[Listen to Audio] Barbara Brown Taylor writes about exploring Organ Cave. Or more accurately, she talks about what the dark taught her in that cave.
Hearing that Taylor was researching the spiritual significance of darkness, her new-found friend Rockwell and his wife Marrion offered to take her to a vast cave network near their home.
Organ Cave stretches for miles beneath the surface of West Virginia. A family owns the cave and sells tickets to groups and individuals to wander sections set aside for visitors. Another forty miles of twisting, winding underground pathways and chambers remains off limits to the public.
Since the owner knew Rockwell and Marrion to be experienced spelunkers, she had given him a key to the gate that barred access to this private section of the cave. It was into these less-travelled caverns that her friends promised to lead Taylor.
While some of the subterranean trails featured tight squeezes and standing water, the plan was to walk only through large, dry chambers. Along the way, they would stop, sit, and turn off their lanterns three successive times. Each stop would be a longer sit in the dark than the previous one.
Cave darkness is an impenetrable blackness. Had I been in Taylor’s place, my heart would have been throbbing and my breath would have come in shallow, forced pants. My mind would have fixated on the tons of rock and dirt between me and the sunlight and fresh air.
This is what I think it means to lose heart: It’s so dark and I’m buried so deep that I’ll never get out.
My prayer would be something like this: Get me out of here!
As embarrassing as it is to admit, I can imagine being tempted to make some sort of foxhole bargain. “Get me back home and I’ll never sneak a second dessert and blame it on the boys again.”
Jesus teaches his disciples to pray always and not to lose heart. (Luke 18:1-8) My imagined prayer is not quite what he had in mind. But an erratic pulse and slow suffocation probably convey something like what Jesus meant by losing heart.
We learn a definitive lesson about prayer when we consider why Jesus intentionally chose to speak about prayer and despair in the same breath. In the most authentic prayer, we cry out for God’s healing precisely when we feel the world’s ache viscerally as our own.
We reach out for hope and courage and solace most urgently when we shed salty tears at the sorrow and violence and oppression and degradation of anyone and everyone. Despair lurks at the edges of prayer because our heart sags at the thought that the world’s misery and violence and deprivations might forever exceed our capacity to offer healing.
Every night millions of children go to sleep hungry.
The number of refugees fleeing persecution and horrific violence just keeps growing.
More than twenty veterans suffering from PTSD commit suicide every day.
The odds against addicts getting sober are staggering, and the use of powerful drugs like heroin is on the rise.
It’s so dark and we’re buried so deep that we’ll never get out.
Or, in prayer, we can discover what Barbara Brown Taylor experienced in the depths of Organ Cave. In the long dark of her third lampless sit, this is what occurred to her:
“New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” (Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 129)
Despair misinterprets the dark as a God-forsaken place. The place that the Divine has abandoned or into which the Holy One can no longer reach. In and through our prayers we discover that Jesus brings new life in exactly those dark spaces that might otherwise leave us disheartened.
Our defining prayers as the Jesus community remind us repeatedly that new life starts in dark places.
In the waters of Baptism we are buried with Christ in his death. This is how we share in his resurrection. New life starts in the tomb.
In the Holy Eucharist, we leave behind what we have made of ourselves to become what Christ is making of us. We become the Body of Christ by eating the Body of Christ.
Your mind may not have turned initially to Baptism and the Holy Eucharist when you heard the word “prayer.” Like many people, you may have thought first of the many personal petitions you have put before God. Some trivial, like a good parking spot. Others tender and urgent, like healing for a child suffering from cancer.
From the perspective of these personal devotions, the parable that Jesus tells about the persistent widow and the unjust judge may strike you as an explanation for unanswered prayers or for answers that came only after long delay.
You may have heard Jesus’ admonition not to lose heart as simply the advise: Don’t give up.
While this is not mistaken, it is incomplete.
That’s because prayer is not first of all about giving God a wish list, no matter how noble and unselfish that list might be.
In prayer we participate in the divine life. And Jesus taught us again and again that life in him is dying and rising. We die to a narrow life in order to rise to greater life.
All prayers—even our most informal personal devotions—are echoes or reverberations of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. The ultimate point of prayer is to give ourselves utterly to God. We ask God to help us love what God loves.
As it turns out, God loves the entire creation. And when that creation suffers, so too does God.
To pray is to enter into God’s suffering love for the lonely, the broken-hearted, the abandoned, and the abused. For the malnourished, the mentally ill, the outcast, and the exploited. Even for the vicious and the unrepentant. No matter who they are. Where they live. What they look like. Or who they love or hate.
Since the divine love that suffers is also the love that heals the wounds of the creation, hope saturates the life of prayer. We pray in the dark because that is where new life starts.