The Natural World is our Teacher: Advent as Pilgrimage into the Darkness

Posted by on Dec 8, 2021

The bud

stands for all things,

even those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.

from Saint Francis and the Sow, by Galway Kinnell

Advent is one of my favorite times of the year, even though I am always sad to say goodbye to autumn’s last burst of color. Every season has something to teach us, some hidden clue that reveals something of life’s mystery which flowers from within all things and holds together all of the fragments of our lives. Though this is a Christian holiday, Advent has some universal meaning which speaks to the shared existential quest we are all on as human beings.

Advent means “coming” and occurs in the weeks leading to the winter solstice during the Northern Hemisphere’s darkest season of the year. It is the beginning of the liturgical church calendar and has within it a circular sense of going back to beginnings. Though we tend to focus on the candles and lights we illuminate at this time of year, in its deepest essence Advent is a contemplative season of pilgrimage; a return of sorts, where we are invited to be present to our life as it is and feel and embrace the liminal space of not knowing. We tend to want to run from and shun this time, yet it may have hidden wisdom just waiting for us. Advent’s placement near the winter solstice and the darkness of the season points us as modern people back to a spirituality where the natural world was seen as alive with divinity and as a mirror of the Unseen realm.

Maybe you have a sense of losing your way in this human penchant to shun the darkness and hide in the light? 

For many reasons too complex to trace here, our religiosity has created a false polarity between darkness and light, and has almost categorically demonized darkness, equating it with evil and scary things. However, across all of the mystical strands of our world’s faith traditions, is the understanding that darkness and light are essential aspects of the spiritual life, just as they are in the natural world around us. As author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor describes in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, “Christianity has never had anything nice to say about darkness,” and has fallen prey to “dividing reality into opposed pairs: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light/dark” which are deemed to be “higher and lower.” 

She does not add male/female here but as we have explored in the The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom reading journey, this penchant to divide all of life into opposing and hierarchical opposites is the core DNA of patriarchy, which has elevated and deified masculinity as godlike and denigrated femininity as shameful and the cause of evil in the world. “In every case,” describes Brown Taylor, “the language of opposition works by placing half of reality closer to God and the other half farther away.” This proclivity causes great harm as we see all around us in our broken world filled with division and violence — all too often inflamed by our religious identities and sense of rightness.

Learning to Walk in the Dark is a personal account of Brown Taylor’s journey of falling out of love with what she calls a “solar spirituality” which stigmatizes and banishes that which is deemed lower, lesser than, uncertain or unclear, while striving to “stay in the light of God around the clock.” We see this on a macro level with the authoritarian side of religion doing so much harm in the world by lopping off this darker, softer, more feminine knowing of faith. Brown Taylor invites seekers to reclaim what she calls a “lunar spirituality,” which embraces the not knowing of the darkness (obscura in Latin) as an essential part of being human and cultivating a mature spirituality that can help us truly seek and find our way in the vagaries of the journey of life. 

Wherever you are in your journey, whatever has befallen your life path, whatever you believe or don’t believe, Advent is a sacred season. It is an invitation to pause, look inward, and cultivate this lunar spirituality, which accepts the limits, and is leery, of our egoic minds’ quest to ascend to that which is deemed “higher,” and the related need to “know” with the bright light of airtight certainty. Though it is all too often overshadowed by the hustle and bustle and materialism of the Christmas holidays, Advent is a sacred season when seekers are invited to rest, to wait, to grope around in the dark, and to get in touch with the existential seeking of their own heart.

When we live in our minds and when our religiosity becomes laden with so many layers of heavy propositional belief, we easily lose touch with the interior capacity of the heart to seek, find, and know life in and through all of the physical senses, and beyond as well. The magi who followed the star to Bethlehem symbolize the seeking spirit of Advent and show us our own timeless human yearning to gaze up at the heavens and let the natural world lead us to seek and find one’s place in the larger whole of things. 

In many places, a “Christmas rose” (or some flower) is part of Advent decor and evokes the longing for new life to bloom within the darkness and weariness of the world. In the retelling of the nativity story of Jesus, Christians are encouraged to see divinity in a tiny little bud of a human, a baby. Likewise, all of the red flowers, evergreen, and twinkle stars that people deck their houses with are a reminder that this same Christ light emanates throughout the natural world and is waiting to be born anew in each of us. The light by which we seek to walk is not one which shines like a giant floodlight from outside of us, but rather is an interior light which awakens and illuminates our path from within. This requires patience, going back again and again to wait, watch and, attend with wonder and awe to this ongoing hidden advent that is ever seeking each of us right where we are, even in the midst of the darkness and messiness of our lives. It is an invitation to participate in this larger cycle of falling into the dark yet fertile Ground of Being, the Womb of Life, to begin again and become who we truly are.

Walking by faith is indeed learning to walk in the darkness and being content with a little trickle of light on the path. May you find space this Advent to rest, to look up to the stars, and to watch for light to dawn anew. May you embrace the darkness as a fallow field in which to relearn your own loveliness.