We stood in utter darkness.
I was 12 years old, 100 feet underground, in the long, winding passages of Mammoth Cave. The park service guide gathered us in one of the large rooms. He spoke of geology and history. He told us about preservation and heritage. Then he introduced me to the idea of light pollution. He explained that because of stray light in our increasingly urbanized world, most of us had likely never experienced total darkness. Then he turned out the lights.
Often, when we are plunged into sudden darkness, our eyes will adjust. Our pupils widen, taking in the lower levels of light, and small details slowly return. Even on a moonless night, you can hike without a flashlight if you learn to use your peripheral vision and take your time.
But in the cave, we waited for our eyes adjust. We stood side by side waiting for some hint of light to return, or the smallest detail to reveal itself. I put my hand right in front of my face and stared hard to find an outline, but there was none.
Then the guide lit a single match, and from that, a candle. It brightened the room. We could see the other people gathered there…a smile of relief on their faces…a bit of wonder at the deep darkness we had just experienced.
I remember thinking two things…
-that small candle and its flame looked amazingly fragile and vulnerable
-that candle’s light reached far
I sometimes imagine the early days of fire…especially in this northern climate…in the days before matches and lighters. I’ve lit a fire with flint and steel. I’ve watched the bits of tinder and fluff smoke, smolder, and die. I’ve felt my pulse quicken as the tiny spark turns into flame and begins to consume its fuel. It’s easier to keep a fire burning than to start a new one, and I imagine how precious those glowing embers must have been once a fire was lit. I am certain they were guarded and protected, because in very real ways, life depended on it.
Last summer, I was at Holden Village, a retreat center nestled deep in the wilderness of Washington’s Cascades. It’s a place that feels far removed from the cares of the modern world, but even with limited access to technology, the news of the world filters in. While I was there, white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, VA. In my hometown of Bloomington, MN, somebody bombed an Islamic center. The one where my friends Nur and Warda pray regularly. In the midst of this pristine, remote setting, focused on community and caring for one another, a darkness settled. It was hard to know how to respond.
Holden has a Lutheran heritage, but it is open to all and is actively working to engage with other traditions. During an evening vespers service, a passage from John 1:5 stuck with me. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We decided to gather on a hillside to light candles…as a show of concern for what is happening in the world…as a symbol of our commitment to bring light into a dark world.
I once heard a story about an old man who stood with a protest sign on a small gravel road leading to a nuclear site in the Nevada desert. Every week he would go there with his sign. He seldom saw anyone else, but one day another person was on the road and they stopped to talk.
“What are you doing?”
The man explained.
“But nobody sees you. You’re all alone. You’re not getting any press exposure. You’re not making any difference. You’re not changing the world.”
The man thought for a minute, and then he replied, “I’m doing this so the world doesn’t change me.”
If there is darkness in the world, don’t let it change you. If there is a flame in you, guard it. Nurture it. And carry it out into a world that desperately needs it.
That single flame in Mammoth Cave cast an amazing light…and left an impression that has rippled through decades. My wish for 2018 is that each of us will recognize our own ability to bring light into the world, and work hard to encourage the light in those around us.