Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Dark of God Surrounds Me...

Lesson from a Young Raccoon
Thomas W. Shepherd, D.Min.

[Note: An edited, longer version of this column appears in Jul-Aug 2015 issue of Unity Magazine.]
Why is light better than dark as a spiritual metaphor? The symbol of light as God-presence usually gets by without examination, yet, as I grow older, other parts of my day have begun to show the signature of God. Not just dawn, but sunset. Not merely light, but darkness. Ask yourself—what makes light a symbol of protection and dark a symbol of danger in so many parts of the world? The light-vs.-darkness metaphor travels cross-culturally among languages. From pale Scandinavians to the dark peoples who live nearer the equator, walking in the light brings contact with the divine presence while wandering in darkness often means separation.

Not always, though. Taoism offers its central symbol of the Yin-Yang, a ball equally divided between dark (yin) and light (yang), with a dot of the opposite quality inside each curved half. No superiority of light over dark here, just two complimentary expressions which summarize life. Other spiritual masters speak positively of dark. Jesus told his disciples to retreat into a (dark?) closet, find quiet space, and commune with God. Muhammad had his cave, presumably without lighting. Even Buddha lingered among the shadows of the Bodhi tree before reaching his insights about the Four Noble Truths. Arguably, silent communion and darkness go together naturally, or why would we close our eyes to pray and lower the house lights for meditation?

Speaking of meditation, I’m both appreciative and slightly amused during Sunday services when my fellow clergy invite the congregation to “…enter the Silence.” Marvelous goal, but likely unattainable in the brief interlude we give them. What people can accomplish in four or five minutes of quietude is to become still, but probably not enter the Silence. The Silence is a deep meditation experience in which the individual consciousness grasps the oneness and connectedness of all things. The Silence soars beyond words, and fifth century Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius perhaps came as close as human tongues can get us:

 As far as possible mount up with knowledge into union with the One who is above all being and knowledge; for by freeing thyself completely and unconditionally from thyself and from all things, thou shalt come to the superessential brightness of the divine darkness. [1] 
   I love the Dionysian language, superessential brightness of the divine darkness. A few years ago, reading that passage started me thinking about what all people have in common in regard to light and dark. As I pondered, an incident from the past floated to mind. In 1987 I was completing my last full year as an Army Chaplain. Carol-Jean and I had just returned from a three-year assignment in Europe, and we were living temporarily in Post Guest House facilities at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, until regular housing became available. 

Early one Saturday morning we took a walk around the periphery of the smallish Army base. As we strolled along Carol-Jean noticed a small furry head jutting from the chain-link fence. It was a young raccoon who had tried to squeeze through the fence but got himself stuck. He had been at it a while and seemed exhausted, but became agitated as we approach. Carol-Jean knelt down and spoke softly to him, and the little guy drifted off to sleep. Meanwhile, I flagged down a passing patrol car, which of course flipped on its flashing lights. When the officer came to the fence, the little raccoon panicked, so I gently shook the chain links. Fortunately, he was able to extricate his trapped head and stumbled under the nearby bushes, homeward bound after a long night. The story remains a Shepherd family classic, how CJ soothed the savage baby beast until mean ol’ Chaplain Tom shook him loose.                                            

We’ve laughed about this encounter for years. But I recently realized why it was so traumatic for the raccoon, even without the flashing lights and armed policeman. Raccoons are nocturnal. Yet, there he was, trapped in broad daylight, totally exposed and surrounded by danger. Humans, on the other hand, are diurnal, like the coyote, desert bighorn sheep, antelope, squirrel, and most eagles. We sleep in the dark and work in the day.

Darkness is dangerous to a diurnal animal. Humans quickly learned the night was full of creatures who might try to eat them—nocturnal hunters, like leopards, lions and tigers. Look at our cultural literature. European fairy tales show a recurrent theme: Don’t go into the dark woods alone, or the big bad wolf or wicked witch or something bad will eat you! 

What if humans had evolved from creatures from another sleep cycle? In my science fiction novel, The Princess and the Prophet, one of the secondary characters is an alien with a night-based cycle. Captain-Father Urlis Tarkamin is both commander and chief priest of a starship manned by Eldirex, a rabbit-like species. Following dinner with Captain Jeremiah Parker, his human guest, Tarkamin ends the session with a religious benediction.

After another round of pleasantries, the Captain-Father rose and offered a short prayer of thanks for the meal, the safety of the vessel, and the peace of the galaxy. His prayer ended with a personal benediction for Parker which illustrated the differing mythology of nocturnals: “May the blessings of Holy Darkness descend upon you with its gloom of protection.” [2]

Maybe it’s time to rehabilitate darkness as a spiritual metaphor for the Divine Presence. Perhaps James Dillet Freeman's Prayer for Protection could begin with a different invocation: "The dark of God surrounds me..."  Freeman's original text traditionally assures people of God's light, but breaks through the clutter of cultural habits with its ending note of eternal assurance: Wherever we are, God is.  The greatest tribute to God’s presence in light and dark must surely be Psalm 139:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
     Find a night place, my diurnal friend, and let yourself sink into loving embrace of the superessential brightness of the divine darkness.

[1] Thomas W. Shepherd, Friends in High Places, 3rd edition (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Books, 2006), 55.
[2] Shepherd, The Princess and the Prophet (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Books, 2003), 138.

1 comment:

Don Seiler said...

Schliermacher, in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers said, "Piety was the mother's womb, in whose sacred darkness my young life was nourished and was prepared for a world still sealed for it." He seems to imply that the darkness was essential to what we would call spirituality. Many folks today, including myself, think that pain (darkness) precedes awakening. I wonder what the mechanism is that moves from one side to the other of the yin and yang.