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Finding your way in the dark

by
17 April 2014

The moon and a black, underground Mary speak to Barbara Brown Taylor of the spiritual treasures of darkness

Shutterstock

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 distinctly Druid:

"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 mother's womb.

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 things.

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 rule.

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 colours below.

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 from them?

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 says.

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 consideration.

 

"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 some more.

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 pockets.

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 all along.

 

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.

Thomas Merton, 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 June).

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