It’s 10:45 on a Sunday night when Barbara Brown Taylor sets off from her front porch. The lights in her northern Georgia farmhouse are off, the chickens have been cooped, and her husband Ed has cleaned the kitchen and gone upstairs to bed. A waning moon will not rise for hours. Time for a walk.
Most spiritual seekers spend their lives pursuing enlightenment. But this Eastertide, Taylor, who ranks among America’s leading theologians is encouraging believers and nonbelievers not only to seek the light but to face the darkness too, something that 21st century Americans tend to resist. For the past four years, the popular 62-year-old preacher and New York Times best-selling author has explored wild caves, lived as if blind, stared into her darkest emotions and, over and over, simply walked out into the night. The reasons, she says, are that contemporary spirituality is too feel-good, that darkness holds more lessons than light and that contrary to what many of us have long believed, it is sometimes in the bleakest void that God is nearest.
Few who have heard or read Taylor are surprised that she is nudging people down a path toward endarkenment. For years, her sermons have been required reading at seminaries nationwide, and she often lectures at Princeton, Duke and the National Cathedral in Washington. She is the most requested Sunday speaker at New York’s Chautauqua Institution and draws both atheists and divinity students to her book signings. And 13 books on, she has chronicled her own fascinating and complex faith journey for hundreds of thousands of readers. Taylor, says Randall Balmer, chair of Dartmouth’s department of religion, “belongs in the pantheon of spiritual writers that includes such luminaries as the late Will Campbell, Anne Lamott and Frederick Buechner. She doesn’t shy away from big issues, and her honesty is disarming.”
Certainly, Taylor’s new memoir, Learning to Walk in the Dark–on spirituality and self-help shelves in time for Good Friday–challenges the broad theological belief that darkness is evil, scary and just plain bad. But she is also taking on the sometimes far-too-sunny fashion in which churches tell their most important stories. It is easy to forget, amid “the Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets and bright streaming light,” she notes, that the Resurrection happened in a dark cave. “God and darkness have been friends for a long time,” Taylor says. “It’s just one nighttime story after another–amazing.”
NIGHT-LIGHTS AND DARK PLACES
From the moment God declared, “let there be light,” Scripture christened light as holy and condemned darkness to hell. The Christian liturgy soaked in the theme in the centuries that followed. The Book of Common Prayer addresses God as “O Light” and begs, “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord.” Hymns followed suit, from “Amazing Grace”–“When we’ve been there 10,000 years/ Bright shining as the sun”–to the hit “In the Light” from Christian hip-hop band dc Talk’s 1995 album Jesus Freak. The message is hard to miss: if you are in the dark, you are not with God.
But Taylor sees it differently. As impossible as it is to imagine faith without light, it is equally hard to imagine a world without darkness. We are taught to fear darkness as children, she says, when parents line the halls to the bathroom with night-lights to scare away the closet monsters. As we grow older, the monsters take a different shape: darkness descends with the call that a loved one has cancer, months of unemployment, a child with an addiction or an unanswered prayer. Taylor’s own darkness extends to anything that scares her, and that includes the absence of God, dementia, the melting of polar ice caps and what it will feel like to die.
On a very practical level, she says, we pay a high price to shut out the darkness. We glue our eyes to screens by day, while electric light hampers our ability to sleep at night. Then, when we lie awake with all our fears, we turn to solitaire or to sleep aids to cope. Our spiritual avoidance of the dark may be even more dangerous. Our culture’s ability to tolerate sadness is weak. As individuals, we often run away from it. “We are supposed to get over it, fix it, purchase something, exercise, do whatever it takes to become less sad,” she says. “Turning in to darkness, instead of away from it, is the cure for a lot of what ails me. Because I have a deep need to be in control of things, to know where I am going, to be sure of my destination, to get there efficiently, to have all the provisions I need, to do it all without help–and you can’t do any of that in the dark.”
Taylor is reviving an ancient idea in Christian theology, one that the mystics of the Middle Ages understood: darkness holds divine mystery. As she writes in her book, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
The preacher in Taylor points out that darkness was often the setting for humanity’s closest encounters with the divine. God appeared to Abraham in the night and promised him descendants more numerous than the stars. The exodus from Egypt happened at night. God met Moses in the thick darkness atop Mount Sinai to hand down the Ten Commandments. The apostle Paul’s conversion happened after he lost his sight. Jesus was born beneath a star and resurrected in the darkness of a cave. “If we turn away from darkness on principle,” she asks, “doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance we are running away from God?”
Taylor has always inhabited the edge of mainstream Christian spirituality. She questioned biblical narratives as a child. Her first short story, written when she was 8, pondered the naming of the animals in the Garden of Eden, why some things got feathers, others got scales and still others got skin. In high school she was baptized in a Baptist church, but it wasn’t until she arrived at Emory University and saw religion professors on the quad protesting the Vietnam War that she decided to really seek God. “To be a Christian in those days was to be adventurous. It was to be countercultural. It was to be really out there,” she recalls. “I wanted to know more, what gave them that kind of independence, what gave them that moral sense.”
She followed her intuition to Yale Divinity School while planning to be a writer, not a minister. Her three years there brought as much personal change as theological immersion: a marriage and a divorce, an Episcopal Church vote allowing women to become priests and, soon after, her first real sermon. Only seven people attended the service, and while she does not remember what she preached (“I’m sure it was the most awful, full nine servings on a plate, everything a seminarian ever learned and forgot about Jesus,” she says), someone asked her for a copy of her message afterward. “That’s when I switched my focus. I was still writing short stories, but the sermons were selling,” she says. “I sobered up and got ordained.”
The priesthood was a crash course in facing life’s dark corners. Taylor worked as a hospital chaplain, visiting patients and families in neonatal intensive-care units and psych wards. She then spent nearly 10 years as a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church, a 2,000-strong congregation in downtown Atlanta, leading worship and doing twin funerals for victims of AIDS–one for the gay community, one for family members who often covered up the cause of death. She also married again, and she and her new husband moved upstate.
There is not a more charming, idyllic-looking church than the one she was called to lead in Georgia’s Habersham County. Grace-Calvary Episcopal, a tiny white chapel with tall, clear glass windows and the state’s oldest pipe organ, is nestled in the pines of Clarkesville, pop. 1,726. It was her dream parish; members would leave baskets of homegrown zucchini on her porch, and together they started a hospice center and counseling service.
Taylor’s congregation learned early on that she could preach the house down. Her funny, matter-of-fact sermons, bearing just a trace of Southern twang, were both mercifully short and reliably powerful. (Her writing had years earlier attracted the notice of author Annie Dillard, who got her into the storied Yaddo writing colony.) Her favorite sermons were never for Easter or Christmas but for the Sundays in ordinary time. “We had, for five years, just the happiest thing in the world,” she recalls.
But in 1996, a Baylor University survey named Taylor one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world–the only woman alongside Billy Graham, Fred Craddock and John Stott. It wasn’t long before minivans of seminarians started rolling up on Sundays to hear her preach. Then came the multitudes. Soon so many people were showing up that the church schedule grew to four services every Sunday; Taylor wore an orthopedic girdle under her vestments to help her through so many hours on her feet. But the tiny chapel seats only 85, and not everyone was happy that Grace-Calvary had almost overnight become a must stop on the sawdust trail.
The congregation was soon anything but small and intimate. One parishioner, Taylor recalls, refused to expand the building just so Taylor could develop a “preaching emporium.” The perfection unraveled, and it became clear that Taylor, despite her prowess in the pulpit–or because of it–could no longer lead her flock. When nearby Piedmont College asked her to lead its newly formed religion department in 1997, she took the job. Today, Grace-Calvary does not even mention her in an online video of its 176-year history.
She is reluctant to discuss the details of this chapter. Preachers too often fall into exhibitionism, she says, and she wants people to face their own rocky journeys in their own ways. (In her book about that time, Leaving Church, she takes nearly all the blame for the breakup. It resembled, she said, “a lovers’ quarrel.”) But the loss of faith as she knew it was devastating: at times, God even felt gone altogether. “I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now,” she writes. “After years of teaching other people what words like sin, salvation, repentance and grace really meant, those same words began to mean less and less to me … but since the religion I know best has a lot to say about losing a precondition for finding, I can live with that.”
Like many Americans, Taylor may have lost the church, but she is far from faithless. She prays these days to the Holy Spirit, which she sees as both the universally divine and the hardest to understand, and says her job is to trust its movement. She attends church two or three times a month, rarely at the same place twice. Her spiritual guides include naturalists and cosmologists, everyone from physicist Chet Raymo to Tibetan nun Pema Chodron. During a recent late-night jaunt, she looked heavenward and realized that the important thing about the stars is not “the naming but the noticing,” the millennia of people who have watched them and named them before us. “It fights against the ego,” she says.
She still lives outside Clarkesville and has extended her preaching to a much larger audience. Her latest three books offer a Christianity that is found in everyday life, not just in church. Even she admits that her place on the faith spectrum is hard to describe. “I am too religious for the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, and I get called new age, pantheist, witchy by the religious crowd,” she says. “Christian tradition is where I have gotten the teaching that has allowed me both to claim Christian tradition and to move out from it.”
A NEW NOCTURNE
Most of the world’s major religions have something helpful to say about finding God in the shadows. Gautama Buddha meditated in the caves of northern India. Muhammad received the Koran in a cave outside Mecca. St. Francis prayed in a tiny grotto near Assisi. Darkness is inviting everyone in to know God, Taylor believes, to heal us of our weaknesses and strengthen us for the journey.
But if Taylor speaks to all spiritual seekers, her words are poignant for a Christianity in the middle of a semimillennial idea shuffle. Whole denominations are facing deep challenges, she notes. Attendance in the mainline churches continues to shrink, demographic power is shifting to the southern hemisphere, and charismatic voices claiming divine experience are rising both in the U.S. and abroad. “While the dark night of the soul is usually understood to descend on one person at a time, there are clearly times when whole communities of people lose sight of the sun in ways that unnerve them,” Taylor writes. “The one thing most emerging Christians will say is that the faith they inherited from their elders is all worn out.”
Taylor hopes that her journey prompts others to follow in their own ways. That may not mean real-life spelunking or wandering through the woods at night. The quest is too personal for replication and involves both physical and emotional risk, for you may not find what you want. But that is precisely the point. “If you are in the dark, it does not mean that you have failed and that you have taken some terrible misstep,” she says. “For many years I thought my questions and my doubt and my sense of God’s absence were all signs of my lack of faith, but now I know this is the way the life of the spirit goes.”
Taylor is settling in for a long journey. In her backyard she is planting a moon garden filled with pagoda dogwood, white rosebushes, nocturnal phlox, gardenia, pearly everlasting, angel’s trumpet and night-blooming moonflowers. When she walks in the evenings now, they will greet her, a reminder that darkness gives way to beauty and sometimes truth as well.
This appears in the April 28, 2014 issue of TIME.