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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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…

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.