To Know the Dark

by Wendell Berry

Original Language English

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

-- from Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds, Edited by Neil Astley / Edited by Pamela Robertson-Pearce

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I have been thinking a lot about the dark recently, staring into the heart of darkness, so to speak.

Many of us who see ourselves as being on a "spiritual" pathway have a real difficulty with this -- really looking at darkness, in ourselves and in others. We often want everything to be about light, light. But that can lead to a sort of frailty. To really witness the horror of a cruel heart in action can be devastating. Multiply that many times over when the cruelty is ingrained into a bureaucratic system.

For the kind hearted, that terrible recognition becomes a shattering confrontation with the abysses that humanity is capable of. To see another human heart turn cold and hard in the face of the suffering inflicted on others or, worse, to see a heart revel at that suffering, is a hellish vision that we instinctively seek to deny and unsee. This is partly because it whispers to us that we are capable of such cruelty ourselves. It also nags us with the thought that such cruelties have been taking place all along and we, in our complacency, did not acknowledge it before. It all becomes too much and we want to turn away.

But the job of engaged spirituality is not to paper over the world with flowers and happy faces so that we can breathe a sigh of relief. Real spirituality, deep spirituality requires seeing reality, all of reality, as it is, from its most luminous to its bleakest black and everything in between.

Whether we speak of Christian traditions of "witnessing" or Buddhist practices of holding a steady gaze in the presence of suffering, seeing the fullness of reality, the dark with the light, is essential for one to cultivate a deep, full, and strong spirituality. Though it breaks our hearts and fractures open fissures in our image of the world, it is necessary.

This fierce willingness to see everything is necessary to be fully present within the fulness of reality. It is necessary so that we do not wither in the face of confrontation. We must see suffering if we are to soothe wounds. And we must recognize cruelty that we may protect the vulnerable. To summon strength, we must recognize that conditions require strength. To express kindness and connection, we must see clearly who has been labeled an outsider.

Today I will practice holding an unwavering gaze in the dark so that I may see what I see, whatever changes that may bring in me...

...and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Recommended Books: Wendell Berry

The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982 Given: Poems Selected Poems of Wendell Berry A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 The Mad Farmer Poems
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To Know the Dark