Angels and Beasts in the Arena’s Dark Night

Sunday’s Gospel: “The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he stayed for forty days. There he was put to the test by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, yet angels ministered to him.” Mark 1:12-13

Let’s imagine for a moment that the wilderness into which the Spirit drove Jesus is that of the Hunger Games arena. The tall trees and thick undergrowth have been designed with psychological as well as physical discomfort in mind. Though fortified before he entered, Jesus is now functioning on very few calories and severely dehydrated. Yet none of these challenges compare to the decision he must make: Who to trust? Which are the beasts and which the angels?

Discernment, I would argue, is the key to surviving the wilderness arenas of our lives. We must decide which foods are nourishing and which deadly; which path will take us to the water source. We must discern initially which tributes/persons are allies and ultimately who is the real enemy – all other tributes, or just the Careers, or the Capitol of Panem, “spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12)? Crucial to our capacity to make these choices about material goods, interpersonal relationships and moral direction are skills to navigate the terrains of our own thoughts, imaginings, memories and emotions. Which are the beasts that lead to death, which the angels that point to a hiding place or invoke the life-saving, supply parachutes?

If the sixteenth century Carmelite spiritual director St. John of the Cross was writing The Hunger Games instead of Suzanne Collins, he would have Katniss utilize the technique of identifying “first movements.” A first movement is a mental experience – be it image, desire, memory, sensation or “diabolical communication”– to which we respond either with acceptance or rejection. Do I turn toward this thought, focus on it and bring it fully into consciousness? Or do I turn away from it, let it go? (As Peeta would ask after being hijacked with tracker jacker venom, “real or not real?”) Noticing then responding with intention to first movements is a form of positive discipline, a practice that enables a person to sift through torrents of stimuli, external and internal.

As Katniss becomes skillful at habitually accepting and acting with only those first movements that are from God, John would portray her entering what he calls the soul’s “purging,” which takes place during the soul’s “dark night.” In arena terms, it is about working, sweating, bleeding out deadly influences incurred in the present (venom! poison fog!) as well as trauma reenactments from the past (difficulty trusting others since her mother was unable to care for her after her father’s death). Processing and releasing what is debilitating frees Katniss to harness her strengths, such as the protective instinct she honed caring for younger sister, which enables her to recognize an ally in Rue.

In the darkness of this night, John’s Katniss learns to see with other senses. She sees through illusions: that is not a human tribute in disguise, but rather a Capitol-made wolf mutation. She identifies ambivalence in even her most cherished relationship: her love for her sister can fuel her survival instinct or lead to paralyzing madness. In John’s version of the Games, Katniss must struggle with her soul’s confusion in order to receive the inflow of the Holy Spirit. One mediation of the Spirit is her mentor Haymitch’s signals: the appearance – and the absence – of silver parachutes. Pivotal to her success is her realization that her fraught relationship with Haymitch is truly trustworthy: he did not waste a sponsorship because he knew she would find the water. When she knows what to do at the end of both Games, it is a manifestation of an insight she and Haymitch share: the real enemy is the Capitol.

Katniss does not need to ignore her own instincts and desires to work well with Haymitch. Likewise, she creates a new kind of victor (two victors?!) by trusting her intuition and inviting Peeta to do so too. As contemporary Carmelite Constance Fitzgerald would say, the Spirit works with our desire: it is “gradually transferred, purified, transformed, set on fire” (“Impasse and Dark Night,” 1984). In the midst of the arena’s obstacles, Katniss learns to trust not only Haymitch, but also her own capacity for right judgment beyond the tasks of hunting and protecting her family. She learns about the risks of a new form of love. One might even say that it is Katniss’ love that ultimately breaks the logic of the Games, and thus the Games themselves. The night in the arena wilderness is indeed very dark, but Katniss is “the girl on fire.”

Heather M. DuBois is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. She has a PhD in Theology and Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a book, called Moving through Impasse, about intrapersonal transformation in situations characterized by constraint and incomprehension.