Elizabeth Sherrill explores the meaning of a religious quote that puzzled her for years.
May 27, 2014
On the wall of my mother-in-law’s bedroom in Louisville, Kentucky, hung a framed quotation in Gothic script:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
When I first went to Louisville to meet my new in-laws, I would step into that room, read these lines by the poet Minnie Louise Haskins, and puzzle over them.
Although my father’s father had been a Unitarian minister, my parents never went to church, or even talked about religion. The only one in the family who did was Daddy’s sister Helen, who attended the austere red-brick Unitarian church on East 35th Street in Manhattan, where I often went with her.
I was only a visitor at Aunt Helen’s church, but whenever I had to fill in a blank under Religion, I would write “Unitarian.”
The words in that frame seemed to me the embodiment of everything Unitarians rejected. An anthropomorphic deity (how could anyone hold the “hand” of God!). Blind faith (why should being led around in the dark be better than stepping out in the clear light of reason?).
Such outmoded religious notions, Aunt Helen had assured me, were believed only by ignorant people.
My mother-in-law, Helen Sherrill, however, was not ignorant. An author and authority on early childhood development, she must have thought this enigmatic quote important to hang it where her eyes would light on it first thing each morning.
Later, when Mother and Dad Sherrill moved to New York City, the Haskins quotation hung on the wall of their bedroom there. It hangs today in my bedroom.
In the years since I first read those words, I’ve become an adherent of that “outmoded” religion. And I’ve come to see in Haskins’s prose-poem the traveler’s guide to heaven.
Our hand in his is, of course, a poet’s way of expressing trust. And why should dark be better for our journey than daylight? Because, I’ve come to feel, holding our hand is God’s delight.
Oh, there are practical reasons too, why he cannot banish the darkness here and now. Light–his Light– would show us too much. In 1991, an operation was performed on a blind man named Virgil. For 45 years, neurologist Oliver Sacks reported, Virgil had functioned effectively as a sightless person.
Suddenly able to see, he was overwhelmed by a torrent of impressions bombarding a brain that could not process them. He became disoriented, listless, miserable. When an illness destroyed his new-won vision, Virgil welcomed the return of blindness.
“Now, at last,” wrote Dr. Sacks, “Virgil is allowed to not see.”
Allowed to not see...If we were suddenly able to see as God sees–the entire past, the entire future, the ultimate consequence of each thing we do, each word we speak–perhaps we too would be unable to cope. Perhaps in his compassion God must keep us in the dark.
But I think his hand-holding goes far beyond mere necessity. When our kids were teenagers, a Beatles song throbbed through our house: “I want to hold your h-a-a-a-nd.” I believe God sings the same refrain. I think he longs to keep us company, to walk at our side, hand in hand.
I think he doesn’t reveal the future to us not only because we couldn’t handle it, but because if he did we’d drop his hand and race ahead alone. “Thanks! I see how to get there now!”
Getting there, even to some noble goal, is not as important to God, I suspect, as the journey in companionship with him. It’s relationship, not achievement, that he wants.