A few weeks ago I heard the theologian Matthew Fox discuss the different paths we walk in life; in his parlance, the different vias. I was particularly struck by the way he talked about the via negativa, which he characterized as periods when we experience suffering, darkness, silence, and solitude.
Fox posited that our discomfort with the difficult is mirrored by our avoidance of literal darkness: “Everything Is Illuminated” is not just a book title — from nightlights in kid’s bedrooms to flashlights on smartphones we tend to enlighten our worlds rather than face the dark in them. How breathtaking the night sky is when we are away from the city and really see the stars! And how ghoulish a face at night looks when bathed in the blue light of a computer screen. Perhaps there is something almost sinister about light if we overuse it.
For a good stretch my sister and brother in law held weekly “Blackout Tuesdays” in their home: when the sun went down, no machines were used until morning. This was inconvenient for sure — candles instead of lights; meals without ovens; questions without the easy answers found in computers. But by their reports, both parents and children went to bed with satisfaction deep in their bones — proud that they’d gone off the grid and made it, and also enlivened by the experience of living in the dark.
A few weeks ago my son Rio and I were walking in Dimond Park in Oakland, where the grass and playground eventually give way to a dirt trail that winds up the canyon. At one point, the stream we were following led to a dark tunnel. The path weaved around and over it, but Rio wanted to go straight ahead. It was a warm day, the kind when you can lift your face to the sun and find its warmth filling you up until worry has no room. The tunnel, on the other hand, looked cold and foreboding. But I followed Rio’s lead, and we began walking in a tunnel so long we could not see daylight. As the creek trickled by and my hands groped their way along the walls, I started to feel strange. At first irrational thoughts shot through me: Could a train be coming? Could there be no exit at the end? Could the entire tunnel spontaneously collapse and trap us inside? Would I lose Rio forever to the dark? But then another feeling came — without the gift of sight, my other senses were more acute: the feel of the hard granite; the soft sound of water over rock. I suddenly felt like a monk walking back to his hermitage at night, the town’s creek and the walls of the monastery my only guides home.
After about five minutes, I finally saw a pinhole of light in the distance. As we reached the exit, I asked Rio if he had felt scared.
“Not scared,” he replied. “Just different.”
A few days later my father had a catastrophic stroke and fell into a deep coma. I flew down immediately and arrived at the post-acute care center to find him in what I can best describe as a deep sleep. The nurse told me she was shocked he was still breathing on his own, as if he were waiting for someone. “His lungs are strong,” she observed. “Was he a runner?”
“Nope,” I responded. “Just stubborn as hell.”
Even though my father showed no response when I shouted his name in his ear, I told him everything I needed to tell him. I caressed his cheekbone as I told him how much I loved him. How much I always had. I thanked him for coaching my little league baseball team for so many years. I forgave him for being such a difficult man. I stroked his earlobes. Other than the occasional awkward hug, I hadn’t been physically intimate with him in 70 years. How sad that only his imminent death was allowing that kind of contact. And yet how alive I felt bestowing it upon him. I told him I would return the next morning and would be happy to see him. But I also whispered, “You don’t have to hold on anymore. Maybe you should just go.”
When the nurse called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me my father had simply stopped breathing, I was not surprised. I returned to the center and stood next to my father’s dead body. I had never been so close to one. I touched him as I had the night before, although of course it was completely different now. I now truly understand that the skin is an organ. And yet I continued to graze his stiff cheekbone with my knuckle and did the only thing I could think of to ease his spirit into whatever realm it reaches next: I made a circle with my fingers around my own beating heart and sprinkled whatever they found there onto his corpse. I stood there in silence for a long time. Then I said goodbye.
I’ve tended to walk around life’s dark tunnels, or hold my breath through them. End, End, End seems to be my mantra. But on that morning, I was content to touch life’s cold stone.