Glimpsing God in the Dark Night

Article by Margaret Benefiel (December 2017 eNews)

When 20 young contemplative leaders gathered at the beautiful St. Benedict’s Monastery nestled in the mountains of Snowmass, Colorado with Tilden Edwards, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, and Laurence Freeman for five days in August, one of the first themes that surfaced was societal impasse. In the midst of the idyllic setting, participants remained keenly aware of the needs of the wider world and drew on Constance FitzGerald’s work, “Impasse and Dark Night,” to begin to make sense of the turbulence of these times and to see how God was working in the midst. One of the participants grew up in Charlottesville and carried the weight of the violent racism that had wounded her city just two days before. Others’ experiences included working with homeless youth in New York, with human trafficking in Africa, and with healing the earth from environmental devastation, to name just a few. No strangers to human suffering, these young leaders sought solid grounding for strength to face the troubled world they inherited.

Constance FitzGerald provided that solid grounding. She maintains that, while St. John of the Cross articulated the experience of impasse and dark night for individuals, the same process applies to society. On an individual level, when we are certain of ourselves and our prayer is “working,” we easily slip into the illusion of control. When things fall apart and we can’t see God, God is at work in the darkness, doing deeper work. On the societal level, too, FitzGerald argues, it’s when things fall apart and we experience impasse that we are brought to our knees, invited to trust that God is doing deeper work than we can see. All is obscured, yet God has not departed. In fact, something more profound than we can imagine is occurring and will only be revealed in due time, like the birth that follows the darkness of gestation.

Turning to John of the Cross and FitzGerald for hope provided these young leaders, and can provide us, with a foundation for facing the seemingly impossible challenges that face us. We live in times that bring us to our knees. Any illusion of control over the events that surround us has slipped away. This is a time for contemplatives. We must practice living from the heart even as our hearts are breaking, as we face the racism, war, refugee crises, gun violence, political divisiveness, environmental degradation and its accompanying natural disasters, and more, that surround us.

As more and more people discover that this is a time for contemplatives, a new field, “Contemplative Studies,” has emerged in the American Academy of Religion, focused primarily on Eastern practice and Western neuroscience. Neuroscientists study the effect on the brain of Eastern contemplative practices—studying, for example, the brain waves of Buddhist monks and college mindfulness practitioners. As Jacob Sherman points out in “On the Emerging Field of Contemplative Studies and its Relationship to the Study of Spirituality” in Spiritus (Fall, 2014), Contemplative Studies desperately needs Christian contemplative contributions in order to span the reach of contemplative traditions. Some of the scholars among the young contemplatives gathered in Snowmass are rising to this challenge and submitting papers to the Contemplative Studies program and articles to Contemplative Studies journals.

The church, too, is waking up to its need for contemplative grounding. Stuart Higginbotham, one of Shalem’s representatives at the Snowmass gathering, has felt called to nurture a network of church leaders drawn to the contemplative way. This coming spring, St. Mary’s Retreat Center at Sewanee will host a gathering of contemplative church leaders to discern next steps in the Southeast.

Meanwhile, at Shalem, Patience Robbins is offering prayers for the world on Wednesdays in November and December, we are welcoming people into our long-term programs and pilgrimages and online courses, we honored Parker Palmer with our Contemplative Voices Award, and we are planning regional events and preparing for the Gerald May Seminar with Bernie McGinn. In addition, we are bringing more young adults and people of color onto our board and staff, are exploring the possibility of a social justice/civil rights pilgrimage, are nurturing partnerships with seminaries, and are developing a vision for expanded scholarships and program development. For all of this, and more, I am deeply grateful to the Shalem staff and board and to the extended Shalem community.

For me, these are all glimpses of God in the Dark Night of these times. Because God is at work, we can live in the darkness. Because we can trust that God’s work is deeper than what we see or understand, we can take the next step. Because God is God, the deep mystery beyond human understanding, we can live with open hearts and confidence that good will come of our faithfulness, even when we can’t see the path before us.

A version of this article appears in Shalem’s FY17 annual report.

December 12, 2017 by Margaret Benefiel 4 Comments
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Ruth F
Ruth F
6 years ago

timely reminder thank you and bless you!

Margaret Benefiel
Margaret Benefiel
6 years ago
Reply to  Ruth F

Thank you, Ruth. Blessings to you!

Michael Tessman
Michael Tessman
6 years ago

Hello Margaret,
How delightful to find you again, after several years hiatus! We met through Dick Broholm’s “Seeing Things Whole” and shared several wonderful conferences back in the ’90s. It is just splendid that you are directing at Shalem! After I finished my doctorate (with Margaret Guenther in NYC) I spent 6 years teaching fulltime at an Episcopal seminary and then returned East to work ecumenically in New Haven. It would be a joy to catch up after all these years! Meanwhile, every blessing!

Margaret Benefiel
Margaret Benefiel
6 years ago

Michael, great to hear from you! Yes, I’d love to catch up sometime.

Advent blessings,


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