ESR student Susan Flynn delivered the following message during ESR Worship on February 2, 2016:
We are at the close of the first month of the year, a time where people make resolutions to live their life better, access meaning quicker, clear away what is unneeded or not working. We are just beginning February. Even though it is the shortest month, for most people I know, they can’t wait for it to be over. The hanging-on-of-winter and the pull of spring end up leaving many of us craving sunlight, with the impatience of cabin fever. I have discovered I love ESR for the same reasons I love winter. Winter is a chance to bundle up, go inside, read a good book, reflect, and act like a cat by finding the most comfortable place to fall asleep. Enjoy the contrasts, hot chocolate after being out in the cold, candlelight in the evening.
Today I want to not talk about inner light but our inner darkness. I grow weary of the association of light being good, and the dark being bad and scary. We need the dark as much as we need the light; they are contrasting but not opposites. The Ying Yang symbol attempts to demonstrate that both light and dark are a part of each other, connected by the same underlying essence. This writing explores how I have been distracted by the light and given gifts through darkness.
When we have too much light it can affect our bodies and brains, too much sun, can lead to health issues. We can be kept from sleep at night from the blue light emanating from our electronics. As human beings we are designed to stop and replenish - darkness is necessary for this to happen. At night, our brains remove what is unneeded information, consolidating useful material while our body’s systems re-calibrate on every level, regulating growth and hunger hormones for optimal functioning during the day. The moonflower and certain water lilies only bloom at night. Butterflies, the symbol of transformation, would never open their magnificent wings without their time in dark seclusion as caterpillars.
Sometimes the bring light of spring and summer can be stressful for me because my expectations for the day sky-rocket. And I often find myself disappointed when I cannot accomplish an uncanny amount of work, activities, and play before sundown. With winter, well maybe not this one, but winters in the past, a layer of snow can make it hard to go out, lowering my expectations to reasonable. Nature turns the lights down low and we are invited to go within, and experience what awaits our engagement. Or we can choose not to and tap our feet impatiently awaiting the spring. The sunny months are always entertaining, fun and stimulating; but I have learned the most from exploring the dark.
Before I decided to go to seminary I experienced a bit of a dark night of the soul. Two years before I went, I was getting swallowed in debt, trying to sell a house that I had once cherished as a place I called home. I spent a lot of time in nature and in the company of my cats as I reflected on the end of a relationship that lasted over a decade. I didn’t want to be with people, so when I wasn’t at my job I would have my meals with the birds outside and spent time praying inside with my cats at night. At that time I learned about the many levels of loneliness. And that is when I really started to talk with God. I prayed nightly asking for direction, answers, and help by candle light. God, nature and animals were my most cherished company during that time. They journeyed with me into the abyss, and there I had encounters with fear, doubt and self -worth. I was disoriented for a while, groping around in the dark, but as I became accustomed to connecting with my shadows, remembering who I was and what was important, it became powerful place to be, working with the force of life. When Luke Skywalker trained with Yoda in the swamp, he was blind-folded - unaided by visual sight to see what was in the light. He began to hear and see from another place. A place within, that was honest, deep and holy. One that was free from illusion and distraction. As I wrestled with loneliness I began to learn how lovely it was to be alone and that it was not only the end of certain things in my life, but also the beginning.
Ministry has always been something that whispered to me, and nipped at my heels in my life’s most present moments. At that time, I loved my job as an Employment Specialist; it affirmed my love of people, but over the course of 12 years I discovered I wanted to work with people in a more spiritual way. As I was clearing out the weeds in my life, I began to water the thought of going to Seminary. Knowing internally that the place that held the most value and meaning for me was with the church, people and nature.
I changed realtors, emptied the house and sold most of what I owned. The house sold on May first in Massachusetts and I was working at a job in New Hampshire on the 21st, and by fall I was traveling to many seminaries in my old Honda Lucy, in search of a good place to study.
Although I had some of my most theologically provocative conversations at [another] school in Chicago, I did not fall in love. In the end, Earlham School of Religion stole my heart. I wanted to study with people of other faith traditions; the beauty of Richmond’s farmland and sky called out easily winning over the city living the other schools offered. But most of all ESR had an essence that the other places could not touch; sure the other places were impressive, shiny, engraved scripture in the floor, ornate chapels, and had extensive community programs, but something was missing. I knew when I visited ESR, this was a place I would be able to go as deep as I wanted to into the questions I would have. And as most of you know who have ever been in class with me, I have a lot of questions! I could not identify all the reasons ESR held my attention, the essence was a bit mysterious, but I had enough to go on, I was going to move for the fourth time: destination Richmond, Indiana.
I have lived in both Massachusetts and South Carolina and although I have roots in both places, I find I always go through culture shock when I go from one to the other. And even though I knew ESR, nestled in the Midwest was exactly the place I was supposed to be, when I got here I experienced another wilderness desert moment. Where was everyone?
I did not quite get the Quaker culture when I first arrived, the quiet, stillness and lack of bright colors was a bit different. When I would enter Barclay I felt like I was in an old western ghost town. I would burst in, with my rambling gregarious greetings, dressed in various colors that did not necessarily go with Quaker grey. Pushing open the Barclay saloon doors, this displaced cowgirl would instantly disturb the productive solace-filled space. The first couple times I came, I would question myself wondering, "Wait. Where am I? Should I be speaking in a whisper? Am I in the library?" The people of Barclay got used to my energy. Matt would know it would be just minutes before I dropped in asking if I could test the Keurig machine. He would laugh when I would reason I was making sure it was running properly for the prospective students. Miriam, always gracious, instead of hiding the candy bowl would busily refill it, knowing my not-so-covert ninja agenda was always on a mission for a piece of chocolate. And Jay upon hearing my exuberance would always subtly close his door in order to get his work done without the distraction of an over-excited cowgirl.
As an enthusiastic U.U. it took me a little while at ESR to get acclimated, at first I was very aware of what I was missing, color, buddies, things to do, and extroverted people. We were surrounded by farms growing all sorts of things, why did it feel like a desert to me? Was the grass greener at another seminary? Had I made a mistake? As I went to classes and waiting worship and got into the flow of ESR, I began to realize, that the mysterious essence I couldn’t name originally was actually transformational, and that spirit I felt in the air was descending upon me. The desert I saw was an illusion, because I was searching for something that would never be found where I was looking.
The quiet, the spirit, and this place asked me, invited me, to go within. This lifted the veil helping me realize, as I first suspected, that it wasn’t in the shiny, or carved floors, it was not who I had been in my last job. It was so quiet, all the voices of the world hushed, and I came to understand, we were not without, we were actually deeply and perhaps more available for the holy listening, of spirit in this place. I was on sacred land, that was lush and nutrient enough to grow whatever I needed while I was here.
The green grass began to sprout around my spot in the Richmond desert; I saw community and loving called it as I saw it, pockets of community. There were all these great, hole-in-the-wall places to eat, Roscoe’s - a coffee shop where I could study, caffeinate and move the furniture - nature trails all over the place, and high -aliber lectures and shows in town. My extroverted side is satiated knowing of all the things to do, but the gold I was originally mining for was for my introverted side, the apophatic nourishment. Upon first arriving here, I was used to so much external stimulus and touchstones, it was disorienting for me at first not seeing them were I was accustomed. And although I am a kataphatic person, I was drawn here because of the space made for the introvert, appreciation for processing and contemplation. Knowing this environment would allow for spirit to arise and be heard where she would in my life. That chance to honor the dark, turn off all the lights, the doing, the entertainment, and let the head sink into the heart and explore what is most vulnerable, honest and true. Love, integrity, being connected, witnessing and listening are among these gifts.
I have been doing a lot of reflecting since I got here. The natural environment of quiet, and simplicity, has helped me shed the layers and pieces that were not helpful in my theology and personal philosophy. For me the gift of transformation has been in learning to trust the process of breaking apart - it’s terrifying for sure but I understand what is happening now. Perhaps the same feeling the Incredible Hulk might have experienced the first time his skin turned green and he doubled in size. Seminary in my opinion, if done right is transformational on every level, destruction, mayhem, construction, peace, pain, and deeper sense of purpose, power and place.
In my life before Seminary, I was trying to get my ducks in a row, race with the rats, and work toward the good life, and as my life unfolded as many people's do, my ducks scattered. Who decided on ducks anyhow? If I am administered a new set of ducks, if I can’t send them back, I think I would rather have them dance or drum and invite some non-ducks to the party.
Now down to an apartment's worth of stuff, I have found again I no longer need all that I have. I have also been cleaning out my internal spiritual house, finding the possessions worth the most don’t take up space to store, but are a treasure to have. Refocusing from consuming to connecting with people, the love of learning and discussing something important, practicing reiki, letter writing, and not having a T.V., is such a joy. Knee deep in compost, preparing this winter garden, focusing in on the question Wayne Muller asks us, how then shall we live? A large part of this garden is reserved specifically for mystery, the spirit to plant what is inspired at any given point. I acknowledge that I have only two of the many hands that will be tending to this enchanted place. The winter, the absence of light, is just as good growing conditions as the spring and summer. What does your inner darkness, this garden of winter have to reveal to you?