When I first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I knew I would never be the same. I was a 21-year-old English major completely enthralled with Gothic literature, but nothing prepared me for the monster I was about to meet in between the pages of a now tattered book.
Much like the day I first picked up Frankenstein, when I began seminary I had no idea about the monster I was about to meet in between the experiences of a now tattered self. Though Shelley’s creative words helped me learn that we all create our own monsters, versions of ourselves that repulse us and of which we spend most of our lives in constant pursuit, I did not actually meet my own until I was in the Master of Divinity degree.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Frankenstein, please read it. In the meantime, however, here is a brief synopsis: a young Victor Frankenstein, whose talents in chemistry and the natural sciences exceed beyond those of his peers and superiors, stumbles upon a secret technique that brings life to inanimate bodies. Pushed by a terrifying, uncontrollable internal motivation, Frankenstein works tirelessly to collect and assemble parts of an eight-foot tall not-quite-human being with withered, translucent skin. After bringing the creature to life, Frankenstein is immediately repulsed by his monster, flees the room, and tries to forget what he has done.
Abandoned and betrayed, the monster begins a slow process of first surviving, then educating himself, then finally becoming self-aware. He is able to put language to his feelings and thoughts, and finds himself torn between deeply desiring companionship and seeking revenge against the race that continually forsakes him.
After accidentally strangling a little boy, the monster flees into solitude. Frankenstein, hearing of the murder, suspects the monster is the culprit and chases after him in a rage. I will not spoil the story’s ending, but I will say that the monster and Frankenstein find themselves in almost constant pursuit of one another, and the unending chase forbids them any fulfillment in life or intimacy with another companion.
Like Frankenstein, I had always excelled in academic areas beyond my peers. Despite any success I had within institutionalized systems, I always felt driven by a terrifying, uncontrollable internal motivation to do more. I was driven right into the throes of ministry, a world where there is no clear definition or measure of success.
As a requirement for ordination, I completed a five-month unit of hospital chaplaincy. When my first patient died, something came alive in me - something eight feet tall with translucent skin. I fled the room in the sense that I completely suppressed my emotional response to her death. I had heard the importance of boundaries in ministry emphasized so often that I thought by suppressing I was being healthy, but really I was just scared. When I left the hospital every day, I tried to live as normal of life as I could forgetting what I had seen in the dimly lit spaces where life marries death. But I could not sustain that forever. Eventually my monster would pursue me.
Long after my unit of hospital chaplaincy ended I continued to feel connected to the dark grief and doubt from which I had tried to escape. Like Frankenstein who imagined his monster lurking in every shadow, I saw a galvanized version of myself interrupting my life and destroying my relationships. I eventually learned that the process of professional spiritual formation was a grueling one that slowly collected and assembled some of life’s most pressing unanswered questions and some of my deepest pains in order to create a monster of emotional dishonesty. Unlike Frankenstein, however, I finally decide I could no longer flee.
In the safe space of solitude far from the office of pastor, I embraced a shadowed Kari, a version of myself whose fears, insecurities, self-doubts, grief, and despair had repulsed me and from which I had fled. Unlike Frankenstein, I was able to give my monster what it had wanted all along: honesty, openness, compassion, and companionship.
Shelley’s Frankenstein will forever serve as an invaluable resource to my personal and professional formation. The mark of good literature is not only its timelessness but also its ability to communicate truth to many people. The truth of Shelley’s monster is that many of us, especially those in ministry, struggle with those eight-foot tall creatures more often than we wish to recognize. My own monster has gifted me with the insight and empathy to help others bring light to dark places and love to where there is fear. Frankenstein continues to deeply inform my understanding of self and practice of ministry, and I am forever grateful for the power and opportunity that a good book presents to us.