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!