Barbara Brown Taylor "Finding Holiness in the Dark" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who has been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen. We invite you to share the Daily Meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen and remind each listener that they are a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Today on this podcast, I have the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Brown Taylor. In 2014 Barbara was included in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people on the planet.
This best-selling author, teacher and Episcopal priest has written 13 books, three of which earned her place on the New York Times bestseller list. Barbara, you have a very impressive list of books published and honors received. I love the fact that you were listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. That’s quite the category to have landed in. I knew you wrote a beautiful forward to a book by Henri Nouwen called A Sorrow Shared. This book combined two little books Henri wrote around the death of his mother, the book In Memoriam, and A Letter of Consolation. In your introduction, I learned that you knew Henri from your time as a student at Yale, and you write such a great description of him in your forward. If you don’t mind, I’m going to start with that and then I’ll let you maybe tell me about the Henri that you knew. You write: “When I read it, I was struck once again by the distance between Henri the person and Henri on the page. (And you’re referring to having read his book The Genesee Diary.) At that point, in person, he sometimes shook with the effort of containing his rage at those who had disappointed him. On the page he pulled his heart open with both of his hands, so that anyone who wanted could walk in. Henri’s great gift, both in person and on the page, was to struggle publicly with the essential business of becoming human before God.” I love that. Tell us about the Henri you knew.
Barbara Brown Taylor: I matriculated to Yale divinity school in ’73 and graduated in ’76. And that tells you how old I am, which means my memory is an ocean and I’ll fish up things and we’ll assume they happen between those three years. I took an early class with him, I think on clowning, if you can believe that. That would’ve been ‘70 or ‘74, and he actually invited a Jesuit named Ken Feit to come be on campus as a– he called himself an itinerant fool. This is Ken Feit, not Henri Nouwen. But that was my introduction to Henri is this Jesuit monk in white face, rowing a rowboat on the quadrangle on grass. And Henri had brought him to Yale divinity school to lighten everybody up. So I said, I’ll take anything he teaches.
So he invited me to be his teaching assistant for a course on aging, the spirituality of aging. I have a lot of memories from that as well, but what a combination, clowning and aging. And through both of them, I did see what you just read, which was that Henri let his emotion show. And that was not a common thing for a male professor at Yale divinity school in the early seventies. But whatever was going on with him, you could usually tell. And that was part of his authenticity. You know, the book that came out soon after I think The Wounded Healer became the home base for so many people in parish ministry after that. And he was a wounded healer and that freed an awful lot of people to be wounded healers because they thought they had to be whole healers. They couldn’t have wounds. So those are the years I knew him and was his teaching assistant. And I remember everything from him coming through the common room of the dormitory in which he lived handing out books that he’d just published. You know, he got the 25 author copies and didn’t know what to do with them so he gave them to those of us watching television in the lounge. And I remember he got robbed more than once because he always left his door open in that dorm and he would come out and say, well the stereo equipment is gone again. So I guess that tells you, he was one of us. He lived in the dorm. You know his apartment, his monastery, was among the students whom he taught. So I would never romanticize him because I think that would do him a disservice, but he was a strong presence of, what I wrote, of the struggle to be human. And he never hid that that was a struggle.
Karen: Well, I was so glad that you suggested that we would look at your book Learning to Walk in the Dark. And you said Henri would have loved this book. Now, why do you think he would love the book? I could guess right away, but I’d love to hear from you.
Barbara: Oh I think it’s a fair description of a way of life he would be comfortable with. For me, it settles out into everything from becoming more comfortable in physical darkness, ‘cause I think physical and spiritual darkness are twins. They’re very closely wed. But it’s also the way of unknowing. You take a step and you go slowly and you’re not positive and you use your senses and you think what you remember is over there, but it might’ve moved in the dark and it’s a humble and tentative and whatever the opposite of arrogant is, way of moving through the world, both spiritually and humanly. So I wanted to explore that in a book because so many people, especially in the rural south where I live, think you have to be in the light 24/7 or, you know, if there’s anything dark going on, you’re in terrible shape and the devil’s got your left leg. So I wanted to write a book that explored the sacred dimension of darkness, even though it’s frightening.
Karen: It’s interesting because you talk about finding a lunar spirituality. I’d like you to talk just a little bit more about that full solar spirituality, that really rang bells with me. I mean, I felt we had to be honest about that. And then we can kind of go down this journey of what we might find in the dark about ourselves and about God and about the world we’re in.
Barbara: Yes, well that was the lesson. If anyone listening in is familiar with wisdom literature like Ecclesiastes and Job and some of the less read books of scripture, I think they describe the lunar way. They’re a minor theme and they would be the first to admit that the divine is found often in, first of all, frank statement of reality of the way things are and then by learning from nature, from the wisdom of creation. So when I started noticing that the moon never looked the same two nights in a row, I settled into wisdom literature mode and said, “I’m learning something important here about the way of the soul, if I can pay attention to it.” So again, I was raised in a full solar, spiritual tradition where the lights were always on and everybody was bright and cheerful and in the youth choir. My life was not that way. You know as I grew and grew in love of God, my life was not that way. So the moon came to be important.
Karen: I found as you described that full solar spirituality, I found the ache that it’s brought to me where everything is “praise the Lord “and you have to be happy all the time and you have to declare God is victorious over this and it doesn’t leave room for the depths of how we’re created and for the places God meets us. If he doesn’t meet us in the darkness, who does? That’s really one of the deepest questions is where we find God.
Barbara: True. And I have found in responses to this book that darkness still. It’s so hard to budge that as a cipher for everything that’s frightening, depressing, full of grief and loss, and to go one step further. And I took that step several times in the book to discover the embrace and the womb of the dark, the dark mother, to think black Madonna, think the mother who is waiting in the dark. I just started thinking about seeds in the ground and wounds and all of that dark as well. But it’s an embrace. And so there’s also a wonderful experience in the dark for those with the nerve to find it and to sit down and to let the dark wrap its arms around you. And it’s not trying to smother you, it’s trying to bring you to new life.
Karen: You know, I was very impressed at the research that you did in this. You literally went caving. You went through experiences of what it is to be blind. I was really delighted with that. I learned a lot from that, but tell us what you were learning and your courage in doing that.
Barbara: You know, I thought I was so brave to go caving. And then I met a man who spent a week alone in a cave and thought, oh well, at least I stuck my toe in. So it was not nearly as brave as it sounded, but it was interesting to find out how many people that terrified, who said they could never, never do it. And my surprise was thinking, I couldn’t either. And finding that, that very warm, safe feeling way in the cave, because I had a guide who knew the way out. But the reason for all the experiments was, I was trusting the relationship between the physical and the spiritual and the material and the soul. So I devised a lot of experiments for myself that would take me bodily into the dark to see how that resonated with my soul. So I’m the kid – there used to be a commercial in probably the minute television was invented,- a commercial where a little kid named Mikey would try anything. His brothers tried too, they found a cereal they had never tasted. They said, “Mikey, will try it”. And I’ve always thought of myself as a Mikey. I do things on behalf of other people, so I can tell them what it was like.
Karen: Yes, Yes. I sensed that in the pages, and it’s very funny, the scariest chapter for me in your book, by the way, it doesn’t sound like it’s the cave – It actually was the cottage. You know, you go out into this little cabin and there are ants crawling on you. And I’m just like, I can’t stand that. It just overwhelmed me. I’m one of those people who in the dark is afraid of the things that have eight legs. So I respected the fact that you said, okay, I’ve got to journey there. What has changed in you as a result of writing this?
Barbara: What happened for me is a much greater comfort in the dark where I live, though I’m covered with bruises from running into things. That’s the bodily parts. And then soon after that book was published, I found myself a primary caregiver for a mother and a sister who were declining at the same time. And it was very difficult. And I found myself in a much darker emotional space than I had ever been in. Now, though, I take that as, I don’t know, some kind of signal the book prepared me for that. And then the cosmos or the divine said, well, let’s see how much you learned to walk in the dark, you know, and trusting what you can’t see and going a step further. So in a way I wrote the book and then the final exam arrived in my life in really difficult ways. So I’m so grateful that I had the chance to explore the material before the material became my life.
Karen: It’s interesting that you mentioned that here you were a teaching assistant to Henri on the book Aging which would be kind of an early look at that. I’ve always been amazed at how much Henri had to offer in that area. And we did a number of books around caregiving because caring for someone who is not going to survive, is not going to live, and being in that moment and bringing God into that moment is a very deep and important part of life. But it’s a hard part. We don’t want to go there. You told a beautiful little story. It kind of reminds me of what you’re talking about right now. You told this story about rescuing a sea turtle and you write, “Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re being killed or saved, by the hands that turn your life upside down”.
Barbara: Yes, that’s true, so true. And I think what you just evoked in me is all the books I have on aging on my bookshelf that I bought when I was in my early twenties because of Henri Nouwen. And I think that put something in place that has served me well, as I’ve moved into those years myself. I turned 70 in the fall, which means, you know, I’ve outlived Henri because he died when he was six years younger than I, so it’s a thing to trust. And again I do connect that to him. I had more than one mentor at Yale, but he was clearly one who had his own turtle turned upside down over and over again. And I think he had a lot of experience in that.
Karen: You write something in the book, which, I mean, it’s easy for us to go from darkness to despair and you write, “If you’re being hammered by despair, spend time in a community where despair is daily bread”. Can you help us understand that?
Barbara: I trusted someone I was reading at the time, Miriam Greenspan. And she wrote a book called Mindfulness of the Dark Emotions. But when I read it, I thought she was absolutely right. And it’s a matter of turning toward what frightens you, turning toward what strikes you is a darkness too deep to bear. And there are ways in which to turn toward, instead of away – almost like homeopathic medicine to give you more strength, more, not immunity, that’d be the wrong word, but you know more ability to face what it is you’re scared of yourself. So in my case all my life I’ve been way, way tuned to the loss of death. And it turns out one of my favorite things to do in parish ministry was go to the assisted living homes. I just loved it. ‘Cause people there were so free, they were so utterly liberated. That ended up being a wonderful tonic. Maybe that’s the word ‘tonic’, instead of, you know, getting immunity. So I was borrowing Greenspan’s knowledge, testing it and finding it true.
Karen: You know, it’s interesting. I’d love to go down the path of talking with you about the dark night of the soul. I hear so many people use that phrase. Can you explain it? You go there and you are very discerning about it. Talk a little bit about that dark night of the soul.
Barbara: I think we could talk for a week about that because there are so many kinds and there’s not one, there are whole seasons of those nights. But I’ll go for the embrace part of it, which is to be in a dark night of the soul – and now I take a deep bow towards John of the Cross – to be stripped of everything else and not to have a clue where you are or where you’re going. And it’s to be absolutely abandoned to the love of God, because that’s all that’s left, even when you can’t feel it. Even when there seems to be no God there. But where that has landed in my life and what comes to mind immediately is the 10 days I spent in a hospice with my father while he was spending his last 10 days on earth and it became a sanctuary, a monastery, a cathedral of quiet. Never in my life have I been in a room and known there was no place else I was supposed to be, that I was doing exactly what I was put on earth to do. And I think if I can carry that confidence into a dark night of the soul, it can be there. I don’t want to speak easily of it or the cosmos will give me another. But those dark nights, they come off and they have different shapes. And if I can remember John of the Cross and others who’ve been there, there is food for me there. If I can sit still long enough to accept it.
Karen: It certainly isn’t something that we seek, but we do find ourselves in that place at times. It’s a deep, deep not so much valley, but an aloneness. And to trust that God is in it, even in the darkest, is maybe all that you can trust at that moment.
Barbara: Yes. I hear from a number of people, perhaps because I wrote this book, some are pastors, some are people who’ve been devout all their lives, and then they collide with a final illness or the final illness of a loved one. And they say that the worst part is I don’t sense God, I don’t sense God. And without ever being trite, it seems to me, that’s one of the gifts of the Matthew and Mark stories of Jesus’ last hours, is neither did he. And so that sense of no sense of God, isn’t the full story. That’s more of what you don’t know, right? You don’t know if you’re alone or not. You don’t know you.
Karen: You take various twists and turns in this book and they all helped me understand a little bit about you and bring questions to mind for me. But one of the things you talk about is you share that the old ways of being Christian are not working anymore for many people. Tell me a little bit about that and tell me a bit about how that is for you? Where are you at with the old ways of being Christian and what is becoming real and valuable to you today?
Barbara: This is very age related for me and it’s going on with people much younger than I, but I want to tag mine to my age and to 37 years in the Episcopal priesthood, and really having logged hours. I mean, if I had a flight manual, it would have a lot of hours and they were professional hours. So it’s a very odd thing to be paid to get dental insurance and disability insurance for loving people in the name of God. That’s bizarre. So you have to tag what I’m about to say to my age and to my vocation in life. But I have found a deep need now to transcend many of the boundaries of language and liturgy and ethos that sustained me for many, many years. They were the cradle. They were my way of getting around in the world. They even told me how to dress in the morning. And I love my religious tradition if I had to choose all over again. And I did choose the Episcopal Church. Yet at this age, I even have a hard time with the beloved liturgy that came out of my mouth for so long, especially the parts about not being worthy to gather up the crumbs and implicitly being so bad that somebody had to die to fix it for me. And I hear the liturgy in ways I’m not sure I even heard it when I was a participant. So I find myself eager for more silence and solitude and to have less language said about my experience of the divine or my search for it. It just feels like I’m off the leash late in life, or a rewilding of my love of God.
Karen: Oh, I love that. What are you seeing today with young people in faith? Obviously you have many opportunities to speak in that setting. What are you seeing? And I’m curious if you feel Henri Nouwen has anything to offer at this point from your kind of knowing of Henri and his work.
Barbara: That’s a wonderful question. His name does not come up with the say, 30 year olds that I spend some time with. And there are two different kinds. I mean, there are a dozen different kinds, but the two I know best are people who are not churched and might not even say they’re spiritual but not religious. But they’re fabulous people, they’re curious and literate and generous, and they’re involved in the world and they’re sensitive and they nourish community. But the divine, the sacred, the religious is just not part of their lens for seeing, or being part of that or talking about it. So people call them secular. And I want to say, I don’t think that’s an adequate word. They’re on an independent path of some kind and they’re young. And then the other group, because I’m in the south, are people who freely call themselves post evangelicals who largely became disenchanted with evangelical Christianity through some of the teachings, but especially through the last Presidential cycle in the United States. They just decided if evangelicals were going big for President Trump, they needed to look for another way to identify. And Henri Nouwen doesn’t come up for either of these.
But I think it’s because there’s something about the younger age group that is so au courant. There are not a lot of old books on my shelf that I think I could hand them and they’d say, ‘wow”. Their ears are so tuned to the contemporary, to what’s happening right now that’s different from what happened yesterday. But you’re asking me a question I didn’t prepare to answer. I love the energy. I find total hope in the world with these folks in charge though they blame my generation for everything that’s wrong. But I am a firm believer in intergenerational friendships and hope to keep mine healthy.
Karen: Well, I been just awed by the young people coming up. Just awed by the last few years in the midst of all that was going on, Awed by the fight and the vision and the clarity and the excitement about doing something about their world, whether it’s about guns or it’s about the environment or it’s about Black Lives Matter. I’m thrilled they are there and they’re talking and they’re bringing leadership and they’re bringing the vision for that. I really am.
I think a partnership I find with you and Henri was honesty. I see that in your books. It’s become, I think, a signature of what you write. You write from your heart. You write with an openness and an honesty that can be really funny, but also in its own way, really daring. And I think you’re daring, I would say, in being honest about where the traditions of faith are and where they’re going. I love Phyllis Tickle Singer, [who said] that we’re in the midst of Christianity’s semi-millennial rummage sale. In other words, some things are probably no longer holding up and can be let go of. I thought that was terrific. You included that in your book. And it made me giggle. Tell me, where are you at with – I know you are no longer an active priest – but where are you with the church? Where is it on your radar?
Barbara: It’s central to my identity. Although I’ve almost stopped using church singular, churches, I’ve never been more aware that to identify as Christian and to talk about the church is a fantasy that may exist in God’s mind, but on earth, man we’re in churches and a lot of us excommunicate each other on a regular basis. So my relationship with the church is critic. I’m a loving critic of Christian tradition though that’s central to my identity. I live in a rural county where there’s only one Episcopal church and it’s got about 80 people in it. And it’s the church I served. So in our tradition, we don’t go back there much because there’s somebody there who’s the pastor now. And even though I left a long time ago, it’s just better to let that have its new and current life.
So I don’t know, I think I’m on the outside of the inside. Now I’m on the outer edge. That’s a Richard Rohr idea. I’m on the outer edge of the inside. So I’m in churches with some frequency, but not the same one on a regular basis. And I’m going to sound real pagan now, and I’m going to welcome that. But the whole world has become quite rife with the holy for me. So the way I’m registering that again, as a person of a certain age, is from dust I came, into dust I shall return. And I’m pretty focused on dirt right now and the ground and planting and growing. And that feels like church used to feel to me, which is centering, reminding me of my true size in the world, which is not very big, that I’m part of a web, a luminous web of being. So my sense of church has become pretty Teilhard de Chardin, pretty cosmic. It’s pretty ‘out there’ in terms of the divine presence in all that is. And that takes me outside a lot.
Karen: You remind me of a moment in my life that, as you talk about the soil, I remember feeling in my spirit that God said, “Would you be willing to be plowed under?” And it was so scary. And at the same time, I felt God is not a [unclear] plow us under there’s more to come, but in being plowed under you become soil for new seeds and new things sprout from your life with that whole promise that you would be fruitful in your life. Henri looked for fruitfulness in death. I love that promise that we will bear fruit that and sometimes I challenge God with the idea. I want that fruit to be so abundant. I want it to be beautiful. But you have to be plowed under. And I love this book because I think you took me on that journey. And I will just read this, there’s this little quote on the back that I loved. It says, “A charming, witty and wise guide into the heart of darkness”. And there’s plenty here to ponder and that’s right. That’s what you’ve given me. And I know I’m going to go back and read more of your work, Barbara. I am thrilled with it. And I thank you for sharing with us, what you have. It’s been good. Thank you.
Barbara: Thank you so much. And I’m going to spend the rest of the day, wondering if I’m willing to be plowed under, I’m not even sure it matters if I’m willing, Karen, I think it’s going to happen.
Karen: Exactly. Actually, it’s funny, as you partner with people who are going through incredible unexpected turns in their life or losses, that’s part of being plowed under and you wonder, could anything ever come out of this that’s good. But to me, there was courage within this book that said there is stuff that comes out of being plowed under. There is stuff that comes out of darkness. That God’s in the darkness and he’s not afraid of it. And he will not abandon you there. It’s what I feel though, I think you stated clearly you could feel abandoned in that.
Barbara: Thank you for telling me that. It sounds like that book is just exactly what I wanted it to be. Between you and me anyhow it’s a conversation and each of us can pick it up and talk it through.
Karen: …and go where we’re supposed to go with it. Thank you so much for taking time to be with me today. I loved having you as a guest on Henri Nouwen: Now and Then, and invite you to take a look on our website and perhaps you’ll enjoy seeing the documentary because you’ll see your old friend Henri in that. Thank you, Barbara. I appreciate your time so much.
Barbara: Thanks so much for asking me – a great gift to me. Thank you, Karen.
Karen: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Barbara Brown Taylor. She’s a wonderful thinker writer and woman of faith. Truly her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark is full of great wisdom and insight. I want to read more from this gifted spiritual guide.
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