Johnny Cash starts his song “The Man In Black” with these lyrics:
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.*
In recent months I have started wearing black a lot. I have purchased several pair of black pants, several black shirts, and a black coat. I even bought a black fedora hat. A number of people have started calling me “the man in black”. Some have even commented when I show up wearing other colors. All of the comments led me to “wonder why I always dress in black”.
In his song, Johnny Cash says he wears black essentially to remember all of the suffering people in the world, but that really doesn’t connect with me. At first glance my reasons are not nearly so profound.
The first answer to the question is simply “because I want to” and “because I like it”. I didn’t start wearing black for any conscious reason. I just found myself wearing my black clothes more and more often. Then I bought more black clothes and then asked for some more for Christmas. Especially when I dress for church, church meetings, teaching, etc., I just always wear black. Again, I had no conscious reason really. I just like to wear black.
The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on it is the fact that I was a Trooper and Sergeant with the Virginia State Police for a number of years. When I would get ready for work I always knew what I was going to wear. The uniforms hung together in my closet and that was just what I wore. There were no decisions to make. I liked that. I have always hated standing in front of a closet trying to figure out what to wear. At least when I went to work, no decisions were necessary. At the same time I like looking neat and clean so I won’t just put on anything that happens to be around. That too no doubt has a connection to being a police officer, though on another level it is just a part of who I am as a person.
But on further reflection the State Police connection goes deeper. Being a police officer becomes more than a job. It becomes a real part of who you are as a person. The uniform became a symbol of that reality. It is said that a police officer is a police officer twenty-four hours a day. That is true in a legal sense, but it is also true in a much deeper sense. While you couldn’t wear the uniform when you were off duty, I almost always had my badge and my gun with me wherever I went, and that became the symbol. As we will see there is a connection here to my waring black now.
We have this family tradition that on someone’s birthday we go around the table and each person says something that they think is special about the birthday person. My youngest grandson, Daniel, was about ten at the time, and when it was his turn he said, “Daddy Dick sometimes wears a monk’s suit.” I do have a long robe with a hood that looks like a “monk’s suit”, and I often wear it for my morning time apart as a part of my centering practice. I thought it was really neat that he had noticed, and he recognized that it was something unique and special about me. In truth, like the State Police uniform the “monk’s suit” has become a symbol for a part of who I am as a person. I keep it hanging on a hook on the inside of my closet door, and even when I am not wearing it, when I see it there it reminds me of that deepest part of me that I connect with in my time apart.
Like the uniform police officers wear, the clothes that monks wear not only serve to identify them to the outside world, but even more importantly, they serve to remind the monk who he is and the commitment he has made to that Mysterious Other we call God. When I wore my State Police uniform I always carried myself a little straiter, spoke more carefully, and acted more professionally than I might otherwise have done. The uniform reminded me of the commitment I had made as a State Police Officer.
This is at the heart of why I wear black now—to remind me of who I am and to remind me of the commitment I have made to the Spiritual Journey, and to that Mysterious Other I call God. When I wear black I carry myself a little straiter, speak more carefully, and act more spiritually mature. I am more caring toward my family and others. Wearing black gives me the courage to do the things I feel called to do—to fulfill my leadership responsibilities, to write and teach abut spiritual formation, and to preach an occasional sermon. Wearing black has become a symbol that reminds me to continue “Choosing Authenticity”**—to continue to discover who I am and who I am called to be, and to work to incarnate those discoveries into the way I experience and live my life.
Because at this point in my life it has become a part of who I am as a person, “I’m the man in black”.
** Southworth, Richard N., Choosing Authenticity: Religion Is Not Enough, (Seattle, WA, CreateSpace, 2011), Title.