The Challenge of Engaging Impasse

Experiencing impasse is not easy. Admitting that one is in a “no-way out situation” goes against everything we learn as US citizens. To acknowledge that some church officials do not care about you or your religious congregation nor are they interested in being in dialogue with you betrays our belief that the people of God are best served by listening to the Spirit working within all of us. Facing impasse is difficult enough; engaging it is more challenging still.

 The experience of impasse is like entering the dark night of the soul. This concept was well articulated by Constance FitzGerald, OCM, in her article Impasse and Dark Night. Getting in touch with our experience of impasse in a contemplative way invites us to enter that scary space of potential transformation. Hidden in the darkness of broken dreams, relationship betrayals, powerlessness and futility is an invitation to go deeper; a call to let go and like Jonah to stay awhile in the belly of the beast before being spit up on a new shore.

Engaging impasse challenges our usual ways of responding to pain—fight or flight. We are willing not to run from what we are seeing as we “take a long, loving-look at impasse.” We are willing to surrender our self-righteousness as we begin to pierce our illusions. We are willing to engage the experience as painful as it is and to stay with it in a communal setting. To dialogue with each other in ways that opens us to transformation and healing.

Engaging impasse implies staying in the darkness. Richard Rohr in his book, Hope Against Darkness, reminds us that darkness is a necessary teacher not to be avoided or even too quickly forgiven. He writes, “like Ezekiel the prophet, we must eat the scroll that is lamentation, wailing, and moaning in our belly, and only eventually sweet as honey. When we’re in darkness, there’s a loss of meaning and motivation.”

Rohr reminds us that there is a darkness which we enter because of our own selfishness and living out of our false self. But there is another darkness “that we’re led into by God and grace, and the nature of the journey itself. In many ways the loss of meaning here is even greater…But the difference is that we still sense that we have been led here intentionally somehow. We know we are in ‘liminal space,’ betwixt and between, on the threshold—and we have to stay there until we have learned something essential…all transformation takes place in such liminal space.”

Pema Chodon in her book, When Things Fall Apart, imparts this wisdom. “To stay with that shakiness-to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.”

Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

© 2003-2019 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue

Further Reading:
Chodron, Pema. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston, MA: Shambhala Classics, 1997.
Chodron teaches us how to approach suffering in a way that is not usual for Western culture. She is an American Buddhist nun and draws on that tradition to offer us a way of moving toward pain and suffering with a curiosity and friendliness that relaxes us into the depths of that situation This is an excellent book and offers very practical advice for those searching for holistic ways of engaging the difficult situations in life.

Rohr,OFM, Richard. Hope Against Darkness. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001.
In this book, Rohr directly addresses the current dilemma of church and society. He analyzes the fears and failures of Western modernity and offers new insights into the role our Christian faith can bring to this “age of anxiety.” He discusses the dark night we are in and draws on St. Francis to offer an example of how to live in an alternative way that challenges and gives hope to us even today. Rohr is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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