The Dark Night of a Theological Education By Cynthia Garrity-Bond


Yesterday I decided I would attend Sunday Mass.  I have been involved in some fairly weighty theological conversations with my friend, bringing to the surface awareness that I am restless and in a state of holy longing for the Absolute One. I do not usually attend conventional Mass. The exclusive language of the liturgy is like a cacophony of painful sounds, each one more abusive than the next.  But this morning I thought it would be different because I was different.  The hole in my heart was larger, more pronounced and in need for that which I could not name.

I should say that my academic studies have lifted me far from a loving encounter with Jesus or for that matter, any part of Christian orthodoxy, which is why my decision to attend mass is confusing.  In fact, through my initiation into theology as a discipline, I have become a paradox to myself.  On the one hand, I am informed on enough theological matters that I might be able to swoop a Jeopardy category of say, “Anything having to do with Christianity.”  But when it comes to articulating my beliefs with regard to such doctrines as the Virgin birth, divinity, miracles, prayer or, (gasp) the validity of the Bible, I’m stalled. Even more than that, I’m inclined to suspend most confessional statements about the Divine because, in spite of my education and degrees, I do not know what I think I should know.

This is how I arrive at morning Mass.  Awash in doctrinal uncertainty while at the same time hoping for divine mystery.  Located in the Mass bulletin is an insert about Mother Teresa and her own Dark Night.  Authors Phyllis Zagano and C. Kevin Gillespie cite from her letters and writings in Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.  The profound sense of God’s absence in Mother Teresa’s life began within moments of her ministry to the poor. She writes, “There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.  It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’”  What struck a nerve of recognition within me was the author’s commentary on the Dark Night when cast in the shadow of the mystic.  While feeling the loss of God’s presence, the mystic is lead deeper and deeper into the mystery of God through abandonment.  The mystic feels so intensely this loss because she is attentive while residing in spiritual darkness.  Ultimately what must transpire for her is the greatest paradox, she must die to her desire and knowledge of God (which includes all metaphor, experience and understanding) in order to be freed to meet God.

The suffering of the Dark Night is a result of this awakening to the realization that all your knowledge about God is inadequate, limited and even to a degree, socially constructed.  This, according to St. John of the Cross, catapults the soul into loss of equilibrium and in the most dramatic of cases, depression and despair.

I am not suggesting that I have experienced the kind of darkness and absence of God that qualifies as a Dark Night experience.  But what I am suggesting is the disruption of the self when the theological rug is pulled out from under you. This too, I feel, is reflective of a kind of Dark Night that staggers towards its own theological truth. I find I am on a path of discovery, like many of my graduate peers, discerning what fits, what stays and what goes. I wonder will this endeavor bring me peace and settle my soul?  Will I have the courage to allow this self-emptying to continue while my orthodox self-critic rants about Eternal Truths? Will the need and pull for Tradition and community cause theological inertia?  The struggle, I’m told, will yield alternative understandings of the divine that make sense, allowing mystery to take hold of me like a new lover. In the meantime, I fear, the heaviness of absence will remain with me until I let go of my conceptions of God so that I am able to encounter the Divine anew.

The only problem with all of this is the time and money I have spent in school acquiring knowledge that must now be put to death!  From a justice perspective it  only makes sense I be relieved of all student loans.  O blessed be, O blessed be. Amen!



Categories: Catholic Church, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Naming, Theology

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. My undergraduate teacher Michael Novak, who was in his “liberal” days then, wrote beautifully about the dark night as a contemporary experience in The Experience of Nothingness. Mary Daly also used this metaphor in her Beyond God the Father as did I in Diving Deep and Surfacing.

    In my own experience there is a God beyond God and as Ntozake Shange wrote, “I love her fiercely.”

    Daly called us to the courage to see.

    But that does not mean the struggle was easy for her or for any of us, not will it be easy for you.

    As we say in Greece, “couragio!”

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    • Dear Carol,
      I have Ntozake Shange’s quote on my office door, it’s message so powerful and affirming.

      I have spent significant time with various mystics and visionaries who wrote on apophatic or negative theology. My favorite has been Marguerite Porete and her seven stages of un-knowing. I find myself drawing from her, Theresa of Avila and my favorite, Innanna’s journey into the underworld. Each function as companions of this process of un-knowing I find myself in. Before they were women to study and deconstruct, today they are mentors and guides into the kenotic stripping away of my spiritual self.

      Equally helpful is an article by Constance Fitzgerald entitled “Impasse and Dark Night.” Joann Wolski Con, ed. Women’s Spirituality (N.Y., Paulist, 1996). I strongly recommend this reading.

      Again, thank you for your wisdom and insight Carol. I know you too have struggled and found your way Home.

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  2. Dear Cynthie,
    First, I wanted to say that I agree with your vision of student loans! ;) I think all of the sweat, tears and (if you measure the amount of time I’ve spent in graduate school with moon cycles) blood shed for my graduate schooling should more than enough pay off my loans! … or at least the grad plus ;) … (ok, I think I’m being a bit silly here).
    But silliness aside, thank you so much for your blog. I really love your description of that uncomfortable in-between space. I especially appreciated the image you use of the rug being pulled out from under you in a disruption of self– that sort of difficult and threatening loss of balance that comes with a sense that you might recover if you take a step back, but you might still fall on the floor. I spent the last two years of my life writing about my understanding of this space; something I identified in my life as a like a suspended hiccup from love/god that won’t end– my heart skipping beats painfully as I re-learned a relationship to loving/godding.
    I know for me it was such a lonely space to realize I no longer could listen to a sermon at my old church without feeling, like you said, the compounded abuse. It was even more difficult to ‘voluntarily’ excuse myself from a Bible study I had attended for years because it had been made abundantly clear to me that the disruption my changing viewpoint brought was not something desired in that community.
    What really inspires me in this journey is Catherine Keller’s idea of counter apocalypse and counter power… that sense of maintaining a relationship to the thing we want to change while moving in a refractory rather than reflective way. I am more loving to myself and more patient with myself when I imagine my in-between-ness and not-yet-knowing-ness as a part of my countering the abuse I found in my faith before. I am also encouraged by the understanding that a part of me is and was always connected to the mutual and joyful loving that I am starting to consciously experience as god/dess now… even if this active hoping is sometimes difficult to maintain!
    I really appreciate your words today. I’m still wrapping my head around the idea of “dying” to previous desire, knowledge and experience of God, because I am so theoretically attached to the idea of maintaining a relationship with my previous desire….but I suppose we are related to what’s dead…
    Finally, I just wanted to say, as far as community is concerned, I am really grateful for this blog project that you help create because it is a kind of community for me; which is such something I desire strongly and something that helps me fight, like you say, an inertia.
    Thank you again!
    -Sara

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  3. Dear Sara,
    Thank you for your in-depth response. Your reading of Catherine Keller sounds remarkable, which text is this from? While this disruption can be painful, I am surrounded by powerful women and sometimes men who need no explanation but rather simply, like you, affirm the theological admixture I encounter.

    Thank you also for identifying us as one of your communities.

    Peace,
    Cynthia

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    • Hi again, :)
      My reading of Keller’s counter-apocalypse mostly comes from “Apocalypse Now and Then,” though she talks more about it in “God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys.” She writes in her first chapter of ANaT, “‘Counter-‘ as prefix at once opposes the encounters; it knowingly performs an analog to that which is challenges. A ‘counter-apocalypse’ recognizes itself as a kind of apocalypse; but then it will try to interrupt the habit….” (pg. 19). She also goes on to talk about the difference between working counter-apocalypse and anti-apocalypse (I think this is a quote, but I can’t find it… anti-apocalypse is: “the apocalypse of the apocalypse,” so like a mirror image). The language of “refraction” and “reflection” is how I worked with and interpreted Keller’s work in my writing.

      Thank you again,
      Sara

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      • Just a note for accuracy’s sake– I’m pretty sure Keller talks some about refraction and reflection too and that I’m interpreting from that place/lens ;) I just don’t remember where in the book!

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  4. How witty of you! I loved your closing! I too am struggling with something akin to what you expressed. I pray for your financial deliverance.

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  5. What a beautiful post, Cynthie. I think I have a sense of what you are talking about — perhaps most of us who take women’s issues in religion seriously do. What you describe also reminds of of Fowler’s Stages of Faith paradigm, in which people often start out in black and white, right and wrong thinking, move to a phase in which all that starts to break down, often accompanied by a sense of real disillusionment with their tradition, but eventually move on to this expansive vision of the divine that encompasses all in its embrace and brings the individual to a place of peace and love for all humanity. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get to that last phase (still in a lot of pain about how women are treated in my tradition) but I love the vision — that someday, whether I’m in or out of my tradition, I’ll find goodness, love, peace and hope in myself and the people around me.

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  6. I think the stripping is a necessary experience for women dealing with Christianity. What do we need to strip away so that we can get to the core mystical essence underneath the patriarchal overlays? As a Catholic-raised woman with a mystical bent, I always found the Church experience to fall far short of being inspirational and spiritually nourishing. It was hard to find the vibe of Christ, Mary, the Magdalene amidst all the formulaic deadness.

    I am wondering if this crisis of faith syndrome is peculiar to religions that are based so largely on male-determined doctrine and text, which itself is a patriarchal condition. They have taken us so far from our inner knowing through their insistence on their controlled intermediary methods of accessing the divine. Thus, when one begins to examine and question, the entire structure falls like a house of cards, any connection with the divine along with it. I think we should be looking at something being wrong with “that picture.”

    So, how do we access the divine on our own? And what is that form of divine that we are accessing? Even to ask the latter is taboo in the given clerical structure — and right there that should be a clue to: Something is wrong here.

    That a woman who was canonized did not feel her connection with the divine: Something is wrong here. That does not feel like a “natural” part of leading a spiritual life to me.

    So, what is it about the structure and doctrine that keeps us from our knowing, our intrinsic connection with the divine? Do we want to stick with that abusive path, pouring our lifeblood into it? Or do we want something liberating?

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