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Reviews

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Catherine von Ruhland

Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press, 200pp

It's right there at the very heart of our entry into the orthodox Christian life when the minister declares: 'In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light.' Darkness is a phenomenon to which we have turned our backs as believers. This might make a certain metaphorical sense given that the human story is laced with fear of the physical dangerous dark, except that, for too many Christians the word darkness is made purely synonymous with sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness and death.

As bestselling author and one-time Episcopalian minister, Barbara Brown Taylor points out in her very readable Learning to Walk in the Dark, such 'language of opposition' (she cites such other opposed pairs inherent to Christian teaching as good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh) 'works by placing half reality closer to God and the other half further away.' And this simply didn't chime with her own experience of 'the dark', either as a child taught by her parents to 'have fun' but 'take care' out there or later in the broader sense of the word as an adult. 'I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.' She notes too that there are many occasions in the Bible when people encountered God during the night.

It is not that Brown Taylor does not recognise her own part to play in humanity's strong yearning to eliminate all forms of 'darkness' where they emerge, whether they be physical, psychological, emotional, relational or spiritual. She and her husband, Ed deliberately chose to live in the foothills of the Appalachians so they could properly experience the moon, night sky and seasons, but as owners of a farm they are also keenly aware of what lurks in the dark spaces ready to devour their chickens.

Brown Taylor understands the attraction of what she refers to as 'full solar spirituality' that 'focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith'. The trouble is that when darkness in whatever guise happens to fall as it inevitably will, the inability to dismiss or discount such an experience is often interpreted as a lack of faith or leads to a loss of faith.

The author's eventual point of conflict led to reflection and acceptance of what she refers to as 'the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.' For her 'the everchanging moon is a truer mirror of my soul than the Sun that looks the same way every day.'

What, she wondered, would her life with God look like if she trusted her spiritual rhythm instead of opposing it. Could it be that she (and by definition, others) might be missing a dimension of faith by reaching reflectively for the light? Learning to Walk in the Dark is a record of Brown Taylor's decision to explore and examine the dark. It represents the third - with Leaving Faith (2007) and the New York Times' bestseller- listed An Altar in the World (2009) - part of a trilogy that seeks to redeem the negative half of opposed pairs. 'If there is any truth in the teaching that spiritual reality is divided in to halves, it is the truth that these pairs exist in balance, not opposition,' she argues.

She chose to follow darkness wherever it led, researching astronomy, mythology, psychology, biology and theology and what results is both a personal account and catalogue of what humans both love and fear about the night. It is this sheer scope which gives the book an informative yet frustrating scattershot quality with chapters seeming to spin off at tangents both within themselves and between each other.

There are points where a tighter edit was needed. The author declares: 'Fear of the dark has been sanctified in so many people's minds that I have to define my terms - not once, but over and over again - because without constant reminders that darkness is not a synonym for mortal or spiritual danger, most people I know revert to the equation without even thinking about it' - and keeps defining her terms over and over again. I was surprised too, that while Brown Taylor expresses concern about children overprotected from the dark and in consequence failing to develop the courage to encounter it, she says nothing about the myth that women are 'asking for it' should they dare venture out on their own at night (though maybe this is a culturally British fear?)

The book's chapters are on such subjects as the night sky; the both fear-inducing and enlightening dark paths of her spiritual journey; practising what it is like to be visually blind; being guided into the pitch black of Organ Cave in West Virginia; and a sobering one about how night lighting disrupts too many species including our own. Each feels like a sample of an entire new book. That's not necessarily a negative but it is, at various points, difficult not to compare Learning to Walk in the Dark with classics of nature writing, and understandably find it wanting.

But then, it is ultimately not that type of book. By exploring mostly physical darkness, Barbara Brown Taylor encounters the deeper spiritual truth: 'Here is some good news you can use even when light fades and darkness falls. God does not turn the world over to another deity. Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. Here is the testimony of faith: darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.'

Learning to Walk in the Dark is a beautifully written and inspirational book that made me want to spend a night sitting under the stars and read further around the subjects she touches upon.