Spring 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 59-71.

Clare Wagner: Current Trends:
      Spirituality in a Dark Age; Some Reflections

Sister Wagner, O.P., is currently engaged in the Office of Catholic Education in the archdiocese of Chicago.

IT has lately come to pass that America has entered upon a dark age .... It is, I believe, an authentic dark age; that is, a time in which the power of death is pervasive and militant, and in which people exist without hope or delusive hopes."(1) The author states further on in his article that it is a time of chaotic activity, suppression of creativity, and loss of imagination. He writes of the idolatry of science and calls the politicalization of technology a "brutal assault" upon sanity and conscience.(2) There is, worst of all, widespread violence and quick resort to it. "It is a prosperous period for death. It is, in short, a dark age."(3) Thank you, William Stringfellow, for clearly naming and describing this truth. Thank you for defining anew just what it is we are dealing with and living in. And may Stringfellow and those who concur in his naming of our age not be called prophets of doom. On the contrary, they give a clarion call for the upbuilding of hope and the concrete, sacred work of transformation.

A spirituality appropriate for a dark age will be, of course, a spirituality of life and light. A sense of urgency about the continued development of spirituality which will serve us well in confronting darkness and in espousing and raising up light is in order. Other dark times or, at least, dark circumstances have given the world Dominic, Catherine, Francis, Clare, Ignatius and their gospel spiritualities with emphasis on aspects of the Christian way that the time demanded. To name all the constituents of a contemporary spirituality would be a quite ambitious study. In my experience what is emerging where people reflect on spirituality -- in religious community groups, lay ministry circles, in spiritual direction and retreat prayer -- is a search for ways faith can be lived well in our violent, lethal age. What will sustain our belief? How can we act in relation to our society, friends, family, God? What inner dispositions transform and give hope? What makes joy possible?

In my memory a question from Christopher Fry's moving play The Boy with a Cart surfaces. Young Cuthman, the main character, has just lost his father in death and the chorus in the play addresses this question to him: "How is your faith now, Cuthman, your faith that the warm world hatched?"(4)

Few of us would say that our faith was "hatched" in a "warm world," yet as anti-life forces of various kinds escalate and the troubles of the entire globe are available for our purview, any previous time seems warmer. What is completely clear is that a "warm world" faith is insufficient. Only a very protected child or one who is ignorant of reality or suffers from serious psychic numbing can perceive "warm world" faith as sufficient to see us through a dark age. Yet people walk among us, even close to us, who have been psychically numbed and who see ours as the best of times; this very fact is part of the darkness.

Cuthman's need to grapple with death, his personal darkness, made his faith develop. Grappling with the realities of life in America and elsewhere, and developing a relationship with God move a Christian close to the questions of nuclear threat and to the possibility of hope. Each age asks something new of a Christian believer; nuclear threat and the possibility of hope and global relatedness constitute a major part of that newness. At the same time, it asks something old, such as belief in the ways of Jesus, resurrection, the power of the Spirit, and the kingdom of God. Paradoxically, the most significant realities of our dark age present us not only with the greatest challenge ever, but also with a most amazing potential for wholeness among humankind and in the universe. Dark age realities provide a catalyst for hope and a magnetic pull toward despair.


Necessary to spirituality for this age are the activities of discovering and embracing what gives life, and discovering and resisting what produces death. Discovering what is life-giving for persons, communities, and the universe and what is death-dealing is the task of conscience. Embracing consists not merely in touching but, more accurately, in holding with mind, heart, and hand all that is of life. It is an activity akin to loving God with one's whole heart, soul, mind, strength (Deut. 6:45). It is an activity of close, intentional, and total relationship with life. It affects how one responds to a pregnancy, a rose, the wind, a child, a lover, a leper, starving children in South Africa, a dying man, or a hardhearted relative.

Resisting is an activity opposing the forces of death as they are discovered in the inner, daily, and global worlds. It is an activity that says no to oppression, hatred, militarism, consumerism, sexism, racism, and all those personal deadly possibilities available to us. It is an activity that for some people means civil or ecclesiastical disobedience. For others, it means fighting consumerism, depression, or the temptation to give up on a person, church, or nation. It is an activity, too, that says no to inner dishonesty, manipulation, or control by moods; it calls sometimes for an interior "battle royal." Commitment to these activities means that, in a society that becomes increasingly militarized, people of faith surrender themselves more and more fully to God's gift of life.

Faith undergirds the activities of embracing and resisting. Darkness does not paralyze the faithful one. Did Jesus not tell his followers that everything is possible for the one who has faith -- and is there not enough in human experience to hint that the statement must be true? This kind of faith is a central relationship of one's total personality with God. Sometimes this faith relationship is felt in every remote corner of one's being; sometimes, in a nighttime of faith, one clings to belief out of utter refusal to deny it (maybe this is what is called naked faith). In either case, in this real faith relationship a believer participates in the life of the God in whom she believes and finds the deepest meaning and significance of life. What is becoming clear as people talk about and express their need for faith now is greater conviction that the interpenetration of the human spirit and the Spirit of God gives them access to the power of God. Being empowered by the Spirit is nothing new in the Christian tradition. But at times when odds are insurmountable, when it is necessary to turn one's face toward Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of a death -- choosing society, or of a challenge to love one's enemy when the enemy is one's fellow minister, or of a call to feed the hungry when the hungry are the countless victims of the feminization of poverty -- in all such times and circumstances, it is essential to be aware that we are one with the creative and healing power of God.

Temptations to feel too small, to go along, to become discouraged, to be paralyzed by election results, media interpretations, large and monied structures flow out of the fear that we cannot embrace life; we cannot resist death because we have only our own limited power. We resist that temptation by discovering through preaching we hear and prayer we pray and experience we have that, as electricity runs through wires and blood through veins, so the power of God pulses through our beings, energizing us to recreate and co-create in God's name. With understanding and even with awe, believers in a dark age need to claim the power of God available through faith.

The struggle to develop in faith, which involves bringing all parts of one's life and all feelings connected with those parts to God in prayer, moves people to discover that certain elements are essential for the journey. Among those elements are these three; vision, interiority, and bondedness. These three compose one dynamic human faith -- reality from which flows love in the form of embracing and resisting.


Christians inherit the common vision of the biblical tradition, the communion of all of humankind and the oneness of everything in the universe. Jesus preached and lived and acted out of that vision; our baptism commissions us to do the same. But we do not put on this dimension of our birthright without a process that entitles us to ownership of the vision, and that process of owning the vision is unique for each of us.

When I moved to Uptown in Chicago, I found myself thinking and writing and praying about the kingdom of God more than ever before. I was focusing on the scriptural images of the lion and the lamb in peace together, the child's hand in the cobra's lair, all tears being wiped from faces, the lame walking (even dancing!), and especially the poor having the gospel preached to them. I was also taking in the human misery of my new neighborhood. I then read John Donne's book The Church of the Poor Devil, and it became a "book of revelation" for me. Through the book I discovered myself to be once again on a "vision quest." What a particular section of Donne's book illustrates so well for me is a process involved in personally owning the vision. His process is intricate and, of course, unique, but it triggered these reflections on my own experience. These few sentences capture the seed, at least, of the process he fully describes:

To actually see the human road, I have to see where we are in terms of human misery and where we are going in terms of the heart's longing. I have to participate in the heart's longing, something that comes with letting my own heart be kindled, and I have to participate also in human misery, something that comes with letting myself feel my connection with people who live in want and suffering.(5)
One waits for the heart to be "kindled" and this waiting resembles the traditional solitary vigil of the young Indian boy seeking spiritual power and the identity of his guardian spirit. For Donne, this whole process was connected with a riverboat voyage, the Church of the Poor Devil, and a procession. For me, it is connected with living in a neighborhood the streets and centers in Uptown, and Sunday liturgy at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church.

The heart's longing and human misery can be found anywhere along the human road. My heart's longing has been for the coming of the Kingdom and all that means, for God and God's will in my life. The Spirit of God led me to this place so that my heart might be refined and kindled anew and the vision become my own.

Human misery is everywhere in the Uptown neighborhood. Screams in the night, fighting, the desolate, the unkempt, the hungry are commonplace, and I see miserable human beings walking around outside when I go to work early in the morning. The sounds and sights and smells weigh heavily on the heart many days. In waiting for "kindling" time, a separation is felt; the heart's longing is frustrated by human misery. The human misery threatens belief in the Kingdom vision and evokes only sadness and anger at God, the situation, the system. This is the time when thoughts of hurrying by and moving away crossed my mind.

One day I met a woman in terrible straits. Her name was Nora, the same as my mother's. I listened to a woman who wanted to arrange to have some important mail sent to our house so it would not be stolen. As our conversation closed, she said, "Sometimes a person has got to have another human being to talk to." I saw a woman in front of a building which houses developmentally disabled adults. She was rocking her body with her arms wrapped around herself in a desperate embrace. Something began to dawn on me. With a few changed circumstances, my mother Nora might have been in that room. The woman who wanted the mail sent to us voiced a universal human need -- communication and response. The rocking woman acted out a level of loneliness not unfamiliar to me at all. She expressed it in this graphic, heart-rending way. The "kindling" had begun. These first connections spoke to me of needs, dependency on money, yearning for fulfillment, dissatisfaction with the way things are that I had in common with my neighbors. My sister who ministers in the neighborhood put it well when she said, "We are more alike than we are different; what we have in common is far greater than what separates us."

The insight which is the gift of the heart kindled by God through this contact with human misery is that "human" is the name of a family we all belong to, and that human needs unfulfilled are common to us all. Further, the tentative nature of human conditions is illumined by the stories of my neighbors, by stories of us all. Must it not certainly be true, then, that we are on a journey together -- all vulnerable to fortune and misfortune, none of us sure it will get better? And the longing of all hearts at the deepest level must be the same whether we know it or not. Where we are going must be the same.

Our human destiny cannot be essentially dependent on circumstances of having money or health or intelligence or a loving family. The heart's longing must be the desire for God, even if it is named another way or not named. No wonder Jesus announced that the last would be first, insisted on washing Peters feet, paid the late laborers the same in the vineyard story, stopped the stoning of the adulteress. Place at table, who is the leader or master, how late one begins to work, how public ones sin are -- these are not the essence only circumstances. It must be that Jesus wanted to make it perfectly clear through the reversals he lived and preached that the Kingdom vision was not at all consistent with life as usual among us, with the usual arrangement of things.


Everyone makes a personal and sacred journey along the human road toward the heart's desire. Yet we also journey, we pilgrims, as a people. It affects the way we journey together if we know from experience, or simply believe, that "we are more alike than we are different; what we have in common is far greater than what separates us." There is more likelihood that we will speak and care and touch and sing and work for change and plan and pray together if we see the road as common, the hearts longing as common, the destiny as common. Seeing this does not make the journey together easy, but it makes it closer to truth and closer to what Jesus demonstrated by washing feet and healing lepers. Imagine the talking and singing and suffering along the road as Peter, the woman found in adultery, Mary Magdalen, the Prodigal, Matthew, and possibly the rich young man traveled together -- if they did. Receiving the insight about human circumstances and what we have in common and feeling the connection and the plight of those in misery is a step, but more is necessary to own the vision.

In a procession to the Church of the Poor Devil with "fireworks and joy"(6) along the way, Donne found expression and understanding of the vision. The Sunday liturgy at St. Thomas of Canterbury gives that to me. Donne refers to Rouault's Miserere, a series of engravings, as a help in explaining his understanding. "In that series of engravings Rouault combines and alternates images of the suffering Christ with those of suffering humanity. Without the images of Christ those of humanity seem, as they truly are, images of anguish and abandonment and despair."(7) But the presence of Christ casts a light on the fact of anguish and abandonment and despair. In the procession to the Church of the Poor Devil, all carried candles; those candles illumined all the faces of those suffering.

At St. Thomas Church, I find a certain "fireworks and joy"and illumined faces. And my imagination is triggered by the group gathered -- a group of people in varying degrees of suffering and of heart's longing. As in Rouault's Miserere, Jesus Christ is present; more than two or three are gathered in his name to celebrate Eucharist. Faces are illumined by Christ in that community. From a liturgical point of view, the celebration is fine. The music is excellent; the language is inclusive; participation is full; the presider is a good leader. But the people gathered are what signify the vision.

People gather who are American Indian, Thai, white, black, Chinese, old, handicapped, Jesuit volunteers, ministers who work in the neighborhood, street people, residents of halfway houses, families, and college students. Only some belief, only some heart's longing, could bring about such a gathering; it moves one to insist that this celebration is God's doing. During the prayers of the faithful a seriously crippled, palsied man, who always sits in the front pew, prayed in his garbled way for the people of Nicaragua; a young man with long hair, glassy eyes, and a silver lamé shirt prayed that the pure nexus of unity among people come into the universe; one elderly woman prayed for her sister Essie who is in a wheel chair and not doing well; another elderly woman offered her weekly prayer that she might be reconciled with her daughter, so that she can see her grandchildren.

A senior citizen with a purple scarf tied around her head and a tall striking black man brought the gifts up to the altar and stood with the presider. At the great Amen, the three of them lifted the chalice and the bread, while the entire congregation sang with full voice and "in the unity of the Holy Spirit." In the same unity, those at the altar came among the congregation and joined hands to create a sprawling literally connected "one body' praying aloud, "Our Father/Mother God who is in heaven . . . ." As we gave one another the peace greeting, an old man in the pew with me who was very poor and emotionally handicapped said, "I am so glad I come here. I can feel the love and its so good." In the prayer of Jesus and the greeting of peace, lives converge through touch, speaking directly to one another. joy is evoked by the unity experienced.

Why would Frank, with all his problems, pray for the people of Nicaragua? What in the world is the "pure nexus of unity" the young drug addict prayed for? How earthy and human and real were the prayers for Essie in the wheelchair and of the estranged grandmother. This gathering has the power to evoke feelings of belonging, love, joy, and hope; power to alleviate loneliness, darkness, and poverty for this brief time and to make us believe that someday they will be alleviated forever. Sadness does not go away completely, but this reality has seeds in it of new possibilities for human living and being together. Images of the messianic banquet and the description of the Kingdom in Isaiah are brought to mind. Christ is present in this gathering of promise and light. This experience of prayer and presence and song creates and deepens my belief in the Kingdom vision. It is my vision now, too, that the promise of God will be kept and that what begins with illumined faces here will be completed. Not only is there a connection and an awareness of commoness here for me, but certainty of God's illumining faces and transforming hearts. The possibility of the biblical vision is no longer simply imagined or accepted because another said it is so. The connection which was experienced is celebrated here, and in the ritual it becomes my own. This vision sustains my hope and energizes me for co-creative activity with God and my sisters and brothers.


Interiority, as it is used here, means the reality of interior life which is dynamic, capable of growing and changing, and which is valuable, even sacred. It is the life deep within; this movement toward inner depth is a movement toward God. In a dark age, interiority makes it possible not to hate in the face of persecution -- not to give up in the face of overwhelming negative factors surrounding one.

Bondedness as it's used here, means the deep and lasting connectedness of one with God and with people. The vine-and-branches image used in John's Gospel expresses the mutual interiority that existed between Jesus and his disciples. It is out of the bondedness that exists between Jesus and his disciples, out of the bondedness that exists between God and a person or people, that Power comes to love in a way that bears fruit.

In the book An Interrupted Life, which is the diary of Etty Hillesum, I met a young woman who might be called the patron saint of a dark age.(8) At the age of twenty-eight, in 1941, she began, out of a felt need, to work seriously with her own interior life. The dark time in which she lived was during the extermination of the Jews in Europe. She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. What a coincidence it is that her diary was published in 1980 and was translated into English in 1983. Her diary testifies on every page to the possibility of developing interiorly by extraordinarily honest reflection on experience, by openness, and by willingness to change attitudes and behavior on the basis of insights gained through the reflections. Though Etty had great religious sensibilities, she had no formal religious practice. This religious sensibility moved her eventually to intense dialogue with God and radical love of neighbor, even of enemy. Seldom has the process of a human spirit's self-discovery and faith-journey been so clearly and expertly expressed. It is as if Etty took her "hidden self" and spotlighted it for public view; in a simple, very direct way she makes the process of her most intimate faith-relationship available to readers.

Her struggle is evident in phrases such as: "I still lack a basic tune; a steady undercurrent; that inner source that feeds me keeps drying up and worse still, I think too much" (177), and: "I shall, no doubt, cope with my present troubles as well; my inner traffic jams are certainly part of it all, but they must be cut to a minimum, otherwise I really can't go on" (40). In the course of her two years of writing, she finds the "basic tune," the "steady undercurrent," the "inner source" through working with relationships, feelings, and traumas, through noticing her needs, responses, heart's longing. "It is a slow and painful process, this striving after true inner freedom" (46), yet she does not back off when the pain is great. Avoidance does not seem to be a word she uses in her vocabulary or a behavior she adopts. The inner freedom she does attain and the interior resources she develops empower her not to hide from the Germans, to offer to accompany her people to the Westerbork camp, and to love the enemy -- to hate no one.

Her method included searching for sources of her existence, finding her spirit and the Spirit of God, discovering the Word, especially the Gospel of Matthew. She was a "luminous" personality, the "thinking heart of the barracks"; she allowed herself to be empowered by God to co-create life in the midst of darkness.

Etty was an ordinary young woman. She rode a bike, had a generous portion of vanity, made love passionately, struggled with relationships, especially with her love for "S," her counselor. She experienced mood swings, stomach cramps, infatuation, family problems, and fears. Yet she proved astonishing in her unwavering pursuit of sacred truth about self, God, and the world.

The last words in her diary are: "We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds." These words are a testimony to the fact that she was living the Kingdom vision to the end. As Jesus did, she went about embracing life and resisting death as if the Kingdom was "now." After she was in camp awhile, and after her beloved counselors death, she wrote: "And 1 know for certain that there will be continuity between the life I have led and the life about to begin. Because my life is increasingly an inner one and the outer setting matters less and less' (166). Yet the interiority was not an escape from the terrible circumstances surrounding Etty; it gave her strength to act lovingly, and it gave her a place where joy and peace and hope could flourish. Her bonding with God made this kind of gratitude possible:

To think that one small human heart can experience so much, oh God so much suffering and so much love, I am so grateful to you God, for having chosen my heart in these times, to experience all the things it has experienced. (167)
After the death of "S," Etty found clarification of her mission:
You taught me to speak the name of God without embarrassment. You were the mediator between God and me, and now you, the mediator have gone and my path leads straight to God. It is right that it should be so. And I shall be the mediator for any other soul I can reach. (169)
Etty was a mediator. She was balm, comfort, care, and love to an extraordinary degree. She also was a young woman with a terrific sense of humor, ups and downs, an intense love of poetry, flowers, and music. She believed that roses were just as real as the misery around her and sustained herself by buying them. I wish it were possible to put all of that endearing person here in these pages, but it is not. What is important in our dark age is to know that she took seriously the call issued to all of us to develop a spirituality adequate for "these times." That spirituality made it possible for her, on her way to Auschwitz, to throw from her train window a postcard which read: "We left camp singing."


We need what made it possible for Etty to sing on that train. We need to enter into a process of interior work which can bond us to God, to those we hold dear, to strangers and even enemies. We need a vision of the Kingdom that we own through a persona crossing over into some aspect of human misery and into glimpse of illumined faces and celebrating peoples which enlivens our imaginations.

With imagination and creativity and great determination, the darkness of the age can be endured and transformed. Jesus instruction to love as he loved us is key, and we cannot then be surprised that the vision and embracing and resisting will marginate us and make the suffering of alienation and loneliness inevitable But joy and "singing as we leave camp" -- or live in it -- is possible Vision, interiority, and bondedness energize God's people to join Jesus as a light which cannot be extinguished. Etty's story is a new resurrection story for this authentic dark age; her reading of he age and her choice of life lends hope to our age:

I once thought, "I would like to feel the contours of these times with my fingertips." I was sitting at my desk with no idea what to make of my life. That was because I had not yet arrived at the life in myself, was still sitting at this desk. And then I was suddenly flung into one of many flashpoints of human suffering. And there, in the faces of people, in a thousand gestures, small changes of expression, life stories, I was suddenly able to read our age -- and much more than our age alone. And then it suddenly happened: I was able to feel the contours of these times with my fingertips. How is it that this stretch of heathland surrounded by barbed wire, through which so much human misery has flooded, nevertheless remains inscribed in my memory as something almost lovely? How is it that my spirit, far from being oppressed, seemed to grow lighter and brighter there? Is it because I read the signs of the times and they did not seem meaningless to me? Surrounded by my writers and poets and the flowers on my desk I love life. And there among the barracks, full of hunted and persecuted people, 1 found confirmation of my love of life. Life in those draughty barracks was no other than life in this protected, peaceful room. Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great, meaningful whole. (177)

  1. William Stringfellow,"An Assault Upon Conscience," Sojourners 13 (October1984):22. This article is an excerpt from William Stringfellow's The Politics of Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).
  2. Ibid., p. 24.
  3. Ibid., p. 22.
  4. Christopher Fry, The Boy with a Cart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951),p.7.
  5. John S. Donne, The Church of the Poor Devil (New York: Macmillan. 1982), p. 88.
  6. Ibid., p. 62.
  7. Ibid., p. 64.
  8. Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, trans. Arno Pomerans (New York: Pantheon, 1983). In this article references to quotations from this book will be given in parentheses in the text.