Life is on our side

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection

Life is on our side. The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated. In silence and suffering, in the heartbreaking effort to be honest in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty), in all these is victory. It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships have to be tried. All loyalties have to pass through the fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But Victory is certain. The Resurrection is the only light, and with that light there is no error.

Thomas Merton in a letter to Czeslaw Miłosz, as quoted in The Merton Journal 22.1 (2015)

Stories

Stories. Mostly, as it happens, women’s stories.

One writes: ‘When I was forty-one I lost the ability to read. … I was trying to get myself and my two children free of a husband I had been with for twenty years who had become dangerous to us.’

Another talks about her sister leaving her friend’s house one night in order to take the bus home from Cheltenham, a bus she would never catch.

The third gate-crashes a party, having heard that Jesus would be among the guests, and she brings along some expensive perfume. [Click here, if you wish to read that story for yourself.]

What do these women have in common? Let’s find out.

The first is Wendy Farley, Professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Her book [see here for details] is not, as one might have thought, about coming to terms with the suffering caused by her husband. It is about transformation. It is about her becoming aware of her own destructive ‘passions’ – Farley uses the term ‘passions’ in the sense in which the ancients used it, as a designation of the destructive forces deep within us.

The second woman is Marian Partington [again, further details about her account can be found here], whose sister Lucy went missing on 23rd December 1973, leaving her family and friends in a hiatus of unknowing that would last for over twenty years. It finally came to an end on 4th March 1994, when Frederick West told Police investigators that Lucy’s remains were among those hidden in the basement of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester.

In contrast to Farley’s book, Partington’s account is about her long and arduous journey of coming to terms with what had happened to her sister. Her book, too, is about transformation, a process that would not have been possible had she not become conscious of the ‘murderous rage’ within herself.

Then there is our third woman, who sheds a flood of tears (the term employed by Luke is also used to describe rain showers). She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears (almost literally, it would seem), dries them with her hair, kisses them continually, before eventually anointing them with her costly perfume.

So how does her story relate to the other two? Well, she, too, as Jesus’ parable suggests, had become conscious of the darkness within herself. Luke describes her as a sinner, a fact that the dinner guests are only too aware of. But so was the woman herself, which is why, in contrast to Simon, the Pharisee, she knew about the great debt of hers that had been cancelled. And she was profoundly grateful for the forgiveness she had experienced. As a result, she is the one who can go in peace and show deep and real love, the kind of love that leads to the excessive and rather intimate gestures that so upset Simon, a man who had not yet discovered his own depths of darkness, thus finding it all too easy to condemn that ‘kind of woman’.

As Jesus says, the debtor conscious of the enormity of her forgiven debt is the one who loves the most. This is why the books by Farley and Partington have made such an impression upon me. It would have been easy for these women to respond with blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred. As Marian Partington herself says, ‘it is easier to hate than to love’. And who would blame her? It’s an instinctive thing to do, an attempt to keep the pain at bay; it’s an act of self-preservation, or at least, it’s meant to be.

But Wendy Farley and Marian Partington did not run away from their pain. They allowed it to touch them, and that’s what made their transformation possible. Two things happened: first, as already mentioned, they became aware of the darkness within themselves, which made it impossible for them to blame others, including those who had inflicted that unspeakable pain upon them. As long as we continue to blame, judge, condemn and hate others, we are still in the position that Simon, the Pharisee, finds himself in. Unaware of the darkness within himself, he finds it impossible to love, forgive and be compassionate.

Secondly, having endured traumatic hurt and pain, and having been transformed by it, that transformation leads to the desire for the pain not to be passed on to others. Again Marian Partington expresses this beautifully:

There is a place that understands, deep within, that violence can only breed more violence and that this is where it must stop. It is not a place where justice means more pain, punishment and revenge. It is rooted in a strong instinct for this depth of pain not to happen to anyone else. … It is a place of insight which opens up to learning, hope and compassion. It is a place that yearns for healing, which is willing to sacrifice the immediate response of revenge. … It wants to say, just wait, stay with the pain, let it burn you into a place of renewal.

Luke’s story is about an awareness of that darkness within, an awareness of our own debt, but more than that, an awareness of the forgiveness of that debt, an awareness that leads to love.

The unnamed woman in Luke’s story expresses that love in a costly, intimate, yet public display, a display that left her fully exposed and vulnerable but which became an opportunity for those witnessing it to be led down the road to transformation themselves.

Jesus, while addressing Simon, is looking at the woman, thus helping Simon to focus on her acts of love. Luke, by including her story, is extending that opportunity to us, thus allowing that woman’s love to unfold its transformative power even a full two thousand years later.

The books by Farley and Partington are similar acts of love and indeed vulnerability. It takes real courage and strength to talk about those journeys and the depths of darkness that the two women discovered within themselves. But it is by means of those acts of love that love is spread and that others are enabled to experience transformation for themselves.

Marian Partington has become part of ‘The Forgiveness Project’, which works with ex-offenders and victims of crime, seeking to model a restorative process of justice. She regularly shares her story with perpetrators of violence in prison. In her book, she gives examples of how that courageous act of love can make a profound difference. How instead of transmitting our pain to others, which is what we do when we blame, judge, condemn and hate them, our willing suffering of that pain can lead to real healing and transformation.

The stories of these three women invite us to confront our pain, our hurts and fears, the darkness inside, and allow for transformation to happen. As Jesus says, ‘the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little’. Simon, who concedes Jesus’ point only grudgingly – ‘I suppose’, he says – is still locked in that destructive pattern of blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred, unaware of his own debt. It is the woman, the sinner, the sinner who is fully conscious of her debt, the sinner who has found forgiveness, the sinner who is filled with deep, uncontainable love, who is told to ‘go in peace’. Only she can truly ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

Love is expected of all of us. More than anything else, it is love that makes us most fully human. But if that is true in general, how much more vital is love in the context of the Christian ministry. How much more important, then, that we allow our hurts and pain to be transformed so that we are set free to love and forgive and not transmit our pain to others, regardless of how they treat us.

Those who prefer power and violence tend to portray the love that is vulnerable – and true love always is – as weak and powerless. Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his aptly named book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King talks about a steely resolve to love. He talks about what I would call ‘defiant love’. This is what he says:

We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. … But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. … Love is the most durable power in the world.

In that sense, then, let us ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

Best Reads 2013. VIII: Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of LoveThis is one of the lesser known books by the late Dutch Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, best remembered perhaps for books such as The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Wounded Healer. In the former, he briefly talks about giving up his distinguished academic career in order to work with people with mental disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. In The Inner Voice of Love, Nouwen reveals that, during his time at L’Arche, he suffered a severe breakdown lasting about six months, a period he describes as the most difficult time of his life. It was, he says, ‘a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life’.

I felt that God had abandoned me. … The anguish completely paralysed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.

The breakdown was triggered by the loss of a close friendship, which Nouwen describes in moving terms:

Going to L’Arche and living with very vulnerable people, I had gradually let go of many of my inner guards and opened my heart more fully to others. Among my many friends, one had been able to touch me in a way I had never been touched before. Our friendship encouraged me to allow myself to be loved and cared for with greater trust and confidence. It was a totally new experience for me, and it brought immense joy and peace. It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.

When that friendship came to an end, Nouwen ‘lived through an agony that never seemed to end’. But, he says, he never lost the ability to write. Indeed, writing became part of his ‘struggle for survival’, and so he kept a secret journal, which was to be published years later as The Inner Voice of Love.

In this book, Nouwen describes how the loss of that friendship ultimately deepened his love of God, and how his suffering taught him compassion for others. There are many profound insights in these reflections on issues such as wounds and pain, friendship, love and compassion, God and spirituality, loneliness and transformation, the body, emotions and incarnation, community and living up to one’s calling.

The following quotes, offered without further comment and presented simply in the order in which they appear, give an illustration of the richness of Nouwen’s thought:

… those who seem to reject you … never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. … They simply ask for your compassion.

Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. … As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed.

It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there.

When your deepest self is connected with the deepest self of another, that person’s absence may be painful, but it will lead you to a profound communion with the person, because loving each other is loving in God. When the place where God dwells in you is intimately connected with the place where God dwells in the other, the absence of the other person is not destructive. On the contrary, it will challenge you to enter more deeply into communion with God, the source of all unity and communion among people.

There is a real pain in your heart, a pain that truly belongs to you. You know now that you cannot avoid, ignore, or repress it. It is this pain that reveals to you how you are called to live in solidarity with the broken human race.

… real healing comes from realising that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realisation allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them …

It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move towards the Light, the Truth, and the Life.

There is much in this book, which I discovered quite by chance and only recently, that I can relate to in deep and profound ways. Nouwen’s journey from anguish to freedom is also one from hurt and pain to love and compassion, and that goal of a loving and compassionate life, while not making the hurt and pain any easier to endure, can give deep meaning to our struggles.

A shaft of light

We have experiences when the light of day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight – moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair or when we are the victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation. During such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But ever and again, we look toward the east and discover that there is another light that shines even in the darkness and ‘the spear of frustration’ is transformed ‘into a shaft of light.’

… God has two lights: a light to guide us in the brightness of the day when hopes are fulfilled and circumstances are favorable, and a light to guide us in the darkness of the midnight when we are thwarted and the slumbering giants of gloom and hopelessness rise in our souls.

Faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just. When one believes this, he knows that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate. He can walk through the dark night with the radiant conviction that all things work together for good for those that love God. Even the most starless midnight may herald the dawn of some great fulfillment.

Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love