Impasse is not an easy experience for those of us brought up in the US culture. We were taught that if we just tried harder, thought smarter, organized more efficiently we could succeed. It was not easy for me to admit a sense of powerlessness; to entertain a belief that all the ways I knew to effect change weren’t enough; to accept that what I had been about in the faith based social justice movements of these past forty years, although good and effecting some change, could not touch the systemic injustices of our time. I knew that I had failed to touch into the hearts of people to renew their own passion for the Gospel vision of justice and peace. Something more was needed.
Within the church I also experienced this same sense of impasse. Experiences I had visiting the Vatican offices while I was in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious removed all the blinders from the reality that some Vatican officials would never be able to understand the experience of US women religious. Trying to communicate in all of our usual ways did not seem helpful and were often counterproductive.
I came to believe three things.
- We are at impasse in both the societal and ecclesial arenas.
- Nothing less than contemplation which touches into our deepest core and stirs our God given creativity will help us to imagine new ways of responding in love.
- We must do this contemplation individually and communally.
I found this belief expressed in Constance FitzGerald, O.C.D.’s article,” Impasse and Dark Night”. In this article she interprets the experience of impasse in light of John of the Cross’ concept and symbolism of “dark night”. She describes the signs of impasse which include: a breakdown of communication; the inability to right a situation despite good and well-intentioned efforts; the dwindling of hope; the rise of disillusionment; and an obsession with the problem.
She quotes theologian Dorothee Soelle, “every attempt to humanize impasse must begin with this phenomenon of experienced, acknowledged powerlessness, which can then activate creative forces that enable one to overcome the feeling that one is without power.”
FitzGerald writes that “the experience of impasse can be a source of creative growth and transformation if it is fully appropriated within one’s heart and flesh with consciousness and consent; if the limitations of one’s humanity and human condition are squarely faced and the sorrow of finitude allowed to invade the human spirit with real, existential powerlessness; if the ego does not demand understanding in the name of control and predictability but is willing to admit the mystery of its own being and surrender itself to this mystery; if the path into the unknown, into the uncontrolled and unpredictable margins of life, is freely taken when the path of deadly clarity fades.
Dark night shows up the “shadow,” the dark side of desire. If we refuse to read the signs of dark night in our society and avoid appropriating the impasse, we see cold reason, devoid of imagination, heading with deadly logic toward violence, hardness in the face of misery, a sense of inevitability, war, and death. And we witness the projection of our national shadow on others.”
FitzGerald discusses the spiritual significance of these “no way out” experiences and how the Holy Spirit educates and transforms us through what she refers to as these inescapable and uninvited impasse experiences. Within this interpretative framework, what looks and feels like disintegration and meaninglessness is, at a more profound but hidden level of faith, a process of purification leading to a resurrection experience. To embrace the impasse or dark night is to free the Spirit to push us in the direction of intuition, imagination, contemplative reflection and ongoing discernment.
It is the experience of impasse that Engaging Impasse Circle participants have chosen to engage in communal contemplation and dialogue. We allow ourselves to enter that experience deeply and open ourselves to the Spirit and the wisdom she offers.
Click here to read Constance FitzGerald’s article, “Impasse and Dark Night“. This article originally appeared in Living with Apocalypse, Spiritual Resources for Social Compassion, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
Click here to read Chris Bache’s article, “Stepping Into the Fire” which appeared in IONS, the Noetic Sciences Review in its March-May 2002 issue. Bache, Director of Transformative Learning at the Institute, reflects on September 11 in light of a larger evolutionary process common to the world’s spiritual traditions. He reflects that although painful, the fire of transformation is often a purification releasing our deepest and highest potentials.
Click here to read Nancy Sylvester, IHM’s, Presidential Address to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM
© 2003-2012 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue
Reprint with permission: firstname.lastname@example.org
Arbuckle, Gerald A. Change, Grief, and Renewal in the Church. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1991.
In this book, Arbuckle explores the process of corporate grief. He discusses the need to accept the pain that any change involves both individually and corporately. Arbuckle offers a Biblical spirituality to support his thesis and provides practical guidelines on how to foster this in Gospel communities.
Matthew, Iain. The Impact of God. London, Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.
This is an excellent book to learn about John of the Cross, his life and the development of his spirituality which embraces his experience of “the dark night”.
Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry—Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
This is an excellent book for anyone who is trying to integrate contemplation and action. Soelle draws from her experience as well as from many world leaders in mysticism and non-violent resistance. She explores how the religious impulse of mysticism, the “silent cry” is at the heart of all the world’s religions. Soelle argues for the importance of mysticism in countering the destructive aspects of ego, group bias, materialism, and violence. Religion in the third millennium, Soelle argues, will either be mystical or it will be dead.
Institute for Noetic Sciences
This is the home page for the Institute for Noetic Sciences. The purpose of the Institute is to further the explorations of conventional science by rigorous inquiry into aspects of reality—such as mind, consciousness, spirit—that include, yet go beyond, physical phenomena. It provides access to their publications and other valuable resources.
This is the home page for the Carmelite Sisters in Baltimore, MD. This is Constance FitzGerald, OCD’s congregation. It provides information on the order as well as the published texts of Carmelites on a variety of subjects.
St. John of the Cross-collected works
This web site provides background on the life of the Christian saint and mystic, along with his writings in translation.