Monday, June 30, 2008

Contemplative Spirituality

"When the Going Gets Tough..."

Sister Constance FitzGerald, OCD (Discalced Carmelite) is a woman I have admired from afar for a long time. When I had the great good fortune to meet her at a gathering of the Association of Contemplative Sisters (lay women and religious) I did not have a clue as to her background and achievements. That she was a lovely, well-spoken, gracious women of great spiritual depth and commitment to her contemplative vocation was obvious. What I did not realize was that she is a highly respected scholar, well-known for her studies of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. In our monastery collection of audio tapes I found some of her lectures, presented here over twenty-five years ago. The teaching was solid gold. How I wish there was time to transcribe them. Today, Sr. Connie is among the elders of her vibrant and growing Carmelite community in Maryland.

Recently, I twice came across citations for an article written by Sr. Connie in the 1990s. At first it seemed there was little chance of getting my hands on a piece first published in a journal in the mid-90s. But the second citation was for a book of essays, a volume in our own library collection. For me, it was a great find. The book is Women's Spirituality - Resources for Christian Development (second edition, ed. Joann Wolski Conn, NY:Paulist Press, 1996).

Two essays by Sr. Connie appear in the volume: Impasse and the Dark Night and The Transformative Influence of Wisdom in John of the Cross. Here I will refer only to the first essay concerning spiritual impasse or the dark night of the soul. Sr. Connie explains:

By impasse, I mean that there is no way out of, no way around, no rational escape from, what imprisons one, no possibilities in the situation. In true impasse, every normal manner of acting is brought to a standstill, and ironically, impasse is experienced not only in the problem itself but also in any solution rationally attempted...Dorothee Soelle [Suffering, Fortress, 1975] describes it as "unavoidable suffering"...Moreover, intrinsic to the experience of impasse is the impression and feeling of rejection and lack of assurance from those on whom one counts. At the deepest levels of impasse, one sees that support systems on which one has depended pulled out from under one and asks if anything, if anyone, is trustworthy. Powerlessness overtakes the person or group caught in impasse and opens into the awareness that no understandable defense is possible. This is how impasse looks to those who are imprisoned within it. It is the experience of disintegration, of deprivation of worth, and it has many faces, personal and societal.

This essay is so striking because first her description rings so painfully true and then she explores the realm of potential within an experience that not only seems to offer no options but, very realistically, does not have a way out at all.

Paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse becomes the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self. This means the situation of being helpless can be efficacious, not merely self-denying and demanding of passivity. While nothing seems to be moving forward, one is, in fact, on a homeward exile - if one can yield in the right way, responding with full consciousness of one's suffering in the impasse yet daring to believe that new possibilities, beyond immediate vision, can be given.

I could go on and on because what Sr. Connie expands upon is the course that might be taken rather than the more common phenomenon of bailing out of the relationship, the marriage, the job, the responsibility, the religious community, the priesthood, the impasse of whatever kind. Another very wise friend of mine, Brother Donald Bisson, FMS (spirituality and Jungian psychology) speaks of this as the inability to live with paradox, to hold the often opposing factors simultaneously, at least for a while and let them work, give them time to become life-giving instead of life threatening.

Sr. Connie goes beyond the individual experience of impasse. She applies this analysis to societal impasse, impasse unexplored which leads to bailing out in the form of military attack or bailing out by refusing to deal with an issue vital to the entire country or the world. She also applies the concept to the impasse experienced by so many women who feel that their gender has hit the glass ceiling or the glass wall which allows them to go no further on the road to gender equality.

Have I recommended this piece highly enough? It seems a must for those seriously pursuing the spiritual path. I am very grateful to Sr. Connie for this work and so much more.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this and directing your readers toward some new resources. I have been reading and pondering the works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross for the last couple of years - seeking their wisdom to help me through my own dark valley. As a woman priest, I find that this is a very lonely place sometimes, but Teresa and Juan have been some help and company...

many blessings,


Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing to Sr Connie's insightful and lived scholarship. I sometimes worship with the community at the Baltimore Carmel. They are exemplary women and along w/ so many monastics a testament to commitment, love, solidarity to the Lord, to each other, and to the world.