Living with Courage
Coming Full Circle with BBT by Diana C. Brawley
A review of Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest called, Learning to Walk in the Dark for Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC in anticipation of Barbara Brown Taylor lecture and sermon in October of 2014.
Finding symmetry with the cosmos, Barbara Brown Taylor walks us all the way from the setting sun to the rising moon in her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Like the inspired seeker tracing the ancient steps of saints over old cobblestones in order to grow deeper in faith, Taylor takes us on her personal and courageous pilgrimage on what I call the Camino de Oscuridad, the Way to Darkness. Through a memoir that reads like a travel log, Taylor bravely examines what she fears most—the dark. And in so doing, offers us a glimpse into a daring theology, humble faith, and honest relationship with God and community. Taylor, an episcopal priest, professor of religion and spirituality, lecturer and author, is well known as an artist with the written and spoken word, and in this her most recent work, she does not disappoint.
Our thorough journey begins beneath the August sky, watching the gentle sunset in the backyard, and overhearing as she recounts the early years of her spiritual journey. After exploring darkness internally, Taylor ventures to understand darkness in the world: she encounters the life of the blind; surveys the far reaches of a West Virginian grotto; and travels to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres. She then traces darkness in the Bible through a fascinating study of how and where it is used there. She looks at the imprisoned Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross. She listens to the wisdom of St. Augustine, the poetry of Li Young Lee, and the French resistance writer Jacques Lusseyran as he becomes blind. What results is a full circle of ancient and contemporary voices to follow through the dark. But the inimitable moment on the journey is also it’s most intimate, when the words on a page stood up and revolted as Taylor faced a writing deadline. By the close of the excursion, she comes, like a lunar cycle, full circle. She provides us the rare chance to see in dark by the complete light of the Winter Solstice’s full moon that, for those who missed it in 2010, will have to wait until 2094.
Through Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor invites us to explore our fears, life struggles, doubts and spiritual darkness. She is unafraid to examine the absence of God and the health of one’s soul. And yet, knowing that darkness is defined by an individual’s experience, she places tender boundaries between the dark that she knows something about and that area that is beyond. She wisely distinguishes; for example, clinical depression from the dark night of the soul, warning us that one is not to think of them as synonymous. Depression is a disorder that improves with psychiatric treatment, while the other is a station of spiritual desolation suffered by a person along their journey of faith that needs not be feared nor denied. Taylor pilots us from a ‘full solar’ faith that looks dubiously upon doubt and darkness, toward a ‘lunar spirituality,’ where fluctuations in belief and meaning are regular plots on the course of life and faith.
Barbara Brown Taylor, with a keen theological eye, and a grounded and poetic pen, offers a well-crafted and brave glimpse into the dark and discovers God there. Her travel log records her Way to Darkness and illustrates that none of us are alone on this path through the light and dark of life.
– Diana C. Brawley
By Courage & Renewal Facilitator Diana C. Brawley, Published in Words of EnCOURAGEment, Winter, 2009
For the last year the waves of news have rolled in about our nation’s shaky financial footing, and we have seen wide-ranging reactions to it. At first, it was easy to say that we saw this coming and that an economic adjustment was long overdue. Then, as the news hit a bit harder, it was easy to be distracted and even in denial. We wanted to focus on anything but the grim financial news. Next our gaze fell heavy on those we could blame for this mess — pointing fingers and shaming the greed of leaders. Those reactions are less prevalent today. As I look around, I see a shift occurring. The occasional wave has been replaced by crushing daily news of lay offs, downturns, unemployment, and foreclosures. Even polite dinner conversations have begun their own version of wave-making with talk of the latest neighbor to file for bankruptcy.
In this season of winter, there is a global shift happening around us — like huge plates of ice shifting on the winter landscape. If you’ve ever been in a similar landscape you have heard the eerie moan the ice makes deep down below. That is what I imagine as each country faces its own financial chaos with groans from down deep in the belly of the earth. The reverb of those groans is heard around the world from community to community, from one ice-covered expanse to the other. As the globe braces—breathes in and holds its universal breath across the frozen horizon —some bravely, quietly, ask questions: Where is this leading us? How bad is it going to get? How much misery is this going to bring? When will it end? These questions have no easy answers and they have now become the backdrop for what we call “Courage & Renewal work.” And we, Courage & Renewal facilitators, also must bravely ask questions about our work: How does the changing economic landscape inform or even transform the work we do? What is Courage & Renewal work? Part of the task for these times is our ability to first face and then adapt to the shifts that are occurring.
When Courage & Renewal work is at its best, artful facilitators create safe circles where people look again at their vocational journeys and after a few hours, days and even years feel restored, refreshed, reconnected in the process. However, the kind of courage work I envision is not limited to the yearning for deeper meaning in one’s vocation. The work I am talking about is the deeply private work that has to do with one’s soul. This work is the daring work each one of us takes on in order to quietly hold hope in our world where the bad news flows in like waves. Included in this hope work is ways to celebrate the small and the large things that get accomplished in a day. For example, getting up each morning, facing the stack of expectations ahead, or heading out to the job that is unsatisfying, or worse, having no place to go with unexpected news of unemployment. When life stressors threaten our ability to get out of bed, we need to ask for help. Leaning on family, friends and trained therapists are all solid options for us. But what then is the role of Courage & Renewal work?
Set on a backdrop of the worst economic slide in modern history, the courage work I see as essential is the creation of circles that explore the courage to hope. For those who find it difficult to face this reality alone, “courage to hope” retreats would serve an ever-deepening need.
How might one be strengthened through this kind of circle? These retreats would offer folks an opportunity to ask open and honest questions, despite their roles in the world or their role in life. This kind of courage work can provide a safe place to bravely voice our despair without letting go of the possibility of hope. Through poetry, visual arts and music, participants can explore ways to hold on to their inspiration. They would voice hope-filled expectations in spite of current hard times without fear of humiliation. Perhaps they would discover new resources of strength within and also can be reminded of the strength they have shown in the past. They would play with new ways of using the gift of imagination to see through the fog of these troubled times.
The imagination of professor and poet, Elizabeth Alexander can transport us to a place of hope. She eloquently describes our current situation neither as some frightening time nor as a time of strife. In her poem written for the recent presidential inauguration, she paints a picture of a people who stand at an important time in history with perfect possibility for hope. Listen again as she sets the stage for a new day:
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer consider the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”
We encounter each other in words, Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; Words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”
We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.
How can we hold on to hope? We can hope for a new beginning. A new president is a new beginning. The year 2009 is a new beginning. A beginning is a location, a destination for hope; a place of possibility. Within it we locate our dreams about what is to be. In this new day, let us imagine a new beginning for our work in the world where our praise song is shared by all; where our work is “the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.*” May we have the courage to hope, may love have the final say, and may we ‘walk forward in that light.’
*Parker Palmer quoting Frederick Buechner, The Courage to Teach, p. 30, 1998
Written by Diana C. Brawley, Published in Good News @Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church, November 2009
In a 1992 Gallup poll, 66% of people surveyed said they preferred a mental health counselor who represented spiritual values and beliefs; and 81% said they would like their own values and beliefs to be integrated into the counseling process. Perhaps because pastoral counseling is particularly responsive to these needs and desires; it has become a major provider of mental health services.
Pastoral counselors are clergy and others who have received graduate training in theology and behavioral science who then integrate these disciplines in a wholistic clinical practice.
What is distinctive about pastoral counseling?
1. Pastoral counselors believe there is a God or divine power in whose image we are created. They believe that we yearn for a transforming connection with the divine and that psychotherapy can mediate the loving and healing nature of being itself.
2. Pastoral counselors often pay attention to the religious history of a person or family, recognizing its contributing role as either source of pathology or source of strength. For example, false images of the ultimate can distort one’s concept of oneself. Also characteristics of one’s parents or other childhood authorities are often projected onto a divine figure. This can lead to mistaken beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. Powerful healing work results when this is demythologized.
3. Pastoral counselors may also make therapeutic use of traditional religious resources such as prayer, reading scripture and participation in the worship and community life of a congregation. Our unique orientation as pastoral counselors allows for what one psychiatrist has called “clinical theology”—search for a revelation of love, forgiveness, and good news to people who have been in bondage to their feelings and the past.
We are pleased that Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church has joined with others to be sponsoring a partner of the Pastoral Counseling Services of Central Virginia. This nonprofit counseling service has forty years of experience in Lynchburg and the surrounding communities. We are happy to welcome their experience to Charlottesville.
The Rev. Diana C. Brawley has begun to see those in need of counseling in a confidential setting within our church. If you or someone you know is interested in more information please feel free to call Diana at (434) 987-6097. Diana meets people at Blue Ridge Church in Ruckersville for scheduled appointments. Drawn largely from the May 1997 edition of The Harvard Mental Health Letter. This article came in response to the question posed to Merle R. Jordan, Th.D., Albert V. Danielsen Professor of Pastoral Psychology at Boston University School of Theology and a Diplomate in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.