By: Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway
In an article entitled “Impasse and the Dark Night,” Carmelite Sister, Constance Fitzgerald states that dark night or impasse experiences can be both personal and societal and that both cry out for meaning. I suggest we presently are experiencing not only a dark night of the soul but also a dark night of the world as we contend with the ruptures and challenges, the fears and anxieties of the worldwide pandemic.
Sister Fitzgerald describes impasse as no way out of, no way around, no rational escape from what imprisons us. In a true impasse every normal manner of acting is brought to a standstill, every logical solution remains unsatisfying. When Sister Fitzgerald situates the personal and the societal impasse within the interpretative framework of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, she believes one is reassured and energized to face the impasse because it is put within the reinterpreted framework of faith.
John of the Cross’s Interpretive Framework
Night, for John of the Cross, is a symbol of the progressive purification and transformation of the human person. John tells us that God’s purpose is to make the soul great, but we have to give God space to work his transformation in us. And that transformation takes place in the concrete circumstances of our lives. For each of us that involves the pandemic – the social distancing, enforced isolation, loneliness, and the daily reality of death –all feed into our experience of impasse or within the context of faith, a dark night.
John tells us that the antidote for the anguish and confusion of the dark night is found in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These virtues come from God and direct us back to God. They are not static, but dynamic habits of the heart leading us to wholeness, health, and holiness.
As a response to the challenges facing us, this essay reflects upon the virtue of faith as it relates to the uncertainty, fear, and anxiety we feel and the need to trust that God is guiding us through this difficult time.
The Theological Virtue of Faith
Faith has an important doctrinal content which we confirm every Sunday through the recitation of the Nicene Creed, but the core of faith is not doctrine but trust in God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The verb “I believe” is a compound of the Latin noun, “core” (cordis) meaning heart, and the verb “do”(dare) meaning to put, place, set on. Thus the root meaning of “I believe” is “I set my heart on,” or “I give my heart to.” Faith invites us to set our hearts on a personal relationship with God.
One of the ways that we can enrich our friendship with God is to look to those who have given voice to their own experiences of God. In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI states: “Modern men and women listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers and if they listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses.” (41)
Let us consider three witnesses who model a life of faith in the midst of uncertainty: a young Jewish woman, Etty Hillesum’s faith in God; a Carmelite sister, Thérèse of Lisieux’s faith in Jesus; and theologian, Father Ives Congar’s faith in the Holy Spirit. As we will see in each of their lives, faith as a virtue is not an emotion, but a choice of the will.
Most of us who are familiar with Etty Hillesum met her through her published diary, An Interrupted Life. Etty describes herself and her family as cultural Jews. Religion was not central to their lives.
Etty begins her diary at age 27 as she explores her relationships with men and searches for a spiritual life. She was nourished by a variety of sources: Rilke, St. Augustine, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Gospel of Matthew. Through the pages of her diaries, she not only describes a deepening relationship with God, but she also chronicles the horror she and her fellow Jews experienced at the hands of the Nazis. She states: “The threat grows ever greater and terror increases from day to day. I draw prayer round me like a protective wall, withdraw within it and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again.”
On September 7, 1943, Etty and her family were placed on a transport train to Auschwitz. A letter from Etty to a friend, smuggled out of the camp, reflects a woman determined to affirm the beauty and
goodness of existence.
I am here in Poland, every day on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated, and the dying, every day, but I also am with the jasmine and with that piece of the sky beyond my window. I sometimes bow my head under the great burden that weighs on me, but even as I bow my head I also feel the need, almost mechanically, to fold my hands. And so I can sit for hours and know everything and bear everything and grow stronger in the bearing of it. And at the same time feel sure that life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful. Despite everything
Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30. She was 29.
What does Etty witness for us? Her faith in God led her to affirm that during the worst of times, life is beautiful, worth living, and meaningful. We witness this affirmation every day as we read about the frontline workers who risk their lives to attend to those ill and suffering. In our own moments of fear and anxiety during this pandemic, we can pray with Etty, “God take me by your hand; I shall follow you faithfully.…. I shall try to face it all as best I can…. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, my genuine love for others, wherever I go.”
Thérèse of Lisieux
Thérèse’s dark night of faith began the winter of 1896 when she woke one morning to find her handkerchief covered with blood. When she informed Mother Marie de Gonzague of her illness she asked for no special treatment and she received none. In her biography of Thérèse, Monica Furlong describes Thérèse’s acute suffering in body and spirit as she battled tuberculosis.
The physical exhaustion that accompanies bleeding, the loneliness of facing death without the sympathy of others, the hurt of Mother Marie’s cruelty, all filled her with despair. Yet, she clung to her conviction that God was, and would be present in her suffering.
Thérèse states, “Ah, may Jesus pardon me if I have caused Him pain, but He knows very well that while I do not have the joy of faith I am trying to carry out its works at least. I believe I have made more acts of faith in the past year than all through my whole life.”
Thérèse’s constant companions at this time of her life were the Scriptures and the works of John of the Cross. She drew strength from his teaching on the dark night as she struggled with temptations against belief in God and the reality of heaven. Facing her death, she writes, “But death makes nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a darker night than ever; a night of mere non-existence.”
In the end Thérèse’s faith held strong. As she lay sick in bed, one of the sisters asked her, “What are you doing?”
Thérèse responded, “I am praying.”
“And what are you saying?” the sister asked.
“I am saying nothing. I am loving him.” Thérèse died of tuberculosis September 30, 1897, at the age of 24.
What does Thérèse model for us? Her “Little Way” expresses her conviction that faith involves performing all one’s daily actions in the presence and love of Jesus. By this means one could turn any situation into a profound arena for holiness, a potential step along the path of sanctity. “My path,” Thérèse stated, “is one of complete trust and love.”
Father Yves Congar
The Second Vatican Council will be remembered by many for its rediscovery of the role of the Holy Spirit for the life of individuals and of the church, and the recognition that there is no hierarchy of holiness but all are called to transformation into Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Those accomplishments would not have taken place without the influence and guidance of Father Ives
Congar, O.P. Yet they were not made without many hardships and suffering. Father Congar was an early advocate of a theology that returned to the sources of Scripture and the Patristic tradition rather than relying on the dry neo-scholasticism of the day. After the publication of Divided Christendom, he was called to Paris and informed of serious difficulties with this and other publications. He was removed from his teaching position and forbidden to set foot in any of the study houses of the Dominican Order. From then on, he was in constant trouble with members of the Roman Curia. He states, “From the beginning of 1947 to the end of 1956, I knew nothing from that quarter but an uninterrupted series of denunciations, warnings, restrictive or discriminatory measures, and mistrustful interventions.”
Father Congar’s dark night of faith culminated in his being sent to a Dominican house in Cambridge for an indefinite period of time. He described this as the unhappiest six months of his life; yet he never gave into bitterness or resentment. He states, “It is in suffering that we find ourselves in the presence of a profounder truth.”
Father Congar’s exile ended when Pope John XXIII, in announcing ecumenical council, invited Father Congar to serve on the preparatory theological commission. As the council progressed, his expertise was quickly recognized, and he became the single most formative influence on Vatican II, particularly in the areas of ecumenism, theology of the laity, and the theology of the Holy Spirit.
In his introduction to his three-volume work on the Holy Spirit, Father Congar writes,
Each one of us has his own gifts, his own means and his own vocation. Mine are as a Christian who prays and as a theologian who reads a great deal and takes many notes. May I therefore be allowed to sing my own song! The Spirit is breath. The wind sings in the trees. I would like, then, to be an Aeolian harp and let the breath of God make the strings vibrate and sing. Let me stretch and tune the strings – that will be the austere task of research. And let the Spirit make them sing a clear and tuneful song of prayer and life.
Father Congar’s life bears testament to the conviction that no matter what hardships and obstacles we encounter, if we remain faithful in obedience, fidelity, and surrender to God, the Holy Spirit will make the strings of our lives vibrate and sing of God’s victory.
How might these witnesses provide guidance through our current impasse? Their lives reflect an ardent faith in God despite the difficult circumstances outside their control. Each set their hearts on God and trusted in his providence. Today, our accustomed ways of acting and living have come to a standstill in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, yet we are called to respond with the same faith as Etty, Thérèse and Father Congar.
The purpose of the dark night is to lead us to a reprioritization of what provides meaning in our lives. We are to have faith in God for God, hope in God for God, and love of God for God. Not for what God can do for us, but for what we can do for God. In the end, Etty says it best: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”
Editor’s Note: The version of this article that appeared in the MOSAIC print magazine included editing errors that are corrected in this article as well as the PDF version available at mosaic.shms.edu/print-issues.