ANDREW SHANKS writes of Rachel Mann, in his Foreword to her Dazzling Darkness, that she represents
“a whole other species of religious faith … something like an option for all-transformative ultimate acceptance”
– and of a person whose faith is
“nothing other than a principled recognition of the very clearest-eyed honesty – precisely, as a sacred ideal”.
This sounded, at the genesis as it were, like a description of God’s Christ to me. By the end of the book I was indeed dazzled, convinced that Shanks described both Rachel Mann and Jesus of Nazareth with equal clarity. Within days I’d distributed a dozen copies to some of the people I care about most, and I’ve brought this book into countless conversations. Here is courage and honesty for which I’ve shed tears of gratitude – whilst heart and soul and mind and body somersaulted over every beautifully written page.
Honesty for Jesus of Nazareth involved Gethsemane – I’m still haunted by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus: “take this cup away from me for I don’t want to taste its poison”.* And I’m haunted because I know I owe a response to that Christ – for his grace and passion. Rachel Mann’s journeying towards truth has agonised in just such a garden, truly a “real presence”, this woman, of the vulnerable, open, incarnate body of Christ now on earth. And I’m positively haunted because I know I owe Rachel Mann for her grace, too. Haunted by Grace, by pure, unexpected, earthy gift. Touched and inspired by Anointed-ness, by Christ-likeness-in-brokenness, in Rachel Mann, and if in Rachel then also in every other child, woman and man trying to come to terms with being breathed into life – upon earth or in heaven.
And this Christ is com-passion, truly, with-suffering, a pain-bearing-alongside – an Anointed-one arrived in this world not so much to be a religious enterprise as a fully human Jesus-shaped one – one unafraid, like Rachel Mann, to “play wild language games” with God, too; one unafraid to live in and to get alongside real, frequently silenced “grubby bodies” in the poignantly agonising whilst yet laughter-filled Word-game of life. Truly Jesus knew what it was to be betwixt and between, caught up between one place – one “self” and another. Entre-nous.
The broken middle
This is the “broken middle” in which Rachel Mann has lived much of her life – and to which I believe the twenty-first century Church is struggling to hear herself being called. No longer convinced Evangelical nor convinced Catholic, hardly daring to be partisan at all, but – nearer the Word of Truth, I suspect – being willing to live in the broken middle – somewhere, and in some size and shape, that’s a bit different for all of us, depending on where we began, and upon where thus far along our way we’ve ended up. Betwixt and between. Becoming, yes, becoming. Works in progress – in the theatre of life in which, painstakingly and daily, in the midst of both laughter and tears, “each loosened bolt and nut is a making vulnerable, a loosening of false layers of identity, and a making space for God, the one who is easily silenced, to speak”.
Rachel Mann knows what it is to feel isolated and broken. And also – her Twitter-feed celebrates – what it is to delight in a platter of fish, chips and peas. That’s why she’s good news in today’s Church. Her sheer goodness and dogged perseverance is an epiphany of the kind I deeply need to sustain my hope for the future, to give me hope for a world, for a Church, for myriad different religious traditions, that are teeming with the lives of “The Other”. Rachel’s humanity could not be other than a positive encouragement to many readers and to many who meet her in person. I’m sure she’ll always be catalyst for many a real metanoia, many a real “turning around and thinking again”. And God knows, now as always, that the Church needs, that I need, to come to a truer repentance. I’m still profoundly shocked as I recall the opening service of the Lambeth Conference in 2008. Bishops gathered from all over the world cheerily booming out the hymn “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place” even as security guards were on hand to deny entrance to “the otherness” (God help us, the Christ-likeness) in Bishop Gene Robinson.
Dazzling Darkness isn’t just a sensitive, lived work about the extraordinary complexities of long-term illness, human sexuality, bewilderment, spiritual darkness, desolation, isolation and alienation – though it is all of these: this is ultimately a book about being an expression of the Anointed, the Christ, for our life and times. A book about being planted firmly in the midst of family and memory; about instinct’s perpetual yearning for the peace it intuits will be found in one’s own distinctive space, and place; and unpredictable, sometimes unexpected human love, acceptance and recognition – within and without presently known institutions, church or marriage. This is a book about faith and hope and love prevailing despite what seem impossible odds. This is philosophical and theological reflection of the highest order. This is truly birthing poetry and prose about co-creativity with God. A book about what it means to live caught between darkness and light, joy and pain, sickness and gladness, holiness in wholeness. About Adam and Eve. About mankind, in-between-kind, and womankind. About you and me. About incarnation. About being in the flesh. About personal integrity and authenticity. About being real in the public square. About the call of God’s Spirit constantly to re-examine and re-interpret Law and Prophets. About imagination. About journey. About redemption – being shown the way home to ourselves.
Dazzling Darkness is the most important book I’ve read in thirty years as a priest, and though I’ll limp toward the finishing line in “the race that is set before us”, the Christ-likeness I see in Rachel Mann spurs me onwards. I will keep trying.
* Gethsemane, from Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber