When I was a parish priest, I learned to use the table in the
back of the [American] Book of Common Prayer to find the date for
Easter every year. That table may well contain the only hard
science in the book, but the rule that accompanies it sounds
"Easter Day is always the Sunday after the full moon that occurs
on or after the spring equinox on March 21, a date which is fixed
in accordance with an ancient ecclesiastical computation, and which
does not always correspond to the astronomical equinox."
Yet even a child who came upon the page during a particularly
long sermon could not help but notice this: Easter comes on a
different day every year. Like Passover, it is tethered to the
spring equinox, but on that relatively long leash it may occur
anywhere from 22 March to 25 April, never falling on the same day
two years in a row.
If Christians look to creation for wisdom about the spiritual
life, seeing resurrection in springtime, divine promise in a
rainbow, or the flight of the Spirit in a dove, why don't we look
to the moon for wisdom about our relationship to God? But there is
a whole dark night of spiritual treasure to explore.
Although I am not a Roman Catholic, I am devoted to Mary. Part
of it is that she is a she; the other part is that she is entirely
human. Most of the time, I think she understands me better than her
son does, since she has a whole DNA spiral and a body that operates
on a lunar cycle - or did.
Even if she has left that part of her life behind now, as I
have, she remembers what it was like to fill like the moon every
month, and then to empty. She knows what it is like to go through
this routine diminishment without ever getting used to it, the same
way one never quite gets used to a night with no moon.
In 2009, I visited the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres for
the first time. It had been on my radar for years, and I wanted to
see the flying buttresses, the carvings over the doors, the stained
glass windows, and above all the labyrinth.
The rose window that dominates the façade of the church and the
labyrinth on the floor inside are both 40 feet in diameter -
perfect twins in size and placement.
If you could lower the front wall of the church gently to the
floor, the window that channels the light would fit right over the
labyrinth that covers the darkness. The number of stones in the
labyrinth is the number of days a full-term baby spends in its
In these ways and more, Chartres Cathedral is a microcosm of
both the human journey from life to death, and the journey of the
earth around the sun, offering a concrete corrective to anyone who
thinks of the physical and the spiritual as two separate
The labyrinth was spectacular, but I expected that. What I did
not expect was the church beneath the church - the vast crypt that
was undamaged by the fire of 1194, and became the footprint for the
new Gothic cathedral to rise above.
The crypt is one long mall of chapels: seven plain Romanesque
ones along the sides, and the Chapel of Notre-Dame de Sous-Terre at
the end - Our Lady of the Underground - a low, dark cavern, lined
with dark wood pews.
Above the altar is a small wooden statue of a Madonna and child,
carved to replace the more ancient one destroyed during the French
Revolution. Mother and child are both so dark that it is difficult
to see them from a distance.
It is only when I walk behind the altar for a closer look that I
clearly see the face of the stiff woman sitting on her throne with
her stiff baby on her lap. Her eyes are closed. Her son's are wide
open. Neither of them is lovely, and yet they are arresting, if
only because they require such careful looking to see.
Art historians count the statue among the many Vierges
noires in France - black Virgins - so called not because their
features are African, or because they have got covered up with
candle soot, but because their skin is dark. One theory favours the
identification of Mary with indigenous people. The darker she is,
the more she resembles those who serve, instead of those who
As I continue looking at her, another possibility occurs to me.
The darkness is not meant to convey anything about Mary; it is
meant to convey something about those of us who look at her.
We see through a glass darkly. She does not care how curious we
are. We can rest a flashlight right on her nose if we want, and
still she will not open her eyes. No amount of light can make her
give up her mystery.
Earlier, in the gift shop, I saw a silver medal with her image
on it and her mantra on the back. "All must come through me in
order to live in the light," it read. She might as well have signed
it Our Lady of the Cave.
There is no moonlight down here, but that is clearly her kind of
light. If I want something more brightly lit, I can go upstairs and
look at one of the white Virgins in the main cathedral. That is
where all the tourists are anyway. Almost no one comes down here to
visit Our Lady of the Underground, either because they have bad
knees or because they have heard it is a crypt.
"What's down there?" I hear someone at the top of the steps ask
a woman ahead of me on the way out.
"Nothing," she says. "It's dark and incredibly gloomy."
Later, after dark, I go back to see Chartres en
Lumières. The whole city is lit up, with elaborate coloured
designs projected on to the cathedral and other buildings. The
largest crowd stands on the plaza in front of the cathedral, gaping
at the huge Virgin covering the western façade of the church.
This Mary is an exact replica of the Belle Verrière
window inside - a vividly coloured version of Our Lady of the
Underground. Then I see the real moon, hanging over Chartres with
such pale white light that it is barely visible above all the hot
Looking back and forth between the two light shows in front of
me, I understand the choice I am being offered: do I want the kind
of light that shines on things, or the kind that shines
The next morning, I stop by the cathedral gift shop to buy the
silver medal with Our Lady of the Underground on it. All must
come through me in order to live in the light. She has been
talking to me ever since.
Our Lady of the Underground never asks me to choose between day
and night. If I want to flourish,I need the ever-changing light of
darkness as much as I need the full light of day. Give your
heart to them both, she says.
When I complain that I cannot see as well at night as I can
during the day, she tells me this is a good thing. Maybe it
will slow you down. When I tell her that I cannot get as much
done at night because darkness makes me sleepy, she says yes, that
is the plan. Maybe you will get some rest.
When I point out that slowing down just makes me think about
things I would rather not think about, she laughs. Do you think
that not thinking about them will make them go away?
She is always right.
What do you want from me? I ask her. Nothing, she
At first, I think she means that she does not want anything from
me, but that is not what she means. She means that she wants
nothing for me, because she knows how scared I am of it -
of being nothing, doing nothing, believing nothing, being good for
nothing, ending up nothing. Nada.
She seems to think there is more to it than that, which is why
she wants it for me. If I could lean into it a little more, she
says, I might be surprised. I tell her I will take it under
"The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction," wrote
the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:
Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert rack.
According to the Gospels, Jesus knew that track well. He made a
habit of sleeping outdoors under the stars - on a mountain, if he
could find one. The fact that this is reported, more than once,
without any further detail, suggests that he went alone.
When he took people with him, they usually had plenty to say
about it afterwards, but no one has anything to say about what
Jesus did on those nights alone. Even his famous forty days and
nights in the wilderness pass without comment until they are over,
which is when he and the devil sort out who works for whom.
When you put this together with the fact that God speaks to
Jesus only once in the entire New Testament - shortly after he is
baptised by John - it seems clear that this father and this son
were not in constant public conversation. Their conversation was
almost entirely private, when Jesus went out on the mountain to
spend the night with God in prayer.
If Jesus was truly human, as Christians insist he was, his sleep
architecture was like anyone else's. He stayed awake awhile. He
slept awhile. He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept
When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky. When he closed
them again, the sky stayed right there. The only witnesses to his
most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars - and it
was all prayer.
utside my window, the full moon has risen high in the sky,
casting such strong light on the pasture that there seem to be
twice as many trees as usual - the trees plus their shadows.
All must come through me to live in the light, the lady in
the moon says, and I believe her.
When I wake in the morning, I will give thanks for all the
bright gifts that spill forth from the nada of God:
sunshine, warmth, and work; faith, hope, and love.
What I now know for certain - perhaps the only thing I know for
certain - is that while these gifts may arrive by day, they come
burnished by darkness, like shoes left outside our doors for
polishing while we sleep. Or better yet, like dazzling stones we
have brought back from our shallow caves in the darkness of our
If they do not dazzle in daylight, then what better reminder
could we have? The light was never in the stone. It was in our eyes
My Lord God, I have no idea where I
am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for
certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the
fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to
please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire
in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart
from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by
the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I
will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the
shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you
will never leave me to face my perils alone.
from Thoughts in Solitude
This is an edited extract from Learning to Walk in the
Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, which is published next month by
Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop offer £12.99 until 30