Have you ever been so completely surrounded by darkness, real physical darkness, there was no difference between eyes open or closed? And if your eyes were open, you felt them straining to adjust, trying so hard to find the slightest hint of outline that might suggest a shape, something solid, reachable by flailing arms, something to prove you hadn’t been sucked into a void, where nothing exists, empty of everything and everyone, except now you…alone.
Yeah, me neither.
Except once, kind of. Christmas Tree Cave in Carlsbad National Park, New Mexico. My only true caving, or spelunking, experience. (Thank you Carmen SanDiego for teaching me that word in 5th grade computer lab.) Invited by a good friend, and guided by her uncle, it required a 1 1/2-mile hike into Slaughter Canyon, (more inviting than it sounds), repelling down through the cave entrance with full gear (now you’re impressed), harnesses, rope (the technical term), carabiners (not just meant to hold your keys or for attaching your Nalgene bottle to your belt loop), etc. (Assume I know enough to expand on that if I wanted to).
Once inside, we marched, one-by-one, helmeted and head-lamped, through fragile formations of rock, various mineral deposits, columns, and stalagmites, until near the back of the cave we found the reason it acquired its distinctive name – a large formation in the shape of an evergreen, with rounded edges rather than needley points, and pale, almost white in the glow of our lamps, looking as if blanketed with snow. It was beautiful, apparently having existed for hundreds of years shrouded in that inky impenetrable blackness, practically unseen by human eyes.
After gazing for a while at these geologic wonders, we did what anyone would naturally do in that setting. We lay down side by side, shut our mouths, and turned off our headlamps.
We lay in silence for a while, allowing our eyes to do their freak-out dance as we let the weight of that complete darkness fall on us with its full force.
Okay, that’s maybe a bit melodramatic. Technically, I don’t know that this cave went far enough back to truly be impenetrably dark. Perhaps it wouldn’t require echolocation to navigate for some creatures with exponentially greater eyesight. But if there were any hints of light, I couldn’t see them. As far as feeling lost in the void, though, it’s hard to get there with the sound of four breathers trying to be as silent as possible in the most silent place you’ve ever been. I’ve never heard such loud, quiet breathing.
So I didn’t feel as though I were trapped in the abyss alone. My companions were very present, aside from the breathing, there was the rustle of jackets as shoulders connected, and the rolling crunch of the gravelly cave floor as boots were pressed to the ground to assist in a change of position. And finally the inevitable whispered question, “Can I turn my lamp back on yet?”
With the flip of the switch, my eyes reacted as if they were starving after being denied form and substance, attaching immediately to the first solid thing in front of them, the cave wall.
At this moment, the lamplight revealed to me something I had missed before. The walls of the cave were covered with small sparkles wherever the light hit. Mineral deposits of some sort I suspect, quartz or crystal. I don’t know. (I wanted to take geology as my lab science requirement in college, but meteorology fit better, so now I know lots about clouds instead of rocks. Well, I should know lots about clouds.)
Whatever it was that sparkled like diamond dust had given no hint of itself in the darkness, but as soon as the light hit, the walls were transformed into a beautiful display. Darkness on its own cannot produce that kind of stunning visual stimulus. Our eyes cannot translate the nothingness of the dark into something distinct enough to dwell on.
And yet sometimes, we crave the dark.
As children we explore the dark corners and closets in our homes, we build our blanket forts and snuggle back into these caves of our own creation. We play hide and seek in the backyard on summer evenings with the night sky our ally in our efforts at concealment, along with the prickly juniper bush and its small human-shaped indentations. In those settings, with light pouring from all the rooms of the house, darkness is exciting, made beautiful by games and flashlights, starlight and the nearness of home.
As we grow older we often have a continued fascination with darkness, a less physically tangible darkness. Sometimes we allow it in. It conceals the corners of our mind, and hides uncomfortable truths from us that we’d rather leave unexplored. And living with darkness can make us feel it’s more real than light – it’s the darkness that represents us best, that we deserve. It’s the darkness that we understand.
I used to be afraid that if God ever came in and shone His light on all the dark places inside of me, the ugliness would be too overwhelming. Left bare, the world would feel empty and cold, judging and harsh. So I held the darkness close. A protective blanket fused to me, a part of me, I thought. The real me.
The thought of God’s light was anxiety-inducing.
What I have learned since is how the darkness confused my own judgment. As God’s Light has made headway into the far reaches of my darkness-impaired thinking, I realized an obvious truth: It’s only with the addition of light that darkness has any beauty.
The sparkles on the cave wall weren’t there without the light from my headlamp. The stars in the night sky make the evening inviting for a game of flashlight hide and seek. And the Father of Light takes my darkness and transforms it into something beautiful.
The song below is a favorite of mine. I learned it as a child, but only as an adult has it become so dear. I sing it in my car often as a song of thanksgiving, adoration, and my future hope for the continued promise of eyes that truly see and a life made beautiful by the addition of Light.
Jesus is beautiful
And Jesus makes beautiful
Things of my life
Carefully touching me
Causing my eyes to see
Jesus makes beautiful
Things of my life
by Ernie Rettino & Debby Kerner Rettino