Over the course of December, in the busy holiday rush, I did not have much time for reading, let alone blogging. But over the last two weeks I have started the New Year off right by devouring two of Barbara Brown Taylor’s collected reflections.
The first was 2009’s “An Altar in the World.” It falls into a genre of spiritual literature that has become common since Richard Foster’s groundbreaking (at least for Evangelical Protestant’s) “A Celebration of Discipline.” I call these books, “Practice Books” because the chapters are merely suggestions of practices of which spiritual seekers might experiment.
“An Altar in the World” was probably the tenth “Practice” book that I have read and if I were to rank those books it would make the top half. The chapters were well written and the practices are unique, or at least uniquely describes by Taylor.
But practice books are not meant to be critiqued, ranked or even studied, at least how academics study. Their worth solely consists in the spiritual value of the practices they recommend. For this reason I would wholeheartedly recommend the book, if not just for the chapters on feeling pain and pronouncing blessings.
These practices are unique to most practice books (and most spirituality) and over the last week I have had a quite enriching time as I pronounced blessings over objects, animals and people.
The second book I read was Taylor’s most recent, “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” I was thrilled to pick it up because a TIME Magazine review had intrigued me. However, I expected a more generic exploration of the bad stuff in our world and how God uses it for glory. Needless to say, the book did not meet that expectation.
Instead the darkness Taylor explores is the real kind. It is not the metaphorical kind we equate with “evil,” but the actual kind, the kind that overtakes a room when you turn out the lights and the kind that gradually creeps upon us every evening. Taylor finds that there are very good things that happen at night or in the dark and those should be welcomed as spiritual guides.
So Taylor’s chapters take us to moonrises, dark caverns, technology-less cabins and restaurants where the diners eat entirely in darkness. In doing so, Taylor exposes the “darkness is evil” metaphor as a sham by concluding, “We need darkness as much as we need light” (p.6).
Such a book and such a conclusion frustrated me a bit, only because I expected a book of poetry about how God meets us in the darkness and overcomes the bad stuff in us and around us. Instead we went spelunking and dining and even to a blind museum.
However, that is not to say the poetry and spirituality were absent. They were just of a different and deeper kind than I expected. It was the real life kind, the kind that recognizes there are things you can hear in the black that you will not hear in the light. The moonrise is just as pretty and enlightening as the sunrise and the intentionality that comes with eating in the dark brings a greater reverence to the God who created food for our nourishment. In fact the dark places may just be altars in our world, places where we find God.
With that said, the chapter on The Dark Night of the Soul, which comes the closest to the spiritual poetry I had expected throughout, is the best chapter on that spiritual phenomena I have yet read, except of course for John of the Cross’ ancient work by the same name. They should both be required reading for ministry students, pastor, laypeople and. . .well. . .everybody else.
In fact, just this last week I had a congregant enter my office. The conversation I had with him was quite common. The congregant explained that he didn’t feel close to God any more and was struggling to do devotions. My guess was there were no fewer than 1,000 other Christians telling their pastor that same thing at that moment.
Indeed I have heard this frustration expressed a hundred times before. But my response was entirely new to him. I taught him what Barbara Brown Taylor taught me and what Gregory of Nyssa taught her and what Moses taught him, that “those who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.” (p. 21)
In the week since I read “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” I have suddenly found myself turning the lights off at the wrong end of the hallway and blessing my bruised chin when I bang it on a knee high toy hiding between me and the bedroom. I have found myself longing for a dark cave to sit in but settling for a dark office or sanctuary instead. I have learned to appreciate the sounds that fill my house at night, which the light of day drowns out. And I have learned to accept the silence and darkness inside of me, not as signs of moral failure but as reminders that I am drawing near to the opaque splendor of God.
You can click on the pictures below to buy the books!