Chalice Lighting from Andrew Pakula

Afraid of the Dark
by Andrew Pakula

In sightless night, terrors draw near
Nameless fears of talon and tooth
Hopelessness yawns before us—an abyss
Alone and unknown in the gloom, longing for the dawn

O sacred flame blaze forth—wisdom brought to life

Guide us—
With the light of hope
The warmth of love
The beacon of purpose and meaning

Because we are all afraid of the dark
Let there be light


Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

Darkness: The Descent of Inanna: Light Yields to Darkness

a sermon given on 2 December 2007 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


In The Descent of Inanna, light yields to darkness and is reborn again. Emily Green choose this ancient Mesopotamian myth, four to five thousand years old, as our sacred text for this month of the Winter Solstice and Advent, holidays that help us spiritually live with the literal overpowering darkness of seasonal long dark nights. This myth may be ancient, but it has touched many contemporary women as living scripture, or words that resonate still with our deepest spiritual longings, longings to be fully healthy, whole human beings. But how can a myth, an untrue story, a fantastic tale, touch the lives of post-modern rational human beings?

Myths can touch us from at least four different perspectives: as metaphors for the processes found in the natural world; as descriptions of religious rituals that enable people to grow spiritually; as metaphors for the processes of human psychological growth and integration; and as reflections of large cultural changes. The Descent of Inanna can be viewed through all four of these perspectives.

The Descent of Inanna was a metaphor for rhythmic processes found in the natural world. Inanna was literally the morning and evening star that we now call the planet Venus. That star shines as the evening star for 250 days, descends below the horizon and then rises on the other side of night as the morning star for 236 days. Every year light literally yielded to darkness.

Inanna was associated to other natural processes as well. She was know as the Grain Storehouse, the innovation upon which the Mesopotamian city of Uruk was built upon. Her Descent has been likened to the dwindling and replenishment of the storehouse as the grain was used up, grown, harvested and stored again. These natural rhythms of the stars and agriculture vary from place to place on the globe, but every place moves with natural rhythms of the sky, with its patterns of light and dark, and the land with its patterns of growth from fallow to harvest, that we all relate to. In this place, in this time, we relate the descent to the natural rhythm of the summer light overcome by winter dark, and autumn abundance overcome by winter dormancy.

The Descent of Inanna was a description of a rite of initiation. In the history of Western religion a long tradition of ‘Mystery’ religions refer to the initiates passing through a series of gates or stations where they give up their worldly ideas and are given knowledge of the ultimate reality, including the inevitability of suffering, death and rebirth. From this knowledge comes wisdom. Inanna is the first initiate into the mysteries of death and rebirth. The stations of the cross that Catholics walk during the holy week before Easter is a more modern incarnation of these mystery rites. This ritual has also permeated our culture at its most secular levels. For instance, you may want to watch the movie ‘Apollo’ again someday just to observe how the script writers structure the journey to the moon and possible death around the closing of seven very technological gates, watched over by the gate-keeper, Ed Harris at mission control in Houston.

The Descent of Inanna is a metaphor for the process of human psychological growth and integration. In the Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera shows how the symbols in the ancient myth arise in the dreams of modern women who have been taught by a woman-hating culture to repress much of who they are as too ugly, irrational, dirty, bitchy and scary to acknowledge. As these women of the light make a journey inward to their unconscious, leaving behind all the trappings of their success in a male centered world, they meet the scary repressed female who, like Ereshkigal, writhes in pain. When the unacknowledged parts of the woman are finally listened to, the woman rises again, whole and with enormous energy.

I saw this happen while I was in Divinity School when I was taking a course with the feminist theologian, Carol Christ. Carol began every class by showing archeological evidence of goddesses from a variety of cultures around the world. Many of the women in the class reacted with painful distress. I had to work with some of them for a whole year (supervised by Sharon Welch) to understand what was happening. The women who were so profoundly upset by the ancient images of women had all grown up in religions that taught them that their female bodies, in and of themselves, were evil, the originators and bearers of sin. They were taught that they had to transcend their bodies and become spiritual, which was understood as dualistically opposed to their bodies. They painfully repressed most of their physical reality. When these women looked at ancient sculptures of women, naked, fleshy, bodies of all shapes, ages and sizes, often pregnant or nursing or giving birth, female parts clearly shown, they saw images of evil and shame. When their professor told them that these images of female bodies were idealized as Goddesses, holy and sacred, they were plunged into chaotic confusion. These daughters of dualistic light met up with Ereshkigal for the first time and they were in profound pain. Some of them felt like they were plunged into dark chaos and were dying. Yet, with help, they faced their repressed traits, integrated them and learned to love themselves, body and spirit as one.

The Descent of Inanna is a reflection of large cultural changes. The story originally was written when the very separate city states of Sumer, each with their own city god or goddess who supported their own kings and queens, where building regional alliances, moving toward a unified political entity. In the stories of Inanna we can observe political tensions between the gods and goddesses of different cities that may reflect very real tensions between the different city priests, priestesses, kings and queens. When Inanna returns to heaven she rises full of anger and surrounded by demons. She finds her consort, Dumuzi, instead of grieving her death, sitting on her throne, rather enjoying taking over her rule. She orders the demons to take him to the Great Below.

Many second-wave feminists felt just this way when they became more psychologically whole and started to challenge the culture that had taught them to limit and repress much of their humanity. Boy, were we angry. And in our anger, we demanded that those who expected us to continue limiting our humanity go to the underworld, face their own repressed selves, do their own work. Many of those people did, and they became mutual equal partners capable of loving their full self and the fullness of the women in their lives. And through darkness and light yielding one to the other, another culture began to change.

I have told this story many times and from all four perspectives. I have told it as a story that invites us to participate in the natural rhythms of darkness and light yielding one to the other, helping me become less afraid of the dark and more awake to the beauties of the night. I have observed this myth at retreats as a religious ritual that enabled people to grow spiritually.

In my feminist theology class at Harvard (Sharon again) we invited the class of 200 people to participate in the ritual of the Descent. I enacted Inanna – with a foam Statue of Liberty crown. About five years later, and 1,500 miles away at the World Council of Churches’ Conference on Women and Religion, a whole convent of nuns started running towards me, one of them pointing – “That’s Inanna!” She was one of my classmates, a nun who took this story back to her convent. There they continued to tell the story of the Descent with the natural rhythm of darkness and light yielding one to the other.

I have told this story as a metaphor for the processes of human psychological growth and integration. In my own life I have entered the psychological darkness of the unconscious, acknowledged another scary part of my nature, killed off another lighted delusion of my ego, and come back more integrated, with the cyclical rhythm of the seasons: as the storehouse of grain dwindles, the seed is planted in the dark soil, grows into grain, is harvested, and replenishes the storehouse yet again.

I have told this story as a reflection of large cultural changes; at battered women’s conferences, lectures on contemporary women’s art, and classes on liberation theology — places where what was once culturally despised and repressed can be held up to the light again.

And what I have learned from telling this story is that Erishkigal and Inanna are sisters that need one another. The darkness and light of the sky and the earth must yield to one another for the natural world to continue turning in its cyclical rhythms; the light of the ego must yield to the darkness of death for wisdom to be born; the dark of the flesh and the light of spirit must yield one to the other for the holy to incarnate, the pains felt in the dark by culturally repressed people must yield to the light to give birth to peace.

In this season of long dark nights, we wait for the light. But if we ignore the dark, we wait in vain. For darkness and light need one another. Let them yield one to the other, each distinguished, unique and cherished.

Darkness: The Darkness Inside by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

The Darkness Inside

a sermon by Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger

Given Sunday, January 9, 2011, Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire

“I saw what love might have done, had we loved in time.” I had tears in my eyes when I first read this poem.

Perhaps it was the image of the young, blue-eyed, hopeful father degenerating so completely, with even the least of his dreams frozen inside. I am a young and hopeful father.

Perhaps it was the imagine of the grown-up child so afraid to open the door because of what would happen if the father entered the home. I am a grown-up child.
Perhaps I had tears in my eyes because I cannot imagine to look into the eyes of a loved one and find them blank and devoid of the love I crave. I am a lover. It is love that brings light into my life.

We don’t know the story behind the lower lip swollen with bitterness, leaving us wondering what regret, what disappointment, what loathing may be to blame.

We don’t know why he is returning, returning on the darkest of nights knocking wildly at the door, leaving us to wonder where he is the rest of the time?

We don’t know and, yet, many of us recognize that knock because we’ve heard it before, on our own dark nights, knocking on our own doors, causing us to lose sleep again and again as we try to ignore what cannot be ignored.

Here is a story about St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio based on a version by storyteller Bob Wilhelm.

The people of the little Italian town of Gubbio are understandably very proud of their beautiful home. Then one night a shadow comes out of the nearby woods and prowls the streets. In the morning the people of Gubbio find a mangled and gnawed dead body. This happens again and again. Finally an old woman says the she has seen a wolf on the streets at night. The terrified people decide to ask a holy man who has a reputation for being able to talk to animals for his help. They send a delegation to get St. Francis.
They have very specific ideas on what St. Francis should tell the wolf. First, he should preach to him and remind him to obey the commandment against killing (and perhaps throw in a word about the inherent worth and dignity of every person) and to follow Christ’s commandment about loving God and neighbors. And then, just in case, since a wolf is, after all, a wolf, he should tell the wolf to move to someone else’s city.

Francis goes into the forest to meet the strange shadow, addressing it as “Brother Wolf.” Then he returns to the town square. “My good people of Gubbio, the answer is very simple. You must feed your wolf.” The people are furious, especially with the suggestion that this uninvited beast in their midst is somehow to be regarded as “their wolf.” But they do feed it, and the killing stops.

Most of the stories we read to, or watch with our kids are stories of good versus bad. The pattern is quite predictable. Someone good is treated unfairly which results in a struggle of long odds between a group of good and bad characters. As the story unfolds, we are taken for an emotional rollercoaster ride as evil threatens to overpower good until, just before the end, we are emotionally released as good triumphs once again.

The world is back to how it should be, peaceful, governed by trustworthy and virtuous decision- makers. The wolf, or its equivalent, usually ends up dead, in prison, or in the zoo, safely away from us, the good people – until the release of the sequel.
I love those stories, and, as I have been told, seeing the world in black and white is entirely age appropriate – until about age twelve to fifteen. That’s when our ability to understand multiple perspectives allows us to place our moral decisions in context. That’s when our ability to understand multiple perspectives forces us to see that moral dilemmas create shades of grey and that the world is full of moral dilemmas.

Telling stories when we identify with more than one side of the story becomes more challenging, yet it also becomes more real. What is threatening about this way of telling our stories is that it brings us closer to the dark side, the side we are afraid or ashamed to acknowledge, the “wolf” we would prefer to move to someone else’s city.
I remember watching a documentary in the mid-1980s about a person who had graduated in a decade before from the same German high school I was attending at the time. He was the son of a school teacher, well-liked, bright, a student leader, deeply concerned about injustice and exploitation, interested in politics, history and philosophy. The more I heard about this person, the more I felt a kinship. I imagined we would have been friends had we attended our school at the same time. I felt we were on the same trajectory in life.

I was watching this documentary, because this potential friend of mine was now one of the top terrorists threatening the safety of the West German establishment. His group, the Red Army Fraction, had been involved in the killing and kidnapping of a number of high level officials and industrialists. His name was Christian Klar, and he had just been sentenced to life in prison.

Somewhere along the way our trajectories did diverge. He was just paroled after 26 years in prison. I became a minister. What made the difference? I can try and laugh this off as a silly question. Yet I do know that seeing the documentary frightened me for the mirror it held up of the potential within me and my friends. Growing up in Germany, I was keenly aware that few are truly immune to the possibility of evil action.

Yet, for most, the darkness inside does not show itself in the temptation of terrorist acts, genocide, mass murder, or torture. The darkness inside shows up as a result of much more everyday activities.

And most likely, it is mixed with plenty of light, so much so that we may not even notice the shadows claiming their spaces here and there.

Perhaps we ate more than our share of chocolates, or perhaps we had more than our share of liquor before getting into our car. Perhaps we spent another evening or weekend at the office, yet again, or we spent the money we did not have on something we did not need. Perhaps we told a lie to cover our lack of dependability, or perhaps we depended on our ability to manipulate a spouse or a friend.

The shadows appear when we cause harm, and the shadows appear when we act in ways that contradict our values. Our values shape our identity and who we think we are.
I like to think of myself as someone who would never hit a child. Hitting a child would add a shadow. The darkness inside would spread.

I like to think that I would grieve the death of my mother or father. Not grieving would add a shadow.

I like to think of myself as someone who would take care of his body knowing its physical abuse would impact others. Being careless with my body would add a shadow.
Our values shape who we are, yet our values can come into conflict. Living true to one value may force us to compromise another value. For religious liberals, this is a tension we have to be willing to embrace. Good and bad are not independent forces engaged in a cosmic struggle for control. Good and bad grow out of the same, singular life force. We each have the capacity for both.

This means, we will make mistakes, we will cause harm, we will contradict ourselves, and we will feel the darkness inside.

And this means, we will do good, we will bring joy, and we will feel the light inside. There is a balance to life. Our charge is to do what we can to tip that balance, to nudge it in the direction of goodness and light.

Forgiving ourselves and each other when mistakes have been made is one way to tip that balance. And it appears that we are biologically hardwired with the ability to forgive. Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Florida. On the NPR program “Speaking of Faith,” he explained our capacity for forgiveness as an essential evolutionary trait in species that depend on cooperation for survival. In his words:

“You can’t get organisms that are willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen despite the roadblocks and the bumps along the way if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes. Sometimes if we’re cooperatively hunting — let’s say we’re some sort of animal [..] that works together to hunt — sometimes I’m going to let you down. And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake.

And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really, our ability, [..] to cooperate with each other and make things happen that [we] can’t do on [our] own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.”
He does not mean to imply that forgiveness is easy or always possible. It can take time and it can take intentional preparation. We have to be willing to see the humanity in the other person. We have to be able to see the world from more than a single perspective. Seeing the world in black and white is not helpful here. There is always more than one story, more than one way to tell the story, more than one way to hear the story.

And this is true whether the story involves two friends, a family, a church community, a nation, or one, singular person struggling to reconcile his or her conflicting actions and desires. Forgiveness does not make our mistakes go away, yet forgiveness opens the door for us to begin again, and begin again in love.

“I saw what love might have done had we loved in time.” Let us open our doors and our hearts while we have the time.

Darkness: A Visitor, by Mary Oliver

A Visitor

by Mary Oliver
My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.
But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open
and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.


“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver