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.

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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.