When Your Headlamp Fails

Sermon given by Sophia Lyons, October 7, 2018

May I just start by saying that it is such an honor to be here with you today.  This is no small thing that we do when we gather together and for at time, try with everything we have, to cultivate a community of meaning.  A place where we get to light candles for our sorrows and joys–speak them to each other, even when we are afraid to.  I mean, this is what it’s all about, am I right?  There is a lot that I love about church, but this really is the burning coal at the center of it all for me: a place for us to gather as our whole selves: broken selves, grieving selves, celebratory selves, anxious, exhausted, ridiculous selves.  A place where we get to be all of this, sometimes in the span of a few minutes.  I would say that all of this is what makes this place a “sanctuary” and a holy place.  Because this is sacred and holy work.  Being our whole selves with one another is sacred and holy work.  It is a privilege to enter this sanctuary, your sanctuary today and share in this with you.

So, about five months ago I was putting a headlamp on, and clambering out of a bus with 18 other women onto a dusty road at the top of Mt. Dictis on the island of Crete in Greece.  Visible all the way from the bottom of the mountain, a massive opening was the entrance to the 400-foot deep Skoteino Cave. This is considered a sacred site, one in which the ancient Minoan civilization used as a place to worship the Goddess for thousands of years. This was a much anticipated pilgrimage for me.  And on this particular day, I had a lot of high hopes for what the descent down into that cave might feel like; what our time together at the bottom might reveal.  I imagined it as being a really joyous and revelatory time.  Truth be told, I was on this pilgrimage pretty spiritually adrift, after a very difficult second  year of seminary.  One that had brought a lot of my personal story to the surface and left me feeling depleted, untethered and really alone.  I was suffering and I desperate for relief.  And this was going to be the day that it came!

What a massive disappointment it was to wake up agitated.  This feeling only swelled, as these things can, as we got closer to the cave.  By the time we got off the bus I was utterly frazzled: I kept dropping things, losing things, stumbling over things.  I couldn’t focus on the readings before we went down.  My mind was racing: concerned about the dark, the steep ladders, the candles I was carrying, whether or not I would be cold or hot down there, whether or not I wore the right shoes, and on and on and on…

Every time I tried to take a deep breath to let all of this GO, something would get added to the laundry list of worries and distractions.  I was getting angrier and angrier at myself for not being able to wield it all.  For not being able to get myself under control.  Do you know this feeling?  Well, the Universe has a sense of humor my friends.  On top of all of this, and just as we began our descent, my headlamp went out.  Please understand that this was the ONE item, the one item that was starred on the required pack list.  Next to it were the words: please buy a good one.  You can’t carry flashlights or phone lights as you will need your hands to climb.  The terrain is very uneven and steep and we will be entering pitch black darkness.  Please buy a good one.  Suddenly the $12.99 good deal I thought I got on Amazon seemed to be a morbid mistake.  And now I was going to plummet to my death in the pitch black thanks to the folks at “Ever Light.”

So, this month’s theme is about Letting Go. Oh how much time and effort I have dedicated to implementing strategies, spiritual practices even–good, great stuff–that might quickly usher all the uncomfortable stuff out the door without a moment to spare.  You have no place here.  You are not welcome here.  I’m in the business of joy-making, thank you very much.  I believe we live in a culture that insists upon the idea, insists, that whole-ness is about being joyful. A culture that defines whole-ness, our whole-ness, as the being contingent upon the absence of suffering.  Contingent upon the absence of suffering.

This morning Ginny played, in the prelude, the song ‘Blue,’ by Joni Mitchell.  Diving deep into that song over the last few weeks I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  I was hearing a love song, a love song, for despair.  She sings, “Blue, here is a song for you; ink on a pin; underneath the skin; an empty space to fill in” she goes on…” Blue, I love you.”  Blue, I love you.  In writing this, in going there–to the deep, unchartered places within–Mitchell has said that she was transformed and irrevocably opened by this uninterrupted time she gave to her sorrow.  You know, in preparing for this service I couldn’t believe how many stories like these I came across.  From sacred texts to great poets, literature, music, myth, philosophers, psychologists, stunning wisdom across the ages: so much of it seems to be calling us towards a whole self that includes time and space for sorrow.  Some even say that paying attention to our sorrow can be the work of excavation, a dig that, oddly enough, paves the way for incredible joy.  That they sometimes need each other, whether we like it or not.  The richness of the kitchen table that Joy Harjo describes isn’t just the warm hearth that it provides, a place of sustenance and fellowship and celebrated milestones.  This is part of it, yes.  But I would say that the sweetness of that last bite is born out of sharing both our pain and joy with one another.  Both.  Bringing our life’s story, our lost and found whole-ness to the table and let it all be there.  And to do this with each other.  

So.  The cave in Crete, where I was supposed to be having a mystical experience with the Goddess, and instead, fear, regret, anger, disappointment and no headlamp.   Pitch dark blackness engulfed me as steep, cold rock sent me down, down, down.  By the time I arrived at a 10-foot rickety ladder propped up half-hazardly against unforgiving rock, panic and despair set in.  I began to feel like I needed to turn back.  I wasn’t going to make it. Then, down from the bottom of the ladder came a voice: “You can do this,” she said.  “I won’t leave you.” This woman, part of our group, who I could not identify in the dark, held that ladder for me as I slowly descended it, now weeping.  When I got to the bottom, she took my hand and led me forward.  Every so often she would turn around and say, again, “I won’t leave you.”  By the time we had reached the bottom I felt like I had not climbed down into a cave, but rather down into myself.  We sat there, in the silent darkness, for a long time.  Something got very quiet in me and out of this quiet came this question: what if this was what I came here for?  What if climbing into this cave, into myself, had less to do with excavating joy and relief, and more to do with letting the pain of the past year,  all of its pent up anxiety and concern just be here, without a hope or wish for it leave or be anything else than what it was?  Give it the same care and love that I would the joy.

We lit beeswax candles at the bottom of that cave, passing the flame around the circle.  I saw tears on so many of the women’s faces, now illuminated by that candlelight.  We sang, (sing) Light and Darkness, Light and Darkness…We did this to try, just for a short time, to let go of that voice that only wants the light and fears the darkness.  We did this to tell her, that she is whole, even when she is in despair.  And that it is ok to be afraid on the descent down.  AND that we need not ever take the plunge alone; that there is always an unexpected hand to be found; a voice to take comfort in: “I won’t leave you.”  Shared tears.  And joy was found in and out this.  Deep and profound joy.  It was all at the bottom of that cave that day.  It was all there.

It’s been a tough last few weeks.  Writing this sermon was not easy in the face of the collective pain that is, right now in and among us all.  There have been moments for me in these past days where I have felt utterly sunk by sorrow.  Drowning in pain.  The last thing I have wanted to do was to sing a love song to it.  And.  I let it have a say.  I let it have a say, even though it scared me to.  And, I listened out for those who needed to let it have a say too.  This is spiritual work. This is spiritual work.  Throwing our hands up and saying this is me, all of me–broken and failing and lost and still whole. STILL WHOLE.  And. Who are you?  Tell me.  I’m here.  We are in this together.

May it be so.