A Light in the Dark

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I am an aspiring caver.  Which is to say I love to get all dirty crawling around tiny, tight spaces and wiggling my way up and down sheer, underground cliffs and fissures–in the near dark.

Deep into a cave system (and not-so-deep), if one is to turn off one’s light, one finds themselves experiencing complete darkness.  There is no light here that you did not bring yourself and, no matter how long you wait, your eyes will not gradually adjust and start making out the forms in front of you.

A recent NY Times article by Sam Anderson, accurately describes the intrigue of caves in beautiful language and imagery:

The appeal of caves is, obviously, primal. They offer, in their darkness, both an instant physical reward — shelter — and something more metaphysical. For as many millenniums as there have been humans, caves seem to have been considered a contact zone with the magical, the otherworldly, the irrational, the unconscious. Prehistoric people used them as burial grounds and ritualistic art galleries. The Greeks built shrines and oracles in them and populated them with fictional monsters. (Odysseus’s Cyclops lived, with his flock of giant sheep, in a cave.) Ancient Buddhists dug out caves everywhere — 30 at the base of an Indian waterfall, 500 in a mountain at the edge of the Gobi desert — and stuffed them with their most elaborate art. Christ was entombed in, and then resurrected from, a cave. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found buried in 11 different caves. It’s no accident that walking into a great cathedral or mosque feels like entering a giant aboveground cavern.

But it doesn’t take religion to sanctify a cave. In fact, caves challenge any common-sensical division between secular and sacred. A cave is a paradox: a place defined by its absence. It operates on a time scale that we can’t even begin to comprehend — a time scale that is, in fact, obscene to any species that cares about life and tends to measure things in minutes and years and decades. The formation of a cave is appallingly incremental. Most often it happens when water, trickling down through the air and the ground, picks up carbon dioxide, creating a very weak acid. This acid finds its way into the tiniest of cracks in the rock and begins, very weakly, to dissolve it. After a million years or so, this nibbling forms a nice-size cave. Stalactites and stalagmites, created by minuscule mineral deposits left by single drops of water, form at a rate of roughly one cubic inch per 100 years.

The tallest known stalagmite is 220 feet high.

A cave, in other words, is time showing off. Most geological features form slowly, of course, but caves seem extramiraculous because of the intricacy, the beauty and the delicacy of the structures — all created not by plate tectonics or giant rivers but by individual drops of water. It’s like painting the Sistine Chapel with an eyelash.

Today, in the omnipresent data storm of the 21st century, the primal appeal of caves takes on a new dimension. The earth, including the ocean floor, is now comprehensively mapped. Caves are not. Google’s camera cars have yet to drive inside them. They remain blank spaces. In a world of instant access, caves are the very definition of slow. In a world of constant presence, caves are aggressively absent. In a world of superficiality, they are profound — literally profound, in the original sense of “deep.” (Latin profundus: “before the bottom.”) This means that we’re even more drawn to them because they preserve something precious that’s becoming hard to find: ignorance, blankness, the integrity of total silence. Today, given that we can know just about anything, a cave is even more of a cave.

It is exactly the darkness that draws us into the underground, just as it is the unknown that sends us in search of the Divine, and neither can be fully experienced without the illumination of a light.

Riachuellos, arroyos, rios… Fluid dreaming

There is a creek that runs the length of the mountain valley in which I was a child.

© Kre_geg  Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos-6155808

We used to play there extensively as kids, my sister, my best friend and I.  We would make forts in the pussy-willows, chop them down like the jungle!  Wade and fall through the water.  And there is a bridge, over which I could hang forever just watching the water rush below me.

We also played on the forested mountainside behind the creek and there was an entirely different and hidden world there at the bottom of the valley.

Follow the creek, about 10-15 feet behind it and through the woods, you pass first through a grove of aspens.  They were already tall then but still young enough to allow for lots of undergrowth beneath them.  — So green and light in that world, with the grasses and wild roses and other wild flowers growing there… It was soft enough to easily and comfortably sit on the ground and the three of us spent endless hours of make-believe there.

If you continue on, you come to a large clearing full of lavender rocks – some kind of metamorphic rock, maybe micaschist, but I really couldn’t be sure.  Anyway, this opening is narrow and long, maybe 12 x 35 feet, a field of these rocks.  They range in size from grapefruit sizes to very large boulders you must weave over and around to pass through.  They completely cover the floor of this space, though they aren’t really found at all on the adjacent hillside or water bank.  Just a treasure trove of this rock, mysteriously deposited there by who knows whom.  Being there at the right time of day, with the right light is like being in a purple cathedral, always with the sound of water in the background.

Finally, if you wander in a little further, you enter the apse of this sacred space.  A tiny opening, maybe 10×10 feet in diameter, surrounded by infinitely tall pine trees, allowing only the bravest of the sun’s rays to filter through…  A huge boulder guards the entrance to this vault and once inside you are held and cradled in its stillness, its coolness.

There is a tree that has fallen across the space and, at least at that time, lay rotting, open and exposed, the wood breaking into those tiny cork-like pieces.  But it was still in that stage, you know, where the life had not entirely left it.  It was orange and soft rather than grey and dry.  You could smell the mustiness of it trapped in that place.  The stump still stood and, in its center, two or three small pines were sprouting.  The horizontal trunk lay split open, angled like a sofa.  I spent hours there as an adolescent, hiding, running from the rest of my world.  I would just sit there in that trunk, reading, writing, crying… and filled with the peace of that space, washed clean by the sound of the creek, ever present.

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I dreamt of Him last night but He was a river.  Huge, maybe, in that I had no concept of any banks or borders and there seemed to be no bottom.  And here I was right in the middle of it, right in the middle of Him.

It was all rather deceptive though.  The sound was that of a creek - dancing, bouncing, playing, laughing like only a sparkling, energetic, bright-eyed young creek could do.  And yet I was being swept away by the depth and power of that body of water.  And I felt it as like an enormous and ancient river.  Steady, strong, overwhelming in its authority and direction.

I was left with no idea what to do.  I am a strong and confident swimmer but swimming seemed to be in vain as there was no where to swim to, and at the same time, I had this certainty that if I were to stop paddling I would just be swallowed up by the force of that water, by His force.

My heart was pounding when I woke…

Schooled–by sacred word

I have had some good teachers, I have had some bad teachers, and I have had some mediocre teachers.  But my best teachers have always fallen into one of two categories, there were those who encouraged me to ask questions and find my own answers, and there were those who wrote lovely words that — encouraged me to ask questions and find my own answers!

Many of the latter category were spiritual leaders and mystics who shared their divine insights through beautiful prose and poetry.  These wise thinkers continue to be my guides and companions as I seek truth in my spirit and in my days.

St. Catherine of Siena is one such teacher.  The 23rd (that’s right, no typo there!) child of a wool dyer and without formal education, she became one of the greatest theologians of the 14th century.  A visionary from the age of 6, she is now one of the patron saints of Italy and was designated the first female Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI on October 4, 1970.

Being a “respected figure for her spiritual writings, and political boldness to “speak truth to power”, St. Catherine seems a logical teacher for one who wants to understand better her Catholic faith history and what that means to her as a woman.  And so I have not only read numerous of her writings, but flip regularly through some of her selected poems for learning.

Today, in flipping open one such book of poetry, my eyes read the following poem:

CONSECRATED

All has been consecrated.

The creatures in the forest know this,

the earth does, the seas do, the clouds know

as does the heart full of

love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this

knowledge

and then empower himself

with the ability

to make holy what

already was.

Strange…

Seeking Sanctuary…

‘Sanctuary, on a personal level, is where we perform the job of taking care of our soul.’     

~ Christopher Forrest McDowell

I believe strongly in the sanctity of location.

That there are places or points on this earth where the spirit of the Divine resides unrestrained.  Where brilliance and peace and hope are present and waiting to touch and fill up any wandering souls.  Where a blessed wonder is accessible to all who pause a moment there.

Most of said places that I have encountered are natural spaces…

An apse-like alcove built of lavender stone and boulder where sunlight dappled through the trees and water’s laughter kept company; a shoreline where self was transported into the endless expanse of the sky and encompassing revelry of the thundering waves; a valley stippled with the vivid confetti of alpine flowers springing from the immaculate snow, just the opening act of a gala unfurling…

But I am fortunate to have also tumbled onto constructed spaces that have, either consciously or not, welcomed the Sacred and now offer refuge and safety to the weary soul…

An ancient cathedral in the Breton countryside where filtered sunbeams caressed the quiet hopes and apprehensions of those who’d left them there; the rock-cut tombs of a long-forsaken Byzantine city carved in celebration and honor of their much-loved inhabitants; a jungle-swathed Mayan temple wrapped in the celestial embrace of morning mist and mystical myth…

It is harder for me to find those spaces now, today, in my newly dressed metropolism…  And yet my need for this sort of refuge becomes more apparent and presses in on me.

My mountain-raised self is becoming more and more confined and crippled by the concrete and steel which now encase my days.  (I am remembering this feeling from my last city-spell…  Then, it sent me running for isolation, but that is not a tangible option right now.)

And so I am seeking the sacrosanct in urban edifices…  In which modern places (in a rather young, progressive western city) might someone have remembered to invite and leave room for the Sacred?  the Divine?

Where might I find the contemporary spaces which can replenish and sustain my dehydrated spirit?  Those filled with the grace, joy and tranquility upon which my real life is dependent?

Where do you find yours?

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I previously posted this on a blog I was writing about a year ago. I stopped writing it for various reasons, though I may go back to it at some point in time… However, I find myself experiencing the same longing for Sacred Space again. ~ Perhaps it is the time of year.

How Good the Light was!

The Feast of the Epiphany , January 6, the last day of Christmas, has always been my favorite holiday.

Church Window in Belgium (Gent)

As a young child, I somehow associated it with lights and delights.  We would camp out in our living room on that night, wrapped up in warm sleeping bags, hot chocolate garnished with marshmallow cream, and the Christmas lights burning bright and joyfully for one more night.

Then later, as an adolescent living in French Breton, I was reminded of the connection to the Magi, foreign kings come to honor the baby Jesus.  Baking and eating gallete des rois (king’s cake), first hiding the Christ figure in the soft braided dough, and then hoping and searching for it on my own plate.

As an adult, the day continued to excite and inspire as I learned to understand the deep significance of epiphanies** and other wondrous revelations of self and life and spirit.

It could seem confusing and that transformation of this feast into so many different  significances was but the folly of my own youth and ignorance.  However, my view of the Epiphany as a gem with many facets is, in fact, reflective of the history of the celebration itself.

Originating in the Eastern Church, and not celebrated by the Roman Church until the latter sixth century, Epiphany was initially the celebration of Christ’s Baptism by the Holy Spirit as an adult, and then of the Nativity (the birth of Christ), and variably the Wedding of Cana (occasion of the first miracle performed by Christ).  The current importance of the Magi to the event was a much more gradual attachment (a wonderful reflection of the greater meaning of the Magi to the Church is given by NateAddington).

What was never in dispute, however, was that this blessed day was intended to commemorate the glorious manifestation of the Divine in the world, in the many ways in which Grandeur was revealed.

The extraordinary nature of this celebration was one that could neither escape my child’s eye nor that of the young Church.  And its greatness has warranted continued reflection and evolution throughout both of our maturing.

So, as always, I welcome this day with wide eyes and open heart,

Feast of the Epiphany

Celebration of Light and Wonder and Understanding and Illumination

reminder to continued growth and reflection and grace.  And I start with a meditation on Radiance, on how good is the light…

**epiphany(1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure

I Have in my Hands…

“I have in my hands the standard manual of human birth defects.”

It is hard to believe that anyone could successfully begin a book in this way, and yet it is exactly thus that Annie Dillard begins her beautiful book, For the Time Being.  She eventually explains her reasoning saying, “For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.”  And with her sublime prose she combines joy and heartbreak, sand and cloud, quest and discovery… in an inquiry into spirit.

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I have in my hands my heart, as they hover over these keys.  And it would be wishful thinking that I would be able to express to you the beauty of a heart’s pain and bliss as offered by Dillard, for I cannot, but the intention remains just the same.

My intention to use this medium as a way to continue to seek and offer understanding of life and love and spirit, for as she also writes, “The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand, and multiply it in the world“.

I have in my hands a hope of harmony and discourse, both within my soul and within the community of seekers, thinkers and believers gathered here, “for the world is as glorious as ever, and exulting”.