I am curled into a sleeping bag on the floor beside Makayla’s bed. Our granddaughters have come for a sleepover. My wife is sleeping in the bedroom next door with Gianna, 4. It is well past bedtime, but Makayla, 3, is too interested in everything around her to go to sleep. First we review all of the shadows cast on the ceiling by the night light. Then she gets her dolls and her Bear properly settled beside her, covering them with a blanket. I say, “Makayla, Papa is going to close his eyes now,” hoping this will encourage her to do the same. I hold my eyes shut and listen to Makayla who is moving constantly and singing. Finally, my curiosity gets the best of me and I sit up to see what she is doing.
Her legs are straight up in the air; jammies pulled to her thighs. She is brushing her legs with her Bear. I ask what she’s doing and she explains, “I’m painting my legs.” She says this as if it would be obvious to anyone. “What color are you painting them?” She thinks for a moment and then settles on her favorite color. “Red.”
I watch her “paint” for another moment or two, and then I say again, “Papa is going to lie down and close his eyes. Do you want to close your eyes, Makayla?” To which she replies, “If I close my eyes, I won’t be able to see.”
I laugh quietly to myself but her simple words stay with me for days afterwards: “If I close my eyes, I won’t be able to see.” It makes me wonder about the importance of seeing in the dark. What eyes, what vision do I need so I can do it?
I think about the classic book on spiritual practice, The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous author in the fourteenth century. In it the writer counsels the student to seek God, but not through the accumulation of knowledge, what might be thought of as the normal spoils of “seeing,” but through a kind of “seeing” that is stripped of knowing in the day-to-day sense. This involves opening one’s eyes in a different way. It involves accepting that only in darkness and unknowing will one be able to see truly. The student is urged to put knowledge gained purely by intellectual endeavor under a “cloud of forgetting” and in so doing begin to enter the “cloud of unknowing” that is God. This is faith. This is how a union of spirit begins; a union of spirit that is beyond the mind’s capacity to know, beyond the “seeing” that comes in the light of day; it is the fruit, instead, of seeing by night when the eyes are not the best means of vision at all.
Trust me, I don’t plan on giving up the remarkable benefits of intellectual seeing. This is not an invitation to be anti-intellectual. But it is a reminder that there is as much to be learned in unknowing as there is in knowing.
More than anything else, though, Makayla’s words help me recognize that at age 63 it is often tempting to lie down, close my eyes, and just go to sleep. I need to be as wise as a three year old. I need to remember that if I close my eyes, in any form or fashion, I won’t be able to see.
David B. Seaburn is the author of four works of fiction. His most recent novel is “Chimney Bluffs.”