Darkness Invites Wonder


“Early Awakening Reflections”
by Carrie Kocher

Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I go outside.

How achingly beautiful it can sometimes be in autumn to feel the first chill temperature of the air, to smell the slight hint of smoke from a wood fire burning in a hearth nearby, to observe the degree of cloud cover (or not), or the moon’s current phase, or to marvel at pinpoints of light finally reaching earth after a journey of billions of miles from many stars and planets and galaxies.

How achingly beautiful the owl’s hoot, the coyote’ whine, a duck or a goose breaking the pre-dawn silence with its sharp call. How pregnant and anticipatory that same silence, when I sit, bundled up, waiting, waiting, and waiting … or walking softly and gently on a path along the pond or through the woods.

Going out at night – especially in the wild country of Northern VT – actually does carry a little danger which, of course, makes it all the more special. It makes one aware of how we are always on the edge between life and death but just aren’t paying attention enough most of the time.

How rare it is to feel as though one really is a part of the natural world; to be open and available; to welcome an encounter with a mouse or a squirrel or chipmunk or rabbit or deer or fox or coyote or even a bear or a cougar or even a mountain lion (honestly, though, I’d prefer to avoid the last two if possible!); to recognize that the night really does belong to the creatures; to allow myself to feel naked and slightly nervous when their eyes pierce me through the darkness. In such moments I realize how little control I really have over life, that we really are just sojourners, guests on our achingly beautiful planet.  In such moments I’m torn between wanting to surrender, which is a kind of death, and wanting to struggle, which is a desire to live. Both have spiritual value. Both emerge from the darkness.



“Darkness Invites Wonder”
Rev. Josh Pawelek

Thank you Carrie.

Carrie is describing an ongoing encounter with the natural world in the dark, pre-dawn hours. In response to her awareness of non-human creatures in her midst she says: “In such moments I realize how little control I really have over life, that we really are just sojourners, guests on our achingly beautiful planet.  In such moments I’m torn between wanting to surrender, which is a kind of death, and wanting to struggle, which is a desire to live. Both have spiritual value. Both emerge from the darkness.”

Our ministry theme for December is wonder. The title of this sermon is “Darkness Invites Wonder.” I want to weave a number of threads together for you and thereby commend to you what is for me a late autumn / early winter spiritual practice of wondering in the midst of darkness, Carrie’s meditation being one example.

I offer this practice as distinct from—though certainly kin to—the spirituality Alan Ayers shared with us last Sunday. Alan told us about the wonder and curiosity that took center stage in his life as a child. He would wonder, how does turning the door knob unlatch the door? He would wonder, how can I clean the dessert sand out of my bicycle gears? And, much to the chagrin of his parents, he would take things apart, study them, learn how they worked, and sometimes escape from his room when they weren’t paying attention. He would recognize there was a puzzle or a problem in his midst that he didn’t understand—the door knob, the bike gears. He could see it; it was right there in front of him. He would wonder about it. He would act in response to that wonder. He would experiment, test, evaluate results. He would take logical steps. He would discover the answer, or at least an answer. He talked to us about how this basic practice of wondering continued in his professional life as a successful battery scientist, project manager and leader of multi-disciplinary teams. He linked this practice to his liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist faith. In short—and these are my words, not his—when religion provides all the answers, it diminishes our capacity for wonder. When religion encourages us to ask questions, it catalyzes our capacity for wonder. If nothing else, ours is a questioning, curious, wondering faith.

Alan brought the answers he sought into the light of day, but what happens when it’s dark? And by dark I don’t only mean night-time or mid-winter, or the physical absence of light, say in a cave or a room with no windows, though these are certainly sources of darkness. By dark I also mean there may be a puzzle or a problem in front of us, but we have no idea what it is. There’s no door knob mechanism to figure out, no bicycle gears to disassemble, no solid, concrete thing to analyze, no logical steps to follow. We sense the puzzle is there in the darkness, but we can’t see it, we can’t touch it, we can’t manipulate it. Maybe there’s a set of pale, yellow eyes staring at us from a distance, from within the underbrush, or on a branch above us, but we dare not approach lest we invite more danger than we can handle. Maybe we hear the night chorus, something rustling at the edge of the stream bed, something foraging, something hunting. It’s ominous. Is says, come no closer, this isn’t for you, at least not yet. So we sit, we listen, we wonder … and we wait for what may emerge. That’s the practice. That’s the wonder darkness invites.

This darkness may come to us as a feeling—a persistent feeling we can’t quite shake and can’t quite name, maybe a dull fear at the margins of our awareness. Or is it anxiety, grief, discontent? It’s hard to tell. No word quite captures it. Is it longing, hoping, wishing? Some mixture of these? It may even by a species of joy, excitement, expectation—the sense that something good is coming—yet we still aren’t entirely sure of its source. Where is it coming from? Why is it trying to poke through to consciousness now, in this moment?

Maybe, for whatever reason, we’re simply trying to shed the past and stop ruminating about the future so we can be more fully present in this moment, and our instincts tells us to seek the dark. For some it’s easier to become present in darkness, eyes closed, fewer distractions.

Maybe we are slowly coming to terms with how little control we have, slowly and painstakingly becoming aware of something larger than ourselves to which we must surrender; which, Carrie says, is a kind of death; so of course we approach it haltingly, tucking it away by day, but finding it returns, seeking an audience, in the wee hours of the night, whispering, let go, let go, let go.

Maybe there’s a buried part of us that knows exactly what we have to do with our lives, but what we have to do requires struggle. It will be hard, difficult, challenging. In the bright light of day we keep it buried, because we feel we don’t have the time or the space or the capacity for the vulnerability it requires. But it comes to us in the darkness, slowly showing us the way forward, helping us find our resolve, tapping gently into those hidden reservoirs of strength and capacity and resilience in us, saying to us, yes, struggle for this thing you know means everything to you. Struggle, which Carrie reminds us, is a desire to live.

Finding the inner resolve to let go, finding the inner resolve to struggle: both emerge from the wondering darkness invites.

I hope the distinction between the spirituality Alan described last Sunday and this wondering in the dark makes sense. Alan was talking about wonder in response to a known puzzle or problem—the door knob, the bike gears. We might call that “wondering in the light,” or “Wondering by day.” With such wondering, we can typically figure out steps to take, experiments to run; or we can figure out whom to ask. The path is relatively clear, even if challenging. The operative spiritual qualities when we wonder by day are intellect, reason, creativity, action.

“Wondering in the dark” takes a different form. We sense the puzzle is there, but we don’t know what it is or how to proceed. Wondering by night requires that we be still, be quiet, wait attentively. Something may eventually emerge—an answer, a pathway, a decision—but we can’t make it happen. We must wait. The spiritual qualities operative here are patience, receptivity, presence, grace.

This takes me back to my seminary days. I loved taking courses on the mystics. In so many of these courses the professor would start out by explaining that a mystic is one who, through contemplation, meditation, prayer, surrender, seeks union with God, divinity, the holy, the source. And inevitably the professor would instruct us to look in the mystics’ writings for two basic forms of theological content: cataphatic theology and apophatic theology (terms of ancient Greek origin). Cataphatic theology is positive and affirmative in the sense that it refers to what we know (or think we know) about God, what we can affirm about God, the attributes of God, how we can praise God, how God manifests to us in creation, in the natural world; God as touchable, physical, sensual, and most importantly, knowable. God in the light.

Apophatic theology is negative. As the British theologian Andrew Louth once put it,  “apophatic theology is concerned with our understanding of God, when, in the presence of God, speech and thought fail us and we are reduced to silence.”[1] Some apophatic titles that still stick in my mind a quarter century later are Dark Night of the Soul, by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross, and The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous mystical work written in Middle English in the late 14th century. God is in the darkness. Silence, stillness, speechlessness bring the mystic not out of the darkness, but deeper into it where an ultimately unknowable God resides. Again, the operative spiritual qualities are patience, receptivity, presence, grace.

Wondering in the light of day: cataphatic. Wondering in the darkness: apophatic

More recently I’ve been reading a work about a kind of apophatic wondering entitled Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Wounded Village, by the Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes.[2] She is a former seminary president and now a spiritual teacher and writer who focuses on African American spirituality, mysticism, cosmology and culture. Holmes writes about the impact of crises on communities, specifically black and brown communities—climate catastrophes (New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria), the Covid 19 pandemic, the pandemic of racism. The trauma unleashed by such crises can change everything, can leave people feeling unmoored, unclear about what social structures are still reliable, unsure about where to place their faith. She’s describing a kind of darkness, where the stakes are quite high and the suffering can be extraordinary. I want to be clear, as Holmes is: unlike the mystics who seek out the darkness, nobody chooses the darkness of crisis for themselves or their communities. People enter it involuntarily. But if one must be there, what might happen?

In the midst of crisis, the unknowing, the coming undone, the darkness, Holmes offers the practice of crisis contemplation. I want to quote a few passages from her book, because for me crisis contemplation feels like a form of what I’m calling wondering in the darkness. As I share these words, I urge you not to engage cognitively in an attempt to know how the practice works.  Imagine there’s a puzzle or a problem in your presence, but you don’t know fully what it is. Don’t try to understand. Take these words in as you would poetry. Feel them. Let them wash over you. And then note what emerges for you.

She writes: When the ordinary isn’t ordinary anymore and the crisis is upon us, the self can center in this refuge that I am calling “crisis contemplation,” a space that is neither the result of spiritual seeking nor the voluntary entry into meditative spaces. It is a cracking open, the rupture and shattering of self, community expectations and presumptions about how the world works….[3]

It happens so slowly, / it happens so suddenly, / it is safe and then it is not. / When it happens, we are certain / about everything, / and then the fall / strips us of knowing / and doing, / and leaves us with / being. / Together we fall, / sweaty, shattered, / and gulping the darkness….[4]

Thank goodness for the darkness that blankets our freefall through the crisis and into the rich loam of contemplative potential. I am grateful that when we are at our lowest point, a portal opens that beckons us toward healing and restoration. In the midst of crisis, we are given the opportunity to shed simplified versions of reality for multi-dimensional mystical spaces…[5].

Finally: The darkness to which I refer is not a space of fear. It is an involuntary centering in a reality that is not always available to us when our egos are lit. Crises open portals of deeper knowing. When the crisis occurs, the only way out is through, so we take a cue from nature and relax into the stillness, depending upon one another and the breath of life![6]

What strikes me so powerfully about crisis contemplation is that darkness, for Holmes, isn’t the crisis. Darkness is a refuge from the crisis. Darkness is a refuge from the glaring, obscuring light. Darkness is a refuge from the insanity of the world. Darkness is a refuge from suffering. Darkness is a refuge from oppression. But it isn’t a place where answers are known, especially not in any immediate sense. It isn’t a place where reason and logic are the primary tools. It isn’t a place where we hear a call to action. In the darkness is stillness. In the darkness is quiet. In the darkness people wait, attentively. Sometimes together. Breathing in, breathing out, until whatever is waiting to be born arrives—a new self, a new community, a new faith, a new peace, a new world, a new love.

My prayer for each of us, as we move more deeply into this dark season, is that we may have our moments of quiet stillness, that we may have the patience to wait attentively, that we finally come to understand what pieces of ourselves we can let go, and the pieces of ourselves for which we must struggle.

The light will come my friends. But now is the dark season. Be mindful, as Barbara Holmes says, we grow toward the light fed by the darkness. I invite you to wait well, and wonder often.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Louth, Andrew, The Origins or the Christian Mystical Tradition: from Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) p. 165.

[2] Holmes, Rev. Barbara A. Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Wounded Village (Albuquereque: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2021).

[3] Ibid., p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 47-48.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Ibid., p. 57.