner darkness was a lot less lovely than Rebecca’s. He was an ugly gargoyle I called, “Loki.” Loki reared his head whenever I felt insecure, convincing me that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t worthy of love, and so I might as well not try to engage with people who would soon discover the ‘truth’ and reject me. He would talk me into rejecting them first, so that I could stay safe. Not very helpful…
Even after I could identify the pattern, though, I couldn’t seem to stop doing it. Then one night, I was kissing my four-year-old good night, in a bit of rush to get on to the next task. He grabbed a hold of my shirt, and the harder I pulled away, the harder he held on. Finally, I thought to myself, “What are you doing? Your child needs a hug!” so I relaxed, and decided to stay and savor every moment of sweetness he might have to give. The minute I stopped trying to pull away, he relaxed his grip, and it hit me: this is what Loki needs too.
Rather than hating the pattern, which of course, was hating myself, I needed to relax into it. When I felt myself doing that THING I would mentally picture Loki, and wrap my arms around him, and say, “Thank you for all you have done to keep me safe over the years. But I don’t need you right now.” And Loki would just let go.
At the center of the dark lives the brightest light. If the dark represents fear, and in particular, fear of the unknown, then that spot of light represents unconditional acceptance, self knowledge, understanding, compassion.
In your order of service, you should have a Johari window. (Review—list of adjectives, light metaphor (Known=light, Hidden= light not shared, blind=light not seen, unknown=dark, parts of ourselves we aren’t aware of, haven’t discovered yet.)
Each of us have our own way of being human. Some people are naturally more private, or shy, or disinclined to reflection. However, as we engage in a process of self actualization, which involves expanding the known self (sometimes called the ‘arena’ or the ‘open’ quadrant), we are able to have a greater impact in the world. Our light shines more brightly.
Both of the lines that cross in the middle can move. As we delve into our own psyche, and learn more about ourselves, the horizontal line shifts down. As we allow other people to know us, and to reflect back to us what they see, the vertical line shifts over. We learn to recognize our own strength when we see it in other people’s eyes.
UU minister and best-selling author Robert Fulghum tells this story of one of his professors, a wise man whose name was Alexander Papaderos:
At the last session on the last morning of a two week seminar on Greek culture, Dr. Papaderos turned and made the ritual gesture: “Are there any questions?”
Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now, there was only silence.
“No questions?” Papaderos swept the room with his eyes. So, I asked, “Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”
The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go.
Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was.
“I will answer your question.”
Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went something like this:
“When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.
“I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.
“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game.
As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light– truth, understanding, knowledge– is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.
“I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world into the black places in the hearts of men and women and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of life.”
And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.
(That’s the end of the story.) To make a mirror, you take a dark substance, like obsidian or a metal, and you polish it until it reflects the light. To become mirrors, we need to dedicate ourselves to the work of reflecting on our own lives, our own stories…finding within us and beyond us the strength to keep hope alive, even in the dark times and the dark places.
Each of us is like a yin-yang…dark and light, curled together, balanced, defined each by the other. Each of us is like a window, working to pull aside the curtain, to draw down the shade, so that our light can shine more fully. Each of us is like a mirror, with the power to shine light into dark places.
May we have the courage to embrace the darkness, within and without. May we have the compassion to accept life as it is, to accept ourselves as we are, to accept one another unconditionally. May our lives reflect light, love, peace and joy, now and always.
So be it, and so may it be.
Prayer at Winter Solstice by Dana Gioia
Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.
Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.
Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.
Blessed are the cat, the child, the cricket, and the crow.
Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.
Blessed are the saint and the sinner who redeem each other.
Blessed are the dead, calm in their perfection.
Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.
Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.