According to African proverbial wisdom, one way that lions would hunt a pack of animals is to have an older lion go around to one side of the herd, while the strongest members of the pride would wait on the other side. The older lion would then begin to roar and out of fear and panic the pack would run away from the roar…straight into the hungry jaws of the rest of the pride. Thus, elders would tell the young people to run toward the roar, as this is the only safe alternative. It turns out that this bit of wisdom is good advice beyond surviving in the African bush.
Last summer a friend of mine who knew of my interest in the connection between social ethics and contemplative spirituality sent me three articles by Sister Constance FitzGerald, O.C.D. (Order of Carmelites, Discalced): “Transformation in Wisdom: The Subversive Character and Educative Power of Sophia in Contemplation,” “Impasse and the Dark Night,” and “From Impasse to Prophetic Hope: Crisis of Memory.” Well, it has taken me a year but at the end of my semester I have picked these up and been immersed in the power of her wisdom and vision, based on the writings of John of the Cross (a 16th century mystic, saint, and writer), for the last few days.
It will take me years to absorb the power and wisdom in these writings, but what has struck me most deeply is her meditations upon the idea of impasse. An impasse occurs when all of our usual ways of dealing with problems are no longer able to resolve the issues at hand. Rational, linear logic fail us, old solutions and habits only make things worse, and greater effort only results in a greater sense of exhaustion and failure. We can all think of examples from work, personal relationships, or even the political life of our nation. Impasse confronts us not just with an external sense of failure, but a deeply personal sense of impotence, powerlessness, and fear. What is our first inclination when we experience this kind of impasse? Run like hell!
But impasse may be the roaring lion toward which we need to run. It is what FitzGerald calls a “dark wisdom” that invites us into a contemplative space. What do we do in this contemplative space. Simply put, we do nothing (or so it seems on the surface). Rather, we stay put, we wait, we allow the old habits and patterns and ways of thinking to give way to a new way of being, a new way of living in response to the impasse(s) of life. This is where we will confront our deepest fears, insecurities, failures, and doubts. But again we don’t do anything. Rather, we let the movement of spirit reveal the dark wisdom hidden within the dark night of impasse.
I remember reading Ghandi’s autobiography where he writes about spending about a month in his ashram. People all over the world wondered what he was doing. They assumed he was sitting down with his trusted friends and advisers and devising a plan for the next stage of his non-violence resistance to British rule. But in reality, he was just waiting. He had no plan. He read, wrote, meditated, gardened, sowed clothing, and waited. Waited for the force of spirit to reveal the next move. Then one day he got up, walked across the country to the sea, boiled water and made a salt in defiance of British law. The symbolic power of that simple act of defiance was a turning point in the movement to end British imperial rule in India.
This capacity to run toward the roar, to embrace (or at least patiently endure) the struggles of the dark night so that it may reveal its secret dark wisdom, it seems to me, is what we as individual persons and as a culture most desperately need right now. It is also what we most lack. This is the gift that simple contemplative practices might bring. I think this inchoate yearning for an alternative approach to our personal and societal impasses also explains our culture’s curious fascination with mindfulness right now. We are intuitively drawn to mindfulness because it begins to soothe our worn out nerves from living with violence and impasse. But mindfulness will be just another spiritual fad if it is not tethered to a deeper transformation, if it does not lead to contemplation. Mindfulness can teach us to practice observing without reacting. Science can teach us how this affects our brains and our bodies, but only a deeper contemplative faith can provide a sense of hope amidst the dark night that will bring us through to the other side. How do we cultivate this kind of faith and hope for people, no matter what their religious, philosophical, or cultural background? This is the question that guides my work these days…