Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Darkness comes in various flavours

Two unrelated areas in recent weeks prompted me to explore this theme. In a discussion of theological works, it occurred to me that it's easy to forget that many classics either present philosophical arguments or were derived from what originally were letters of direction. As I've treated elsewhere, philosophical arguments (such as Augustine's emphasis on omnipotence), brilliant though they may be, can lead to pastoral disasters. (Headlines on any day of the week will tell us there is indeed much to fear in this world, regardless of that God either 'wills or permits' these.) As for words of direction (the earliest example in the English language being Walter Hilton's "Ladder of Perfection"), it is essential to remember that the writer was responding to particular questions, situations, and the like on the part of individuals known to him. A sentence which was superbly suited to the original recipient of the letter can seem utterly callous out of context.

I'm going to spare my readers a massive treatment of 'chapter and verse' this once, but, in both cases, and the more because the greatest theologians often were great saints, there is yet another point of confusion. In a nutshell, the great saints often believed (and the other writers pretended) that (1) the only thing one feared was lack of union with God (especially for eternity), (2) that only grave sin was a spiritual problem, (3) that everyone who was troubled was concerned about a sin, and (4) that such statements as that about there being nothing to fear (since God always gives us the grace not to die in final impenitence) would make sense to those not utterly focussed on eternal union with the divine. (Even those who feared demonic possession could be assured the demon could not touch their will.)

Certainly, much suffering in this world is the consequence of sin (whether one's own or that of others), but equally much is not - and those who are troubled in ways other than those of conscience did not need the burden of fearing they'd sinned - or that there was some sin involved in not embracing "God's will."

On another note, I am a book reviewer, and receive books on various topics (my basket currently holds one on Bob Dylan, another a 1950s romance which sounds like a James Cagney film, another about the Third Reich), one of the latest (link below) being about someone who spent 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity. I was sorry to see that this congregation, at least according to the author's account, placed huge emphasis on suffering (including the self-inflicted), and atonement for sins. (Presumably, given seven days, one could create the cosmos as well... but I digress.) I'm aware that Mother Teresa had a long life, and that some of the practises (generally considered outmoded and negative now) described (such as using the discipline, wearing chains, forbidding physical contact of any kind) would have been common in many religious communities even 50 years ago. I know well that many saintly sorts are best not to imitate, and that her excessive emphasis on poverty and suffering could be equalled by Francis of Assisi. That did not keep me from a sense of sorrow that one who so encouraged love, and who became an icon for service of the poor, led others to such negativity.

I do recall, nonetheless, that Francis' own extreme ways of penance (which, towards the end of a lifespan about half that of Mother Teresa's, he himself admitted were excessive) were not imposed on his friars. I found it tragic that, in the 20th century, there would be such morbid practises as inflicting corporal punishment on one's self (unhealthy in itself, and hardly lending towards the strength one must need for the work of the MC), much less wearing a chemise to bathe and being cautioned against properly cleaning one's genital area. There remained an excessive emphasis on 'example' rather than self-knowledge, and on being models of fidelity to a point where one might take stands on issues without having the background to properly present or defend the positions. I can admire picking up the destitute from the streets - but not Mother Teresa's having deformed feet, not from a congenital defect, illness or injury, but because of remaining silent and suffering when, as a Loreto Sister, she received shoes which were much too small.

I am not one to applaud imprudence in the name of an example of fidelity. One example noted in this book involved a priest-teacher at Regina Mundi in Rome. Moral theologians indeed deal with highly controversial matters, and details can be confusing in an elementary class, yet (to use the example which became a source of trouble) this priest spoke of such current topics as how twin embryos can develop from a fertilized ovum - or how one of the twins can disappear - and that this can present debate on whether a human soul is present from conception. I am no authority on moral theology, but I can understand how one seeking to defend the position that we are human from the instant of conception may need to address objections and questions such as these in a presentation. Rather than consulting him or the administration, apparently the MC managed to get the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith involved.

I'm refraining from a lengthy treatment only because I have written a good deal about this in the past, but the idea of punishment, of having to 'atone' (by which I do not mean amendment!), and of asceticism as appeasing God rather than as removing distractions is the curse of the western Church. It leads me to ponder how 'darkness' in the spiritual life can come in varied forms. Most of us cannot understand, for example, the Dark Night of John of the Cross, but my sense is of one utterly caught up in a desire for union with God, who concurrently knew God is unknowable. There is darkness that is no charism - perhaps as a result of illness, exhaustion, sometimes clinical depression. I could see that it could be deadly (or crippling at least) if one gives all 'darkness' status as a special grace, and couples this with a sense of suffering to atone for sin.

Darkness in the sense of doubt, as I've seen in the writings of saints, can wear so many hats that only those with discernment can assist in sorting these! It can mean coming to maturity and discarding notions of the divine, for example. Mother Teresa would write, in 1959, "I have no faith -I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me - I am afraid to uncover them - because of the blasphemy." (Punctuation as in the original - apparently she shared my idiosyncrasy of using lots of dashes.)

Mary Johnson, author of the book I was reviewing, raises a question which also came to my mind: "I suspected.. that Mother's refusal to uncover those questions may have caused her darkness to linger." It strikes me that seeing her doubts as blasphemy, and this coupled with a tendency towards and training in penitential acts to atone for sin, may have made her increase this darkness.

God of God, Light of Light... Light of the World... It would take one with far better judgement than I possess to tell anyone what flavour of darkness they face, but I believe the 'default' position is that the dark is a difficulty to face, not a gift of God. I dare-say that seeing darkness as a blessing would close any avenue for letting it decrease. Jesus of Nazareth took on our humanity fully (and in this we are glorified.) He was faithful to his radical, prophetic vocation, and accepted the natural consequences (not punishment from an angry God!) when human failings led to his being a convicted criminal - but it wasn't his hand that caused the flagellation. It can strengthen us to recall his calling out in agony on the cross, indeed, but let us place more stress on the Incarnation in its fullness - resurrection, ascension, looking ahead to glory, and our deification in the process.

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