The Path of Descent
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
The curtailing of individual freedom to live, move, and work may be a new experience for some of us—but is familiar to communities who have suffered from oppression for centuries. By necessity, they have developed ways of coping with fear and uncertainty on an individual and communal level. During the CONSPIRE 2018 conference, Living School faculty member Dr. Barbara Holmes shared some of her experience working with the path of descent.
During crisis, individuals put to sleep the light of rationality, and descend during dark nights of the soul. As William Shannon puts it, “We darken and blind the exterior self and awaken to the inner self as we grow closer to God.” 
But crisis doesn’t just happen to individuals. . . . It also happens to communities, particularly when a community shatters on the anvil of injustice. Crisis contemplation . . . is [the] point of spiritual and psychic dissolution. Shattering events that create the crisis displace the ordinary until the suffering reaches the point of no return. We are bereft. We are unable to articulate the extent of our suffering or even to reintegrate our fractured meaning structures. And so, the descent begins, and we are in free fall toward the center of our being. . . .
In my book Joy Unspeakable, I use the black community’s experience of slavery as an extreme example of crisis contemplation, a breaking of extraordinary magnitude. When the crisis is communal, communities may be victimized by systems because of immutable traits like race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity or fluidity, class, political or social differences, real or imagined, and more. When communities are in crisis, first comes the fear. Perhaps you’re Harriet Tubman hiding and trying to make it to Canada with your community, or you’re a person of color today, wondering when the powers that be will decide to put you in the same foil blankets and cages that they’re currently using for Mexican babies.
After the fear comes the cruelty and the oppression along with the wondering, “Where is God?” Here’s the rub: even as a member of an oppressed community, you’re always an individual, but during a crisis of this magnitude, you do not have the luxury of responding as an individual. Suffering [of community in crisis] cannot be absorbed by individuals, no matter how tenuous and invisible the bonds of community are. Individuals cannot respond. You must do it as community, for safety, for comfort, and for survival.
I want to echo her final point here: We cannot face large-scale crises as individuals; we cannot carry the pain of this reality on our own, nor can we only look out for ourselves. The pain is communal and so too must be the response.
 William H. Shannon, Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey: Writings on Contemplation (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2000), 136. See Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Augsberg Fortress Publications: 2017), 7. Text used in Daily Meditation is author’s paraphrase.
Adapted from a presentation by Barbara Holmes at CONSPIRE 2018.