Feb 01 2017

Wendell Berry – To Know the Dark

Published by at 9:34 am under Poetry

To Know the Dark
by Wendell Berry

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

— from Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds, Edited by Neil Astley / Edited by Pamela Robertson-Pearce

/ Image by Nelleke /

I have been thinking a lot about the dark recently, staring into the heart of darkness, so to speak.

Many of us who see ourselves as being on a “spiritual” pathway have a real difficulty with this — really looking at darkness, in ourselves and in others. We often want everything to be about light, light. But that can lead to a sort of frailty. To really witness the horror of a cruel heart in action can be devastating. Multiply that many times over when the cruelty is ingrained into a bureaucratic system.

For the kind hearted, that terrible recognition becomes a shattering confrontation with the abysses that humanity is capable of. To see another human heart turn cold and hard in the face of the suffering inflicted on others or, worse, to see a heart revel at that suffering, is a hellish vision that we instinctively seek to deny and unsee. This is partly because it whispers to us that we are capable of such cruelty ourselves. It also nags us with the thought that such cruelties have been taking place all along and we, in our complacency, did not acknowledge it before. It all becomes too much and we want to turn away.

But the job of engaged spirituality is not to paper over the world with flowers and happy faces so that we can breathe a sigh of relief. Real spirituality, deep spirituality requires seeing reality, all of reality, as it is, from its most luminous to its bleakest black and everything in between.

Whether we speak of Christian traditions of “witnessing” or Buddhist practices of holding a steady gaze in the presence of suffering, seeing the fullness of reality, the dark with the light, is essential for one to cultivate a deep, full, and strong spirituality. Though it breaks our hearts and fractures open fissures in our image of the world, it is necessary.

This fierce willingness to see everything is necessary to be fully present within the fulness of reality. It is necessary so that we do not wither in the face of confrontation. We must see suffering if we are to soothe wounds. And we must recognize cruelty that we may protect the vulnerable. To summon strength, we must recognize that conditions require strength. To express kindness and connection, we must see clearly who has been labeled an outsider.

Today I will practice holding an unwavering gaze in the dark so that I may see what I see, whatever changes that may bring in me…

…and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Recommended Books: Wendell Berry

The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982 Given: Poems Selected Poems of Wendell Berry A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 The Mad Farmer Poems
More Books >>

Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Wendell Berry

US (1934 – )
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Wendell Berry

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6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Wendell Berry – To Know the Dark”

  1. ebrahimon 01 Feb 2017 at 1:11 pm

    What a beautifully exquisite poem. Each word a pearl from the deep ocean of mystery. To seek and know light is to seek and know god, but to seek and to come to know yourself you have to dive into the deep dark depths of your own self. Lest one does not come to realize and recognize ones own self, one never really comes to realize and recognize god.

    The dark is fierce and fiery as it is unrelenting. Here the veils of delusions are torn and burned. Here the heart is purified of its vile lust and other impurities. It is the most frightening and scary of places and the most difficult to go through. This is so because it brings you face to face with the lowly despicable thing you really are.

    After this emerges the real. The real you. The you that is wholly and absolutely true.

  2. marrobon 02 Feb 2017 at 10:47 am

    As a Quebecer I’m silent with sadness over Sunday’s mosque massacre.

    Berry’s poem . your comments and those of the previous response by ebrahim
    speak to me of a compassion beyond naive refusal to walk through, indeed to BE
    the darkness. I’m so grateful that wisdom from the heart is universal and breaches
    walls of isolation. Blessings in darkness go beyond borders. Thank you.

  3. Sueon 02 Feb 2017 at 3:15 pm

    Interesting- I did not even read it as “dark” in the common usage until I read the commentary. I read it as “unknown”. I thought of the “delicious darkness” that I think Sufi’s say. The path to awakening is dark to our minds – we cannot take our mental “lights” there. The dark has it’s own feet. It’s own ways. We have to awaken on awakening’s terms.

  4. Ivan M. Grangeron 02 Feb 2017 at 3:29 pm

    Dear Sue-
    I suspect that you are right and the poem is intended to suggest something closer to the unknown. But I thought I would take the opportunity to stretch the meaning and explore the idea of witnessing what frightens and horrifies us.

  5. Rasikaon 07 Feb 2017 at 9:28 pm

    Hi Ivan,
    As always your commentary is deep and moving. Thank you for this gift on many mornings.

  6. jon 20 Jan 2018 at 7:30 pm

    i often turn to this poem in ‘dark’ times ~~~ like Rilke’s verse, it urges us to ‘stay with’ what is happening, not to change or gloss over things : & to remind us of the : w o n d e r s : we’ve hidden in the dark, just waiting to be uncovered.

    your commentary, however, is even more moving. you sound so many deeply resonant, true notes about what an authentic spiritual life is ~~~ not ‘new age commercialism’ which seeks to avoid pain & suffering.

    wonderful, strong, heart~centred writing ::

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