I have stumbled through valleys of shadow this past year. The Psalmist talks about the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but I have encountered other valleys, internal ones in my “one wild and precious life.” I have wandered in the valley of old wounds, hurts and slights, things that happened years or months ago, which when I remember them still sting and hurt. I have roved in the valley of missteps, misdeeds and mistakes, which may or may not have been redeemed, nor may they be able to be. I have bumped along in the valley of a garbled sense of self, with roots in my tales of a journey of becoming.
Falling in to these valleys, I don’t lose my ability to function, to contribute or to enjoy. But in the solitary and dark moments, I lose perspective, direction and hope. So I have wrestled with how to navigate these turns in the road, how to live with them; I am not sure that I will ever “overcome” them. I have reached back in my own story to find out what has provided a container for me when I find myself in one of those valleys, yet again.
I begin with music. One great gift of my life from its beginnings was the sense-around sound of music: church music–choral and congregational; spiritual music; old folk songs, before there was a folk music movement. Everyone in my family–nuclear and extended–sang. We sang together in family prayers; we sang grace at holiday table. As I developed my own voice and skill, my repertoire of rock music, classical music, and camp songs expanded. Those melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, and most of the words, are embedded in my heart and awareness, and I can call them up at a dark moment’s notice. “Kindle a flame to lighten the dark, and take all fear away,” “Safe am I in the shelter of God’s hand.” Even, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when clouds are gray.” The multi-sensory memories sooth my body, comfort my soul.
I also call up words that bless–words from sacred text, words from poetry, and words from wise and compassionate companions over the parts of the trail I have traversed already. Even if I don’t sense their truth in this immediate valley of the shadows, they are touchstones for me. Knowing they are there reminds me that this valley isn’t the only terrain I am crossing; there will be other, more open and clear well-lighted spaces in which to live and move and have my being. “Even my darkness is not dark to you.” “There is joy in all…” “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom!” Sacred or silly, these words are markers of hope.
And of late, I have come to value the practice of attending curiously to the valley of my shadow itself before rushing through it: what are its contours of feeling for me? how did I happen on this particular one? what are the names of the features of this landscape? are they familiar, ancient, new? Before I race to deny or get out of this place, can I , as they say in Buddhist tradition, “..sit still until the mud settles”? What does this valley of the shadow have to teach me…about the world, about the Self that God gave me, and about the Holy One who is here with me?
That’s where I am learning to rest in each of these valleys, counting on the Psalm of the Shepherd: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley…of any kind…I fear no evil; for You are with me.” (Psalm 23: 4.) Each day there is evidence of Holy Presence, in my garden, in my dog, in an e-mail, in Bach on the radio, in a reach-out from a long ago friend, in gentleness from loved ones, in a Word–sacred and comforting. I don’t love these valleys of shadows, but I am accompanied with love and compassion through them. And the sacred journey continues.