Book Review: Learning to Walk in the Dark

Learning to Walk in the Dark

by Barbara Brown Taylor

2014 HarperCollins Publishers

Read this book.

I am tempted to end this review there. What Barbara Brown Taylor has done in “Learning to Walk in the Dark” is to take a familiar concept and expose it in multiple ways previously unconsidered. The dark is usually a backdrop, like a good sports referee, doing its job unnoticed. Two passages sum up this background player:

“Jesus was born in a cave and rose from the dead in a cave… “The cave in which he rose from the dead is long gone covered over by the huge Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Today visitors stand in line to enter a mausoleum that looks nothing like a hole in the ground. This may be just as well, since no one knows for sure what happened there. By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after. Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.

“As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness…new life starts in the dark.”

p. 128


“In the book of Genesis, darkness was first; light came second. Darkness was upon the face of the deep before God said anything. Then God said “light” and there was light, but the second word God said was not “darkness,” because the darkness was already there. How did it get there? What was it made of? I do not know. All I know is that darkness was not created; it was already there, so God’s act on the first day of creation was not to make light and darkness but to make light and separate it from the darkness, calling the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

“If this primordial story of separation plays a role in our problems with darkness, that is because we turn it into a story of opposition by loading it with values that are not in the story itself. Nowhere does it say that light is good and darkness is bad. Nowhere does it say that God separated light and darkness as a test, to see which one human beings would choose. That is the fruit story, not the darkness story.”

p. 168

These passages reflect a regularity in the book that makes it a must read. Taylor recognizes the place and importance of the dark in the background and consistently draws meaning from the darkness. Darkness has been ignored and vilified as something to be avoided and ignored, and she draws us right into the middle of it, “endarkening” us as she goes. I was consistently brought to a place where I said, “I never thought of it that way.”

The chapter titles in the book:

  • Introduction: Treasures of Darkness
  • Chapter 1 – Who’s Afraid of the Dark
  • Chapter 2 – The Fear of the Lord
  • Chapter 3 – Hampered by Brilliance
  • Chapter 4 – The Dark Emotions
  • Chapter 5 – The Eyes of the Blind
  • Chapter 6 – Entering the Stone
  • Chapter 7 – The Dark Night of the Soul
  • Chapter 8 – Working with Darkness
  • Chapter 9 – Our Lady of the Underground
  • Epilogue – Blessing the Day

The book moves from a familiar place, our fear and ignorance (and ignoring) of the dark. She asks (and then answers) this provocative question in the second chapter: “…when we run from darkness, how much do we really know about what we are running from? If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God?” (p. 57)

After turning the table and looking at the downside of light in chapter 3, Taylor examines darkness through the lens of emotions, blindness, caves, classic spirituality (doubt and St. John of the Cross), a solo encounter with the deep woods, culminating in a wonderful connection between the moon, Mary, and Chartres. It is an intriguing, broad, beautifully written book that will draw you into the dark. It is hardly a self-help book or a how to manual – it is more like an introduction to a friend and tutor who has always been there but you have ignored. I got this book from the library, but I will be buying a copy keep as a reference and guide for my journey into darkness this year. Thank you Barbara Brown Taylor.

Here are my favorite quotes:

“Without benefit of maturity or therapy, I had no way of knowing that the darkness was as much inside me as it was out side me, or that I had any power to affect its hold on me. No one had ever taught me to talk back to the dark or even to breathe into it. The idea that it might be friendly was absurd. The only strategy I had ever been taught for dealing with my fear of the dark was to turn on the lights and yell for help.”

(p. 3)

“…how do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?”

p. 37

“…humans do not easily relinquish our control over how dark or bright it is, either in our houses or in our souls. Add Christian teaching to our natural fear of the dark and the aver sion becomes sanctified. At church, we learn that we are called to be children of the light. When we praise the Son, we appre ciate the pun. Yes, we praise the Sun too. Giving thanks for good weather, we walk the straightest path we can the clear light of day. As night approaches, we close our doors against the children of darkness, turning on our security lights and praying to God to keep us safe through all the dangers and perils of the night, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “It is the dominant view, and there is no sense arguing with it. But for those who have suffered from this division of their days, doing their best to stay on lit paths and avoid dark places without ever quite shaking the sense that they are shutting them selves off from something vital for their souls, there is another way. There is a whole dark night of spiritual treasure to explore.”

p. 172

“This is not a how-to book, but if it were, the only instruction would be to become more curious about your own dark ness. What can you learn about your fear of it by staying with it for a moment before turning on the lights? Where can you feel the fear in your body? When have you felt that way before? What are you afraid is going to happen to you, and what is your mind telling you to do about it? What stories do you tell yourself to keep your fear in place? What helps you stay con scious even when you are afraid? What have you learned in the dark that you could never have learned in the light?

p. 186

Read this book.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

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