Sorrow Comes to All

“Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not a substitution, but saving companionship.” (Kallistos Ware)

http://meetville.com/images/quotes/

http://meetville.com/images/quotes/

Where is God during these times? Where is He when bad things happen to good people? How do the words of a preacher help or heal those who have lost their homes, who have lost their families, those who are alone in prison, or in a hospital dying of cancer? The mother whose child is dying in her arms because it is sick or hungry? “Where is God?” ask the poor and the abandoned. “Where is He now?” asks the young person about to put an end to his or her life. The words of no individual, however great, cannot ever eliminate the pain nor explain away the suffering. We would be deluded to think that our words, even though genuine and caring, could wipe away the multitude of tears. And yet, by pointing to divine revelation, that is, witnessing to Scripture and to the “Word” (the eternal LOGOS who was from the “beginning” Jn. 1:1), a sorrowful heart can be shown that there is, indeed, a way through the suffering. However desperate and improbable our situation, always there is hope for we have been “begotten” to a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pet. 1:3). God is there, sharing in our common humanity, “taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7), experiencing our pain, empathizing with our humiliation, feeling our rejection, suffering with us in a meaningful and enduring way. He does understand our grief and reveals to us the way through our sorrow.

In His human nature, before His terrible crucifixion, the GodMan prays, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). He is there in every hospital and prison and orphanage and broken home and mourning heart. “I was naked and you clothed Me” (Matt. 25:36). The Father was there at Calvary when His only begotten Son cried unto Him, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) There will come a day, Scripture tells us, a specific moment in history when all sorrow and all suffering will come to an end, “[a]nd God will wipe away every tear... there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying... no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). God promises, that similarly to Jesus, our pain will be redeemed and a higher understanding will come to us for “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1Cor. 13:12). This does not lessen the brutality of our toughest battles, but it does mean our tears and suffering are not to be looked upon as ‘wastelands’. These experiences of sorrow ("feelings of deep distress") are not only commonplace in our lives, but often they are the only authentic way of communicating with each other. Real pain, unlike feigned pleasure, cannot be easily counterfeited. Fairy-tales and myths, from the earliest of years when the believing community was persecuted and torn asunder, had nothing to do with a faith ‘blind’ to the outside reality -but it was a belief tested and realized in the world and established in blood.

What may presently be inexplicable, will be made clear to us on that last day to which we do "not know what hour" (Matt. 24:42). We will see that our path, strewn with both joy and heartache, was our unique way through life and that it could not have been any different; in some tangible sense our spiritual DNA. And that He, our Lord, was there with us in ways that we could not ever have possibly imagined. That He was there during those times when sorrow might appear to be robbing us of breath and even of life itself- as the penitent thief himself discovered on Golgotha Hill when he asked the Lord to remember him in His kingdom, “[a]ssuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).

Sorrow does not discriminate and it cares little for our religious convictions or philosophies. We all have to find a way through our suffering and to make sense of it. Our profoundest thinkers have encouraged us to not fight the provenance of our pain but to ask the meaningful question: What does this suffering mean for me and how can I use it? There is an assumption of reason here, that we are not dealing with “accident”. The Universe itself we are discovering is not without cause or order. If gravity is just slightly moved, then there is nothing. Physicists and cosmologists are all the more speaking of “fine-tuning” and moving away from theories of random behaviour. We, too, are the stuff of stardust. Let us at least, if we are not able to do anything else, bring comfort to those who are in deep distress. This alone might be one of our great successes as human beings.

“Dear Father, I still do not understand and I suffer at the awful horrors and unimaginable pain about me. How are these dreadful and abysmal things possible when every good thing has proceeded forth from Eternal Love? I weep at the impossibility for wherever I turn, I come back to you, and to you Alone. Yes, my Lord, if there is any small goodness within me, it is on account of my suffering, and if we have performed any good deed, that too, is on account of our suffering that we might learn something of compassion.”

Not Tonight My Heart

“Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them” (Vincent McNabb).

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's  Sadness  (2012)

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's Sadness (2012)

Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. If you should move your hand to extinguish the light, this light, it will all be finished, there will be no turning back. This was not how your life upon this earth was meant to end. What has brought you here, to this darkest of places. Who has robbed you of hope? Who has stolen your dreams? And who has sought to diminish your worth? Stay with me for a while. Let us keep each other company, at least until the morning hours. We need not talk, a few words might be all we need, stay with me, at least until the morning hours. If it grows cold, if it gets too dark, I am here, with you. What are you thinking? That no one understands? That people, even those you love, have stopped listening? I know it is what you are thinking. I know. It is frightening to feel completely alone. Yes, it hurts, in places too deep for names. Nameless places, there is no room for alphabets here, only sighs, and moans, and groans. Not even tears they were spent long ago. I know. Your thoughts are real, like a broken bone, but they are not you. Tonight especially you must distinguish between these thoughts, and your will to live. It is difficult to breathe, even to breathe, that too I understand. If only this pain would go away, if it would stop, at last. Your suffering has become unbearable, I can see this, any moment it can break you, break you into a thousand pieces. Is your agony greater now than it was an hour ago? You are still here, you see, all things are possible. I do not ask of you to take a leap of faith into the limitless abyss, but to be still and to incline your ear, listen, sometimes you need to say good-bye to the old self, and it can only happen on nights like these. On nights like these when you are tested, when you are brought to the scorching edge, to be forged, and to be made stronger. Do not allow for despair to swathe its binding around your eyes. Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. Understand pain for what it is; an invaluable helper to keep your spirit awake and alert that you might respond both to the light and to the fire of the Sun. Your fight is not with your pain, but it is a battle against your suffering. Pain is your hurting, but it is your suffering, it is this, which will give you meaning.

And so ask yourself, this is not the time for half-truths and excuses, and so ask yourself, what has brought you here, to this valley of the shadow of death? Let go of things and places and people which are pulling at your soul, allow yourself the joy and lightness of heart which can only come with the great abandonment. Release your ego, it is weighing you down. Just for these next few minutes, allow for yourself to see through those swathes which are binding your eyes, just for these next few minutes. I will let you in on a simple secret, known to angels and anchorites of old, what is unspeakable can yet be lived. Let this suffering be your way to a deeper understanding of who you are, and who you are called to become. Tonight this could be that place of your greatest and most important discovery, here in this bloody battlefield, you are given your second chance. I know you have had this revelation of the ‘other self’ in the past. It is you, it really is you, do not be afraid of the splendor. “So do not fear, for I am with you.” (Is. 41:10) Hope cannot be taken away, it can only be surrendered. Dreams cannot be stolen, they can only be forgotten. Worth cannot be diminished, it is forever a measure of your dignity as a child of God. Your wounds, these great big wounds, which you think are beyond any possible healing let them become windows, dazzling openings to Love and Light. Become the refuge and the source of belief to others. You will have the most to teach.

Do not feel guilty it is all right to sometimes feel like this, for your soul to ask of you to nourish it with new meaning and content, it is shedding old skin. It refuses to become stone. It is good that you can still feel, even down to these very depths of your anguish, this is your proof, you believe in something. Hold tight onto this grace. Is it your own voice you are hearing? Wonderful, this is how the new day begins. Things will be much clearer, you will not have all the answers, but you will be closer to the reasons. You will have drawn nearer to your purpose determined even before the foundation of the brightest star. And so not tonight, this is not the night, let not your trembling hand turn to extinguish the light. I am here, with you. 

The Tremendous Mystery of God

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” (Job 38:4-5).

Saint Basil the Great   St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Saint Basil the Great  St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Atheism is, of course, not new. Though the word can be traced to the sixteenth century (lifted from the Ancient Greek to mean “godless” or to “deny the gods”), its history is as old as some of our earliest materialist philosophies and indeed, religions themselves. But there are two particular periods for us ‘moderns’ that are especially noted for the argument that religion is a superstition with adherents who do not exercise reason, and who for the better part, are fanatics.  At the same time natural science renders any literal belief in the Bible indefensible. What is common to these eras, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (late 17th and 18th century), and our present times is the great progress in the sciences. Religious have responded in various ways to such titanic movements, some plainly wrong. There have been those, however, who set the good example. They have done so by entering in to the debate, by accepting correction where correction was required, and acknowledging that the tremendous mystery of God rather than being extinguished by the huge strides of science, is made all the more profound and astonishing.

It is indeed right to admit as believers in an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, that we do not know everything, and there is nothing whatsoever to be lost in acknowledging that we can be enriched by others outside our own particular belief-system. Most of us are familiar with the Enlightenment and with its revolutionary contribution not only in the sphere of the sciences but also in the broader area of the humanities. The medieval world-view was effectively put to death and so the idea of the modern world came into being. But what is this ‘new atheism’ so prominently espoused in our days by some very famous and very passionate people?

New atheism is not so ‘new’ after all. It has roots in the cultural Marxism of the 1920’s, though it often claims to be “carrying out” the work of the Enlightenment. This movement above all strong in the 1960’s understood Christian religion as a force which blinded people, particularly the working class, of its true nature and purpose. And so the religion had to be destroyed. But not everything about this school of thought which understood culture as a tool of oppression, is so damning, for instance, its critique of unequal social relations. Nowadays however, the rapid advances of scientific exploration and the modern-day marvels of technology have added an additional prestige to this increasingly popular new atheism movement. Moreover, the open and free access to information has allowed for the abuses of power in some parts of faith-based communities to become exposed… and rightly so. This has further eroded in many minds the beliefs and claims of religious. So how do we respond to these solid attacks on those very things which we hold to be most precious, that is, our belief in a personal Creator, who is not only interested in our lives, but who also continues to act in history. It is not easy in the face of especially eloquent and persuasive arguments in support of the ‘death of God’, often by persons like the incomparable author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens or the charismatic and highly qualified astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Not all of us have the knowledge and the abilities of an Ernan McMullin or a William Lane Craig to answer back to the first, or of a Sir Robert Boyd or a J. Richard Gott to get back to the second. Most of us would fall down, flat on our faces. So what is it that we ‘lesser lights’ can do?

We can accept and learn. And then testify to whatever little shards of the Light we, ourselves, might possess. Sometimes we might surprise with words and insights we never knew we possessed- the legacy of Pentecost and those tongues "as of fire" (Acts 2:1-4). This is to accept it is natural for individuals to disagree on the ‘big’ questions and that people respond to evidence, whether documentary or physical, in different ways. We each possess diverse gifts and we should admire these talents in others without anxiety or fear that this would somehow diminish or weaken our faith and strengthen the arguments of those on the other side. The new atheists can teach us to be more determined and much better read when presenting to the world our principles of faith, and indeed, to consider what example of moral exemplars we are who claim our ethical foundations from divine revelation. Whether we are Christians or members of other faith-based communities let us not fear those attacks from high places. They are not all misplaced. Let us take what is good and profitable to the spirit, rather than becoming unduly defensive and fretful. We should allow for these strikes to make us more sensitive to our responsibilities as faith bearers, but also to understand that science is a discipline which can only bring to us a greater amazement at the wonderment and mysteries of God, or as others might prefer, primum movens, the ‘Prime Mover’.

It does not mean that we too, cannot take offence at arguments or positions which are either not correct or scientifically prejudicial. We can and should take offence when Saint Paul’s, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11) is flagrantly taken out of context, suggesting that the Apostle to the Gentiles outgrew his faith. This is not only patronizing to readers of the New Testament but also showing that even the best intellects are not immune from an arrant misinterpretation of sources. And also we need not remain silent when elite scientists tell us that religious are “wired” to believe as if that is some sort of crime or evolutionary deficiency. Are we then also to believe the reverse, that those who are “wired” to dis-believe are somehow superior? This position whatever the neurological or biochemical proofs, is not only arrogant but also a terribly dangerous ideology, with consequences too horrible to consider here.

Ultimately, let us go about our own business of trying to become better men and women, and if we believe in a Creator, fear nothing and hope for everything. There is a synthesis here, and it is good to finish in this way. Albert Einstein, who incidentally was not a believer in God- and religious do themselves a disservice by claiming as much for his private correspondence makes it very clear he was not- spoke of his “sense of god” as his “sense of wonder” about the universe. This truly limitless fascination should be a place where we can All meet allowing for the overwhelming awe which grips the heart of the other to inspire our thoughts and to excite our souls. Next to Einstein’s evocative reflection, we can as a community of believers point to a similar declaration from Saint Basil the Great in his Hexaemeron commenting on the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1: “I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story?”

The Benefit of the Doubt

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations.  It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills” (Buddha).

James J. Tissot's  The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise  (1896)

James J. Tissot's The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise (1896)

Each day we might look for ways to become better and more compassionate people; a smile here, or a little charity there, perhaps even an encouraging letter to a stranger. Every kind and caring deed helps the heart grow softer to become a more suitable vessel for instruction and illumination. There is also the practice of another action, often forgotten, which brings much joy to both the giver and receiver: the giving of the benefit of the doubt. But what does this mean? It is taking someone at their word despite the doubt, that you are willing to put every suspicion aside. You are prepared to pass the advantage to the other, however difficult this may initially seem. It can save a life and build new futures for those to whom this wonderful grace is extended. It is another chance. Might we at times feel we have been misused? Have, we too, not in some ways misused others or at least the gifts we have received from the Creator? Are we that much better? Is this not also one of the great lessons of Christ’s pardon of the penitent thief on the cross? (Lk. 23:32-43) The benefit of the doubt can also be connected to forgiveness. And have we not all, at some stage of our lives, been desperate to hear similar words of release from a loved one or friend. But this giving of the ‘advantage’ must come with no qualification and with strong love that it survives the test of time. Let us always be encouragers, never shut the door, and have nothing to do with the spread of despair. How much aching we not only lift from ourselves by not remaining captive to the poison of suspicion, but also what joy and hidden possibility we could help to set free in the life of others by simply saying, “I do believe in you, and I am truly sorry if I have caused you hurt by the withholding of my trust." Sometimes a wounded soul might wait for years to hear these words that it may once more dance lightly upon the earth and with gladness look forward to the new day. “Oh, Heavenly Father, allow for me to genuinely practise this graceful act of surrendering the advantage to the other, without doubt or the return of suspicion, that I, too, might be the recipient of such a beautiful release.”