Scripture can be found here...
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.
The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells…
This week I tried to think of my own personal experience of caves. I didn’t come up with much, but there was that one trip to Howe Caverns when my children were small. I remember how cold it got as we descended in the elevator, and how oddly thrilling it was to climb into a boat so far, it seemed, underground. I also remember how utter and complete the darkness was when the tour guide actually turned out the lights—the kind of darkness that makes you say, “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.” But the truth was, at no time during that visit did I feel even a tiny bit unsafe, at no time was I frightened. It was all completely controlled, and there was no opportunity to get into even a little mischief.
It didn’t take too long to realize that the most vivid experience I’ve had of caves has been in reading about them. Specifically, that time I was in the seventh grade, and our English textbook consisted of excerpts from novels, and one of those was the chapter called “Riddles in the Dark,” from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Those of you who have read it will remember: Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit who is more naturally predisposed to comfort and napping and lots of meals throughout the day, finds that something awakens in him (he blames it on the “Took” side of the family) that longs for adventure when a Wizard named Gandalf comes calling. On that adventure with thirteen dwarfs and the wizard, Bilbo is part of an expedition to reclaim the gold belonging to the dwarfs from an evil dragon. But he is separated from his party and tumbles into a cave in the side of a mountain. I remember his disorientation, and his fear, but also his embrace of the necessity of going forward… whatever that means when you can’t see your hand in front of your face. I also remember that, in this dark cave, whose downward slope leads to an underground pool of water, Bilbo has an unnerving encounter with a creature who is strange, and then baffling, and then terrifying: Gollum.
In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that there are cave-dwellers and cave-strangers. Speaking of her time exploring Organ Cave in West Virginia, she goes on,
I was one of the cave strangers, whose eyes are not adapted to darkness and who cannot live on the food the cave provides, but who are drawn to caves for our own reasons. Bears come to hibernate and give birth, bats and frogs to escape the heat, raccoons and skunks to take shelter from the weather. Why do humans come? That is harder to say. We come to see what is here and discover who we are in the presence of what we find.[i]
Elijah the prophet comes to a cave because he is on the run from a murderous queen, who has put a bounty on his head. (This probably had something to do with the fact that Elijah had not only humiliated the prophets to the goddess Jezebel revered, but that he had also killed them, all four hundred of them.) Reasonably enough, Elijah is awaiting marching orders from his God, YHWH, the Lord of heaven and earth, the God of Israel.
In that cave Elijah had an experience of a wind strong enough to split mountains and break rocks, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. The passage tells us, the Lord was not in any of these. But then came a “sound of sheer silence,” the kind of silence Taylor describes from her long sit in Organ Cave in West Virginia. She writes, “I stop[ped] thinking. I simply [sat] in the sweet, enveloping darkness, letting it erase me in the best possible way.”[ii] For Elijah, the Lord was in the darkness…and our passage from 1 Kings declines to elaborate on that. But when the prophet heard it, he wrapped himself in his mantle, and went to the mouth of the cave, ready.
We are just over a week from hearing the story together of the time Jesus died, and was wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb—what was, essentially, a human-made cave, carved into the side of a mountain. While sitting in the dark, Taylor remembers that cave, too. She writes,
… no one knows for sure what happened there. By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus, saw him after. What happened in the cave, happened in the dark.[iii]
Bilbo Baggins enters the stone, as part of a quest for stolen gold. Taylor enters the stone to discover more about who she is. Elijah enters the stone to learn what God wants from him now, now that he is both a highly successful prophet and a wanted man.
Jesus enters the stone carried by the people who love him, gone too soon and the victim of a murderous regime coupled with an insecure religious element. But the stone he enters is transformed by God from a sepulcher to a womb. Taylor writes,
Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life begins in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.[iv]
At this, the end of our exploration of walking in the dark with Barbara Brown Taylor, I’d like to share with you a blessing for traveling in the dark—not by Taylor, but by Rev. Jan Richardson.
if you can.
More slowly still.
this is no place
to break your neck
by crashing into
what you cannot see.
it is true:
have different tasks,
and if you
have arrived here unawares,
if you have come
or in pain,
this might be no place
you should dawdle.
I do not know
what these shadows
ask of you,
what they might hold
that means you good
It is not for me
whether you should linger
or you should leave.
But this is what
I can ask for you:
That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 119.
[ii] Ibid., 129.
[v] Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015), 30-31.