Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Dark Providence of Suffering

The Beauty of the Flaw

The Wound has left its imprint John O’Donohue

I am enthralled with the Incarnation. Here we have a God wholly other who decides to take on the limited nature of His creation knowing full well the risks in this encounter. Mel Gibson’s picturesque capturing of Christ’s anguish is played out in the Passion and it was so clear the dilemma that God had allowed Himself to encounter. Destruction appeared imminent to our Lord in the garden and in His humanity He could not escape the shawdowlands of pain thrust upon His frame. To know of things to come but also sense the beauty in this flawed universe it to truly be torn asunder. This is dark beauty. This is God being abandoned by God. What seemed a foreign opening to His soul now became the portal into which true redemption could flow. Out of this dark beauty came a new authority, a new way of being, a new kingdom, a New Adam.

Years have a way of blurring if not blinding us to our inner beauty. Inside the seeming emptiness of labor, the weightiness of sickness and loss, and the incomprehensibility of discovering our own complicity in the dispensing of our life and light, we discover a shadowy mysterious destiny. This vocation is only sanctioned and animated through the beauty of the flaw. That which is hidden to all but children comes in later years only to those who have traversed the cold bleak winters of doubt and despair. In this journey they unearth this extravagant barrenness called the sacred wound. Only in this terrain of the soul seemingly emptied of light and heat comes the discovery of this luminescent gift.

My tradition of faith has taught me much. I am so grateful for the love of sacred writ, the excessive favor of the Father, the assurance of faith, and the fellowship of saints. However, I was also invited to experience God in ways that now seem full of presumption and projected requirements upon God. I prayed. I experienced God in one situation. Why would not all my prayers have some kind of shelf life to them before the seal was broken and the answers poured forth. Time, it now appears, is deeply in collusion with the Healer. Time is a companion that continues to edit and do great surgery to my lexicon of faith and spirituality. Words and descriptions that I wrapped around experience at some point proved to be unable to carry and illuminate the true import of life’s events.

It is not clear to me whether I am genetically prone towards depression or whether I am merely aware of the grandiosity of grace given my true estate. In recent years I had decided to make my secret weeping more public and at times I am haunted by my own brokenness. Why would I choose to chronicle this litany of ashes? What is the motivation that chants the liturgy of mourning? Why remain vulnerable when it appears to preclude the accolades my soul desires? Is it the dark providence released in this vulnerability that continues to bring me to this place? All of life has been an intervention.

John O’Donohue, a recently deceased poet and aesthetic philosopher, speaks of a “refined interiority” that comes with those willing to take the inner journey, the road less traveled. I am so tempted to define myself from the outer most reaches of my soul. I am what I own. I am how I look. I am what I know. I am who I know. If anything, this penchant for excessive yearning must point to a need. A need so profoundly planted within the core of my being that I have only two choices. Live or die. As we enter the limitedness of our form, we suddenly encounter the cold clarity of our ultimate demise and the insistence of the heart to call forth beauty from the flaws.

The incarnation pointed out this ultimate contingency. This divine embodiment confirmed the glory in the darkness. Millenniums later we return to the cosmos’ ultimate disturbance only to find these hours of darkness shine forth with splendor and wonder. Being drawn to the secret force of this apparent weakness and failure on God’s part gave Satan a false bravado. He still mocks us in these moments of revealing and taunts us to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ But the incarnation is a much more expansive story. Its unfolding includes even the beautification of death. Our very being is returned to forms that transcend the sadness and we often leave behind to our family and friends hints of the invisible. For those willing to stand with others in the dark corridors of death, they discover something profound and divinely wonderful. As the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral said “No, I don’t believe that I will be lost after death. Why should You have made me fruitful, if I must be emptied and left like the crushed sugarcanes? Why should You spill the light across my forehead and my heart every morning, if You will not come to pick me, as one picks the dark grapes that sweeten in the sun, in the middle of autumn.”

Now even our death is embraced in the dark providence of suffering. We often see affliction and death through the awful outer circumstances that usher in the end. But beneath and within is a prevailing grace and a final reminder that we are more than we seem.

Just recently my father passed on to the next realm. Towards the end it was clear to me that his body was engulfed in his soul and not the reverse. After years of discerning primarily through the mind and body, it was now evident that his soul was preeminent in the naming and descriptions of his swan song. The final frontier of death was all that lay ahead of him. As much as his body was worn and weary, his resilience was an anticipation of the final gathering up of things and a welcoming of the crossing. “Behold I am making all things new.” He heard the Savior’s voice and now even the shadows of his final days could not damper his enthusiasm.

As much as he longed for the new, it was his memories of his life that awakened this longing full bloom. O’Donohue said, "Memory is the place where our vanished days secretly gather.” This final harvesting took all that hurt him, all that diminished him in his own eyes, all that spent his life energy and through his memoires pointed to the resurrection. He did not and could not see suffering and death as the final reversal and unraveling of this mystery called life. Now, more than ever, the shame and condemnation were loosened and he heard the sentries guarding the outposts of heaven chanting his welcoming. He would continue on as himself. How all the flaws would make it into this next land was not a worry. Somehow he and the Savoir had created a life of companionship and he welcomed his own vanishing. I watched him become more beautiful as he neared the Kingdom. I too forgot his flawed estate and limitations and saw the radiance of the eternal blush his cheeks. I want to pass this way.

Holy Ignorance

The Presumptions of Pursuit

I have spent my entire life pursuing this desire for more than what is.
Thomas Moore

I am a fool. This proclaimed status is not for feigned humility's sake. This is an upfront assertion of the very character of my soul. This is not to denigrate my worth before humankind or God. It is merely to reveal at the outset my inability to speak of the holy and my presumptions in offering up speculations of the invisible. That is what makes me foolish. It is idea that what is beyond can be spoken of with such certitude and bravado.

So I begin with repentance. Forgive me for the parts of the work that lead you away from love truth, goodness and most of all the beauty of the Incarnation. I pray these writings are not an escape but an imaginal door into a world that truly is but only in our hearts.

To utter speculation regarding the infinite and ineffable is by its nature more poetry than the transference of facts. What is beyond is always beyond. What appears empty to this world is full only in our imaginations that we jump start with the metaphors of faith. These metaphors are the really real as they exist to allow us to even wonder about that which we cannot ultimatley know. In these moments of faith, the inexpressible is more prayer, as suffering, ambiguity, paradox and mystery are always dogging our every move. Thus, this work is more about my doubt and anxious moments than clarity and certitude. This offering is less persuasive acclamation and more lamentation and confession. Much of what resides on these pages is also given as gift and offering. When proof is no longer the dominant posture of the soul, mystery can truly become revelation. If the sublime and transcendent do exist, they do so for the sake of beauty and less so for the sake or argumentation and apologetical proof.

I cannot imagine a world without God. Yet, His presence is not merely difficult to feel or know it is also hauntingly absent and full of longing and despair. As I have grown older my inclinations towards God have become less needful of things being certain and concretely provable. To some degree, I am leery of the defensive stratagems that make sure all truth is contained in some repeatable formula. Therefore, in this offering I will sometimes discuss the idea of God rather than assume I am discussing God. The difference is in the gaze of the heart and nature of the engagement. Much of this distinction is reflected in the opaque nature of my speech. My diatribes are by their very nature abstractions. God does not reveal Himself merely because I talk about Him or name Him on a page. He is above naming and speculative assertions. He is beyond the metaphors I choose to point towards Him or allude to His possible presence. He is beyond my rhetoric.

Because of this inability to capture God, I can sometimes imagine Him to not exist. I can feel the despair of attempting to know the unknowable and feeling the absurdity of that attempt. In those moments despair may indeed be a proper response. Like Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, I have waited for God to reveal Himself upon my beck and call, on my time table, and through my chosen words and descriptions. When He refuses, I can quickly become a cynic and wonder if all my experiences to date have been fictional and make believe. I am agnostic if not atheistic. I am not sure if this disposition is a blessing or a curse. Much like Thomas Moore, however, I find myself caught between the two worlds of suffering and hope. I am, as Moore says, involved in two journeys at once. “Often we have to do two things at once. Affirm and deny, believe and doubt, worship and be skeptical, relate and keep it all empty, Moore contends.”

There are indeed parts of God that are unknowable and if that is the case why endeavor to write about the anonymity of the holy and beyond? Why write about what I cannot properly tell? Is this when my doubt becomes virtue? Is this when my seeking is divine love incarnate, when my imagining manifests itself in faith that which my assertions of intellect were never meant to hold as sacred? Possibly. Who can know these things?