When I was in high school, we took a spelunking trip to east Tennessee. When I say “spelunk,” you know what I’m talking about, right? Caving. Exploring a cave. In this specific instance, exploring a cave overnight. Maybe you’re a little nervous about spending the night in a cave, but you swallow your anxiety because it’s high school and you’re trying to be cool.
We walked into the mouth of the cave and almost immediately my nervousness dissipated, because there was this majestic cavern with a splendid array of stalactites and stalagmites and walls shimmering with fool’s gold sheen. A stunning natural cathedral straight out of Lord of the Rings. I thought, I’m going to be just fine. I’ve heard there may be bats, but I’m going to be just fine.
And then the guide says, “OK, drop your sleeping bags over there, grab a helmet with a headlamp — make sure it’s working — and meet me at the other end of cavern and we’ll start our cave crawl.” Now, I hear “crawl” — “cave crawl” — and I think, That’s a metaphor. I’m going to be just fine: that’s a metaphor. When he says crawl, he means sort of walking through the caves, pausing in wonder to marvel at these mineral throne rooms.
And that’s how it started out, but as we got farther and farther from the light of the cave’s mouth, it got darker and darker, the headlamps came on, and the ceiling got closer and closer until we went through a crack in the wall and then you’re no longer standing, you’re on all fours, and the passage gets tighter and tighter until like a snake you’re on your belly through the mud and wet, and all you can see is the span of your lamp a few feet ahead and, if you’re lucky, the soles of the sneakers of the person in front of you.
It’s then that you realize that you’re on the way to Middle Earth.
My friend tells the story of his first cave crawl with the Boy Scouts and how two of his friends have the flashlight and suddenly the flashlight goes out. And he can hear them trying to turn it on and off, flicking the metal switch, and nothing. “I think the batteries have stopped working,” his friend says. “The batteries stopped working” is not something that you want to hear 300 feet under the surface of the earth. They were just kidding, he realized a minute later, when they started laughing and shone the flashlight beam right in his ashen face, but that minute, he said, was the weirdest and one of the holiest minutes of his entire life. Such fear, such wondering, not knowing exactly where you are or what is real or who you are anymore…
Who are you when the lights go out? Who are you in the dark?
Many world religions employ the “from-dark-to-light” metaphor to describe spiritual awakening, and I get it, but often it gets used in really over-simplified ways. What’s dark is bad; what’s light is good. You want to be saved? Get out of the dark and into the light. Seek enlightenment.
Beyond the crudeness of the oversimplification, in a multi-ethnic world we must be sensitive to how that language can get coded and race-marked. Things are “black and white,” etc. Not that the language was originally intended that way in ancient texts (many of which were written down by people of color), but we have to be aware of how those metaphors are used in our contemporary context.
But even if race-marking weren’t a reality (and it most assuredly is, especially in this election season), I’m not sure that the dark/light duality (“dark is bad; light is good”) adequately describes how spiritual growth happens, at least most of the time.
Sometimes the dark is actually a place we need to be for a while. Psalm 139, from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, reads in part: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you, God; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” The darkness is good. It’s paradoxically illuminating.
So don’t be afraid of the dark. Dive deep into shadows. It’s scary, breathtaking, disorienting and sublimely, subterraneanly beautiful. It’s where, with gracious uncertainty and wonder, we begin to explore who we really are. It’s where we begin to undergo God.