“Dark and Light” ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre
Join us for our Sunday Gathering as Rev. Melanie begins our series on dark and light, observing the contrasts, associations and benefits found in each.
Talk starts at 16:16
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A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings and songs from this week’s service are also included.
For Equilibrium, by John O’Donohue, from his book “To Bless the Space Between Us”:
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.
As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.
Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.
As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.
As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said
May your sense of irony bring perspective.
As time remains free of all it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.
May your prayer of listening deepen enough
To hear in the depths the laughter of God.
Sufi Prayer for Peace:
Send Thy peace, O Lord, which is perfect and everlasting,
that our souls may radiate peace.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that we may think, act,
and speak harmoniously.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that we may be contented
and thankful for Thy bountiful gifts.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that amidst our worldly strife
we may enjoy thy bliss.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that we may endure all,
tolerate all in the thought of thy grace and mercy.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that our lives may become a
divine vision, and in Thy light all darkness may vanish.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, our Father and Mother, that we
Thy children on earth may all unite in one family.
“Dark and Light” by Rev. Melanie Eyre
October 4, 2020
Today we begin our series on light and dark. When I picked this topic, it appealed to me because I thought of the necessity of both of these elements in our lives, despite the need that we so frequently feel to eliminate one entirely. If you’re like me, you want your life to be entirely about light, with as little darkness as possible. We don’t welcome the dark.
And then I started thinking about what these terms mean, and that’s one of the questions that I invite you to think about as we go through this series. What is light for you? What is darkness?
As we think of these concepts, we think of them in terms of opposites. But again, what does that mean? Does it mean pain or pleasure, suffering or not suffering, or good and evil, order or chaos? Because darkness and light, obviously, are always metaphors for something else. This month, sit with that question, for yourself.
In the Rig Veda, light is seen as a symbol of God, of good, righteousness, and life. The Upanishads characterize Brahman as the light of lights illuminating the world. The Atman is our interior light, joining us to the one light.
In Buddhist wisdom, the Dhammapada teaches that the wise “leave darkness behind and follow the light. They give up home and leave pleasure behind. Calling nothing their own, they purify their hearts and rejoice. Well trained in the seven fields of enlightenment, their senses disciplined and free from attachments, they live in freedom, full of light.”
Light in the Jewish tradition is a metaphor for wisdom. Torah teachings identify wisdom as light which, when it shines, overcomes all darkness.
Sixteenth century Jewish writings teach that light and darkness are metaphors for good and evil, with God as the ultimate light. This characterization of light carries over into Christianity – In John Chapter 8 verse 12 Jesus says ““I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Even if the historical Jesus didn’t say these words, they reflect the experience of those early Christians who created and influenced the early gospels. The words reflect their experience of Jesus as the light emanating from God, which overcomes the darkness.
He is not the only light. In Matthew Chapter 5 Jesus is teaching the crowd, and tells them “You are the light of the world.” It’s important that he tells this to the crowd, not just to his disciples. Each of the crowd, each of us, carries the light, is the light that overcomes darkness.
So we get a sense of light as wisdom, and good, and darkness as ignorance, and evil.
However, it’s not that easy. We also see that light and darkness are inextricably connected – we cannot discard one, and cling to the other. In the Hebrew scriptures, Psalm 139 teaches that “darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.”
They also are both creations of God. In the book of Isaiah, Chapter 45, God says:
I am the One Who Is;
There is nothing else.
Beside me, there is no God.
I form light and create darkness;
I make peace and create evil –
I, the one who is, do all these things.
What else do we know about darkness and light? They define each other, don’t they? How can we talk about light without a concept of darkness, and vice versa? They are complements, neither of which can stand alone.
What does this complementarity teach us? Both are paths to wisdom, necessary paths. Perhaps a useful way for us to begin our series on darkness and light, which we initially see as opposites, is to reframe these metaphors into a question of knowing, and unknowing; knowing and not knowing. Wisdom teachers tell us we must travel both paths in order to achieve wholeness.
Let me unpack that a little. In our western traditions, we place such emphasis on information, on knowledge. We build the scaffold of our conclusions on a structure of information we are given, beliefs we are told are correct.
In the religious life, this is theology – a system of beliefs about history, historical figures, about the nature of the divine and its relationship with us – where we come from, where we are going, our purpose in being here, how we live with each other.
As we discussed when we explored the early structures of our lives, these are important understandings to have, to launch us into greater awareness and growth.
But we can’t stop there, especially in the realms of religion or spirituality. If there is one thing we know, it’s that we cannot capture the divine in a wiring diagram, and we cannot think our way into an understanding of the mystery of the holy. We sure as heck can’t think our way into an experience of the holy.
We see this error all the time. We see so many efforts to claim that only my belief system is right, that mine is the truth, and yours is not. Why do we do this? Because we come to depend on the wiring diagram itself, because it gives us certainty, and security.
We love certainty, but all too often when the facts get in the way of our structure of belief, out go the facts so that our tower remains standing. We stand on our conclusions, regardless of the evidence that we should take a second look, even when the divine invites us to take a second look.
What are we doing? We are forgetting that the ultimate mystery is called that for a reason. We cannot think our way into knowing God. Think about it – we can’t even talk about God as the ultimate mystery without using images, metaphors, pointers to what we mean. We can describe the finger pointing, but not the mystery to which it points. Discussion of theological concepts can be useful and informative, but it doesn’t give us a direct experience of the holy.
It’s the door marked “about God”, not the door marked “God.” As the Hebrew scriptures teach us in Isaiah Chapter 55: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. . . . As high as the heavens are above the earth, so my ways are beyond your ways, and my thoughts are beyond your thoughts.”
We can be forgiven for our reliance on the belief systems that only take us so far. We live in a scary world. When we first crawled out of the caves and looked up, we knew we needed some help to survive in a world that often was not very friendly. We needed to know we lived in a world we could understand and predict, and in short order we created religions which, at least in part, gave us these assurances.
William James, in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience said that “… in its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.” We needed to believe we lived in a world of order, and that there were actions we could take to be in right relationship to it.
This assurance is what our theological structures give us. However, we do ourselves a disservice when we stop there.
At some point, if we want to continue our spiritual awakening, we move beyond belief structures, beyond theologies, and into the realm of mystery, into the realm of silence, contemplation, surrender. We enter the place of unknowing, where there is no map, no identifiable destination. There is just us, as we turn toward the holy.
However, this journey is built upon the understandings we have achieved, upon the structure we created. The understanding of imagery, the exploration of theological understandings help us step off into the deeper realms. Christian mystic Thomas Merton wrote:
All that has been said … of Christian mysticism about “dark contemplation” and “the night of sense” must not be misinterpreted to mean that the normal culture of the senses, of artistic taste, of imagination, and of intelligence should be formally renounced by anyone interested in a life of meditation and prayer. On the contrary, such culture is presupposed. One cannot go beyond what one has not yet attained, and normally the realization that God is “beyond images, symbols and ideas” dawns only on one who has previously made a good use of all these things.
What is he saying here? I believe he’s saying that the knowing and the unknowing are necessary corollaries – that we cannot rest in the unknowing without appreciating the limitations of images, symbols, and ideas. They are pointers, and now we are turning to the mystery itself.
This is the way of humility, of surrender, of silence beyond words. It’s the place where we finally accept we cannot fully understand or know God, and the fact that we cannot captures the very essence of God, and us. It’s that understanding that opens us to the experience of the holy.
The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th century spiritual teaching, written by an English monk who did not give his name. Given the age, this was understandable, as it was a time of the triumph of theology over personal experience. Meister Eckhardt, the famous 14th century mystic after whom Eckhardt Tolle named himself, had just been silenced in 1329 for his insistence that the way to the holy was direct experience of God, not the recitation of formulaic beliefs. It was a dangerous time for mystics.
The author of the Cloud of Unknowing was a mystic in the tradition of Meister Eckhardt. His treatise was an appeal to everyday readers that they could experience the holy, themselves and right here. He urged them to look within, beyond and beneath their rational minds to the depths that cannot be understood by mere thought. He wrote:
“Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot fully know him we can love him”
How do we get to the place where we can rest in not knowing? To the place where surrender to not knowing leads us to greater awareness, to wisdom, to peace?
This is wisdom that only experience can give us, I believe. Life leads us to this place, and so often when it does we see it as darkness. Loss, grief, despair drive us to that place past our certainties, our easy conclusions, to the place of unknowing, of silence, of surrender.
These experiences in our lives take us to a place where the answers upon which we have always relied no longer work.
Author Mirabai Starr has written of the devastating time in her life when her 14 year old daughter was killed in a car accident. Starr had spent her entire adult life seeking greater awakening, and found that this experience drove her into that place. I want to read this passage to you – it’s a bit long, but there’s no better way to express this journey. She writes:
Suddenly, the sacred fire I have been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss, instantaneously dropped into the vast stillness and pulsing silence at which all my favorite mystics hint. So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face, I was suspended in the invisible arms of a Love I had only dreamed of. Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water.
So this was the state of profound suchness I had been searching for during all those years of contemplative practice. This was the holy longing the saints had been talking about in poems that had broken my heart again and again. This was the sacred emptiness that put that small smile on the face of the great sages. And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back.
But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.”
She found that grief just stripped her to that place of acceptance. There was no other way. It led her to that place of greater knowing, even though it was the last thing she wanted.
This is the way of darkness, but not of a darkness of continual despair. While that may be where we enter, after a time we often find the quality of the darkness changes. Instead of isolating us, the darkness comes to nourish us, and hold us up. You may have heard of this time being called “the dark night of the soul” – it is a liminal time, a time between what was and what is to come. Like the winter, it is a time of gestation, of preparation for new growth. On the surface all may look lifeless, but underneath that is far from the truth.
It is the darkness that leads us to this new life.
This is the path that theologian Matthew Fox has called the Via Negativa, or the way of darkness. In his work on creation spirituality, he teaches that this time, of silence, surrender, letting go, is just as important as its opposite, the via positiva – the time of wonder, awe, joy and worship. They are flip sides of the ways we experience God, and they are necessary corollaries of our quest for wholeness.
This path will lead to answers, to new understandings. We just can’t think our way into them. It is a question of willingness, of being open to and listening for that voice that speaks only to you. We are not in control of when it speaks, or what it says. Our invitation is to be open, to be present, and to listen.
This month’s theme has so many aspects to it, and I look forward to exploring more of them with you. Next week, we are going to hear from Brian Perry, and I’m sure that will be inspiring, funny, and wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us.
When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. We try to do what we think is going to help. But we don’t know. We never know if we’re going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.
… Life is like that. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.– Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart.
“Be Still and Know”
Written by Penelope Williams
“Let the Mystery Be”
Written by Iris Dement
This service aired on October 4, 2020.