“Proceeding as the way opens”

When I lived at a retreat center secluded in the woods, the guests who came from the cities would occasionally take walks at night. They would shut the front door, walk the length of the well-lit porch, and face the unfamiliar, looming darkness of Norwegian pines, ironwood, and oak. Many later reported that they could not go further: They couldn’t see well enough or felt afraid of what lurked in the woods. Some, however, took a few bold steps down to the driveway. Just before the darkness swallowed them, a shock of light flooded the drive set off by a motion detector. The adventurers could safely proceed another forty feet before darkness again conquered their vision. Then another light flashed on. Three times between the house and the road, lights sensed their movement and steered them forward. Once they were on the road, even a cloudy sky provided enough light to proceed.

Over  breakfast the next morning, these guests shared their surprise. “You have to take a few steps into the dark, just trusting,” one said, “before another light shows the way.”

The Quakers call this “proceeding as the way opens,” and it’s good counsel for writers as well as spiritual seekers. Often the way is draped in shadow and we must proceed anyhow. It is common for the beginning of a writing project to be paved and well lit. A topic propels us out of the house; we’re determined, curious, or on a mission. But it’s not long before the porch light recedes. Our writing peters out; our energy fades, and the direction we were so sure about suddenly seems ill-advised. The trouble with writing about what we know is that our story is constrained by the limits of our knowledge-we can only go as far as the pool of porch light. How can we take those few tentative steps beyond the first rim of light into the wooded darkness? 

from “Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Skinner House