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Long before I developed claustrophobia and attendant anxiety, I went spelunking that is cave exploring. I was in my early 40s with a young family and we were on vacation in West Virginia which has some of the most beautiful caves in the world. We stopped at Lost World Caverns, a touristy “show cave” as they are called, full of shiny stalactites and lighted pathways. It was fascinating enough but for an extra $20 you could go into the dark caves and experience true darkness. My kids wanted to go and, as was so often the case I was goaded into going, although everything in my soul was screaming “this is a bad idea”. So, we donned on coveralls and hard hats with lights and were led through a narrow passage which required us to scoot in on our bellies. It occurred to me that this was a metaphor for the birth canal. Anyway, that’s what I hoped. There was guide in front of us and guide behind us and they assured us that no one had ever gotten stuck. I wasn’t so sure. Eventually we came through to the other side, and as our headlamps surveyed the vast expanse we were all silent. “Wow” whispered one of teenage daughters, which was saying a lot for such a dour teenager. The guide told us to find a seat on a rock and then turn off our headlamps; the guides would turn off their lights last. One by one the lights went dim until all went out. And then? Absolute and total darkness. A darkness I have never seen before. Not the kind of darkness that your eyes adjust but a true darkness. Sitting in the dark, I realized that my life began this way, each true story begins this way, In the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And God said “let there be light and there was light” as it says in Genesis. I realized though that our story doesn’t start with the light, it starts in the dark. The dark, is the real beginning and the dark is where the feminine divine fills us first with life, whether it is in our mother’s womb or in the realm of unknowing. We need the dark path to begin life and, as the story of our lives unfolds we need to pass through the dark times of our life in order to progress in a new way. The medieval mystics called this the ‘via negativa’ the way of darkness, the start and end of the story of our lives, and the place of hidden and sometime powerful revelations. Much like the revelations we have come to during this dark pandemic. The mystic Barbara Brown Taylor relates to a similar experience caving with some friends and finding the true dark that lies at the heart of our story. She wrote: “Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb or Jesus in the tomb, it all starts in the dark…to be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be (but rarely are).” (see her book Learning to Walk in the Dark)
We make most of the meaning of our lives out of the stories we tell, both light and dark. Starting as children, we yearn for stories that have both good and struggle because in that struggle we see hope for our own lives. Despair is seeing no way your story can end well, while hope is the yearning, indeed the expectation that we will prevail. Even if at the end our story ends with death. It’s the story of the life lived that gives us meaning. Why do I almost always start my sermons with a story? Because it’s the stories we remember, it’s the stories we find meaning in, it’s the stories where we find ourselves. Poetry which is a profoundly symbolic form of storytelling helps us see our place in the scheme of things. It helps us find a way forward. In the words of Mary Oliver:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
Your story with all its twists and turns holds meaning, not in just what turned out right in the light, but what stumbled through in the dark. Our lives have meaning when we see the via positivia needs the via negativa. Therein lies the spiritual power of our candles of sharing, the story of our joys enhanced while the story of our struggles shared and diminished.
Our stories and our capacity for storytelling are deeply rooted in our memories, ours and our ancestors, and our imaginations. In this way the power of now, this present moment, is fed by what was and what will be in the stories of our lives. And this capacity has been with us as long as we have had language to express it, from a lonely bard beside a campfire, to the magic of film.
In fact, it’s part of our very DNA. As Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker wrote in the masterful story The Journey of the Universe, storytelling is a cultural meme, a collective gene that is embedded in our DNA as we have used symbols to create the narratives which give life meaning. Symbols such as we use in language, is the wind to the stories which carry us along the oceans of life, in their words:
“…symbols allow us to store our insights outside ourselves in human culture—written on stones, in computers, in engines, architecture, music, and sculpture. Because of our symbolic consciousness, we can remember and we therefore can also dream. This set fire to human possibility and transformed the world”… In the far distant past, he says, the development of life drew forth symbolic consciousness.” (p115)
As we crawled back out of the cave, I found myself recalling those immortal lines from the 23rd Psalm ‘yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” I don’t know if it was God that helped me through but I do know that it was faith. Faith is often portrayed as a jumping into the dark but that is not faith. Faith is the rod and staff of our ability and those who would lead us into a new understanding. My only foray into cave dwelling had taught me that my faith lay in the love of my family, the legacy of my religion as a UU, and the good hands and reassuring words of those who are offered to us. We may begin in the darkness, but we find our faith through the darkness knowing light awaits us.
I was so thankful for the guides, as I am thankful for any guides. Good guides keep us safe while giving us the chance to practice courage, they point you in the right direction without telling you what to see, they allow you to explore your own cave. This is the difference between someone like me offering pastoral care or spiritual direction; pastoral care is the guide calling you out of the cave, spiritual direction is calling you in. (Ibid Taylor)
However, our stories unfold, you will find greater meaning when open yourself up to someone beside yourself. While it is important to tell our story (and indeed something of a ritual of confession for us as UUs), your yearning for the power of story lies even more in what you hear from others. I learned long ago that the best way to be a hit at a party is to ask people for their story. Not to match it to your story, but to truly hear theirs. This is when we move beyond “self-improvement” and enter the shared liminal space of accepting the other and therefore sharing your soul with their soul. I agree with the philosopher Ken Wilbur that if all you are concerned with is your story and your self-improvement than you have missed the point, in his words, then the “soul becomes our ego dressed in drag”(Ken Wilbur in One Taste) (Not that there is anything wrong with dressing in drag).
The kids were all quiet on our ride home from the caves. Clearly this had been a deep and somewhat exhausting experience. My youngest had scrapped her hand, badly and while it would heal, I imagine, the scar will tell its own story. My favorite poet and song writer is Leonard Cohen, and as we rode home I recalled his line: “Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as a secret to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh”. (The Favorite Game) We all have those scars within and without that has made our story flesh, and in that sharing we are building a new world; beyond time and death, and the space between the stars. Our stories have yet to be fully told. Amen.