Dazzling Darkness

This little memoir by Rachel Mann is not an easy read; but  not for the usual reasons. It is only 135 pages long and the author is poet in residence at Manchester cathedral so she knows how to handle words. She has lived a full, some may even say sensational, life so it is never dull. Her initial academic training was in philosophy but she doesn't tie her readers up in complex philosophical knots. I found it slow going because it engaged me so deeply that I had to pause every chapter or two to think about what she was telling me, and let it sit with me for a couple of days.

Rachel Mann was born Nick Mann and this is the story of her journey across gender. It is also the story of her battles with debilitating, painful, life threatening disease. It is the story of her conversion to Christianity and of her call to priesthood in the Anglican Church. It is a raw, visceral piece of writing but despite the plethora of edgy material in her life history it never invites the prurient or voyeuristic impulses of her audience. It is in fact written with a great deal of discretion but she does lay her soul bare, for this is her account of entering and being transformed by darkness. It is, in other words, a story of crucifixion and resurrection albeit one which avoids the twee triumphalism of most apologetic confessions.

Another reason for my slow digestion of this book was my stopping to relish some of her turns of phrase and throw away lines:

"[being ordained] is like being a celebrity for people who set their sights very low."

"In order to lose ones life, one must have one to begin with."

"One of the most dreadful and yet wonderful truths about the Christian life is that it is not so much about being built up as stripped away. It is about exposure. It is about nakedness. It is about getting naked with God. And not being ashamed. Being in the company of God is not, in any conventional sense, about being safe, consoled or blessed."

Some of her experience mirrors some of my own: her account of her rumbustious boyhood and self doubting adolescence; her struggle with the realities of disease;  her story of charismatic/evangelical conversion, of her gratitude for that  and her growth through it all resonated strongly with me, as did her reflections on ordination. Some of her life - her wrestling with gender identity particularly - is well out of my immediate experience but I was moved by the deeply reflective accounts of her search for self which grew from that. I was also grateful for the depth of her insight into the issues of gender and sexuality which are so convulsing our church at present.

This is not really an autobiography; there are huge and important areas of her life which are hardly mentioned, or glossed over entirely. This is, in the sense used by St. Augustine, a confession. It is the story of a soul and of that soul's encounter with the Living God. It is a raw and real book which I might not press on those who were not yet strong enough for it. But it is nonetheless a powerful book which promises meaning for those who struggle in the dark -that is, eventually, all of us.


Anonymous said…
"In order to lose ones life, one must have one to begin with."

Thanks Kevin, I will just jot that down.

Here is one for you:

"How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes!"

Or for Rachel and you:
“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall”

Suem said…
I was lent this book to read recently. It does offer a real insight into this area.
Anonymous said…
Leaders can lose respect by associating with those at the fringe of our society.

Once and awhile there are leaders with the courage to step out and embrace those who are different. Good on you Kevin.