Review: Dazzling Darkness - Gender, sexuality, illness and God

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
21 Jan 2013

Dazzling Darkness: Gender, sexuality, illness and God by Rachel Mann. Wild Goose Publications 2012

A biography by a poet and a priest – nothing unusual there you might say. In the case of Rachel Mann's “Dazzling Darkness”, think again.

This is an account of gender dyphoria, of being gay, of dealing with chronic illness and disability and in all these 'outsider' experiences, encountering the Divine Spirit in what the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan called the “dazzling darkness” - that place of abandonment to brokenness, loss and loneliness which most of us strive to avoid.

Treading a life which I can only imagine (and therefore put off my shoes in venturing) the author draws on her knowledge of theology, feminism, poetry, philosophy and the classics to spell out the history and future of her journey towards wholeness. It has been an arduous trek. She describes her struggle with a church in which “A 'narrow way' meant you shaped up or shipped out” and how, despite this, she came to the realisation that “church remains a place of grace” of which she writes: “if God can still value the loons within it (including me), then so can I.”

The realities are not spared for the sake of the metaphysics. Some of this makes for hard reading. Crohn's disease, unemployment, her vulnerability to mockery and misunderstanding, the Church initially turning down Mann's desire to train for ordained ministry, her poor health delaying surgery for sex- reassignment, all these draw her down into wretchedness. But she is able to find a hitherto unseen face of God “waiting in the darkness”, A God who is “forsaken, crushed and despised” and of whom, she can write “when I fell further into to the pit, he fell with me.”

Her re-imagining of the narrative of the woman whom Jesus healed of a haemorrhage is disturbing. And like all well written disturbance, it moves the understanding forward. This is not the traditional 'dark night of the soul', but one which dares to say 'but what if..?' and to conjure with ambiguity.

It is this creative offering of impetus which makes the book compelling. I do not exactly share Rachel Mann's theology and I found the chapter on 'vocation in violence' difficult. But she makes an emotionally convincing case for the calling to life and truth necessitating a stripping away of the moribund and false. And just as physical birth entails blood and tearing, the “breaking down of our comfortable ways of going on” exacts a terrible cost.

In sharing her journey from “a false God and a false self”, the author convinces as only those can who have sufficient courage to face truth. She will speak to many who are broken, afraid and marginalised, giving hope of transformation and wholeness. It is the way of Jesus.

Rachel Mann is an Anglican parish priest and writer. She is Resident Poet at Manchester Cathedral and her work has been widely published in magazines, anthologies and newsprint. More from and about Rachel Mann on Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/rachelmann

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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