Learning to Walk in the Dark (Lenten Reflection)

“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”

As I finished up my internship at the Unitarian Church in Annapolis, I started working as a per diem chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

I’d work Tuesdays (including the big big Tuesday: 9/11) from the afternoon until night and overnight on the pager. I’d also work a weekend or two a month, depending.

I was still in seminary, still studying. I had one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education behind me. The year before I spent a summer in Salisbury at Peninsula Regional Medical Center, learning the basics of chaplaincy. The Eastern Shore of Maryland was amazing and beautiful and periodically the Duke student and I would take off to the beach, 30 minutes away, to decompress. I didn’t especially know what I was doing, but I was grateful for the work, and I did my best. I had a great boss and she shepherded me through it.

Anyway, that CPE experience in Salisbury enabled me to be hired at the University of Maryland Medical Center as a per diem. I was there a year and a half and I learned. I had no idea that twelve years later, I’d be a full time chaplain, after faltering as a parish minister. I landed where I need to be. Do not fret.

I worked Tuesday nights and Friday nights. I’d sleep over.

And those of us who slept overnight, had to sleep on a futon, in a small little office at the back of the chapel.

Some nights, I’d get called to the Emergency Room at 2 or 3 in the morning.

From 11 p.m. until 6 a.m., the chapel went dark. There was no real way to get the chapel lights on at that time.

Sometimes the light in my office in the back of the dark chapel was on. Sometimes it wasn’t. Because I was rushing to get out the office door, often I’d forget to turn the light on as I left at 2 or 3 in the morning.

So the chapel was dark, and the little office with the futon, was dark too.

So I would be tired, a little disoriented, and in the dark, after I had concluded my chaplain duties in the Emergency Department.

So I’d enter the chapel, slowly making my way towards the place where I would rest. One foot in front of the other, reaching out for a pew for support occasionally. It felt like a long time that I was walking in the dark, not fully knowing where I was going or even if there would be things that would trip me up along the way.

When I finally opened the door in that office with the futon, there was one thing that guided my way, that helped me find my way, even though I was surrounded by the dark, and uncertain, and afraid.

You see, above the futon there was a little shelf, a little headrest. And on that shelf there was reading material for the chaplains, a bible, a novel, a book of meditations. And next to those books was a little plastic, glow in the dark praying hands, the kind you buy in the dollar store. The praying hands lit up the room, just enough to know where the futon was in that office.

That light from those praying hands guided me “home,” guided me towards rest, towards a good night’s sleep. Those praying hands helped me find comfort, after a long night of toil and strain.

Those praying hands offered the light that guided me on my way.

Maybe you are walking in the dark right now.

Maybe you can’t imagine any kind of light.

Sometimes, when I went back to the chapel, the events at the Emergency Room were of such depth and power that I’d just sit in the dark. In an empty pew, all by myself. Maybe the tears would stream down my face. Maybe I’d sit in silent prayer. The dark was where I needed to be in that moment. God had not abandoned me, as I sat in the dark, though I felt very alone. Hope had not abandoned me, though it was often hard to find. I needed the dark in that moment, and I did not need to rush towards the light in my office. The light might be too blinding. It might be too much.

Right now, maybe you are seeing a bit of light, such as the light that came from those plastic, glow in the dark praying hands. Maybe there are glimpses of light for you and you are filled with an emerging sense of hopefulness.

Maybe the light is growing stronger for you every day.

Every one of us in the midst of such a time as this moves at her own pace, at his own pace. Be compassionate. Be gentle. With yourselves, first and foremost.

What I know is that you too have a light that will guide you on your way, towards peace and comfort and rest and the promise and hope of a new day. As Paul wrote, three things accompany us: faith and hope and love and the strongest, the most enduring, the most life giving of those is love.

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Roger Butts

Roger Butts

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Author, Seeds of Devotion. Unitarian Universalist. Ordained 20 years.