“All prayer is social. We discover this when we pray for others.”1
I have a friend who has endured many operations. He bears the scars of the expeditions surgeons have made deep within his body. A liver transplanted, heart valves repaired, cleaned, and adjusted, ducts cleansed, fevers abated, numbness cancelled and, on top of everything else, a conflagration of COVID. He has survived it all with a degree of cheerfulness that is astounding.
I pray for him every day, despite my puzzlement over the geometric triangulations between my friend, the Lord, and myself. God knows my friend’s needs infinitely better than I. God does not need my reminders. God does not need my prayers. I believe God would care for my friend even if he were friendless and isolated, say, a prisoner on death row.
I could imagine—putting myself in his place—that believing others were praying for me would be a comfort, a point of light in the darkness, a step toward healing. But what if it weren’t strictly true? Supposing no one bothered to pray: would my belief that they were function as a prayer placebo?
Perhaps “prayer for others” is not entirely about those prayed for.
I try to determine the process of causality (break glass in case of emergency). Can it produce the desired result: the full healing and restoration of my friend? Immediately, I am hit with a flood of variables to consider. Left alone, I can helplessly argue myself out of any hope in the effectiveness of prayer on behalf of other people.
I realize I am overthinking this, but it’s a path I’ve trodden so many times I no longer look where my feet are walking.
Again, suffering comes in a variety of colors. I might not see yours within the spectrum of light available to me. What I see now is learned: what I am educated into, persuaded out of, brought up within, and have imitated.
This is second-order reflection, that which I benefit from when given an opening to someone else’s experience.
For example, what I know of racism I have learned from James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, Toni Morrison, and many other writers. From my friends: Randy, Colleen, Camille, Judy, Roz, Mo, Inez, and Yi. From the relentless cascade of images and names. The profiled, the detained, the handcuffed, slammed, and throttled. It’s the color of suffering in a spectrum I have learned to see through special lenses. But always at a distance.
When it comes to praying for others, I can easily talk myself out of it. Perhaps my own answers to prayer were retro-fitted rationalizations. Perhaps I created connections where none existed. The ghost of Hume beckons; there is no way to prove that one thing causes another, especially not in the realm of prayer to an invisible and apparently absent God. Or the old sword-thrust of the religiously smug: “You don’t have enough faith. If you did, you could move mountains.” As if prayer was an up-brand form of telekinesis.
First-order reflection is what I do when I experience something myself and think about it after. Thoreau says in his journals we first scale the mountain, then we climb it again at home as we remember each step on the route to the summit.
What I know without a doubt is that I owe more than I can repay to others. And the fact they do not regard it as a debt opens before me a path of wonder and gratitude. I have experienced this freely given form of prayer all my life. It is the unspoken prayer of generosity, felt but not heard, a swelling force-field that surrounds me.
The whole question of causality (did my prayer accomplish anything?) fades and drops away as we see ourselves joining with others—and with God—in our prayers of care. We gradually come to see others and ourselves from the vantage point of God. We see our interconnectedness with all others and with the world under and through God. Because of friendship, because of love, we must hold them up to God in prayer. That is the need we have.
We are encouraged to “pray without ceasing” because prayer is unceasingly needed. Needs that both the pray-ers and the prayed-for have. It’s about constant needs through time, not about unending prayers.
We cannot protect those we love from random violence, evil, disease or death. We may not even be able to shield them from decisions gone awry. These are the contradictions within which we live. We should not imagine these contradictions will easily dissolve. God is not in the magic racket.
We are here in a world as beautiful as it is broken. Our fractures break up the smooth planes and surfaces of our lives. Their edges are jagged angles. Our prayers drop like healing balm and settle, filling the spaces between them, smoothing them with time, blending the breaks into a body that bears its scars with patience and nobility.
Ulanov, Ann and Barry. Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 85. ↩
”Why, then, are we frightened of wholeness? The answer is that the more whole we are, the more capable we are of suffering.”1
When I think about the judgment of God it’s usually because I see other people wreaking injustice. When I think about God’s judgment upon me, it comes down to forgetfulness or ignorance. I see a wide gulf between God and other people, a mere gap between myself and God.
Were my moral eyesight to be tested, I could read to the last line of the chart the sins of others, while only managing the larger letters of my own failings. The wrath of God lingers in the background of my judgments, justly served upon others, negotiable in the case of my own transgressions. There is exasperation in witnessing the sins of injustice; there is reluctance to cast the first stone.
As a teenager, trying to find a path to God through Jesus, I was told never to trust my feelings or my instincts. They were unreliable, fickle, volatile. Relativism and subjectivism were the dangers. Truth and certainty were the aims. On the other hand, we were told to yield to the pleading of the Holy Spirit right now. Don’t put off the decision. Don’t rationalize it away. Now is the time!
At the time, I sidestepped the advice to surrender all, more out of stubbornness than conviction. I recoiled at any hint of coercion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t feel I was at war with any of them. When I came to them (not “if”), it wouldn’t be through fear. It would be because I couldn’t imagine a depth to life without them.
But now I’m reading back into my experience as a teen. When I strip away the overlay of years and experience, my memory is of a confused welter of emotions, a need to belong, and a thrumming measure of guilt. What I clearly understood was how easy it was to pass as “good.” Being good in my community meant staying out of trouble with the law, getting respectable grades, not doing drugs, and being baptized into the church. All these requirements I had kept since childhood. But when it came to selling all that I had and following Jesus, like the rich young ruler in the Gospel story, I turned away.
I don’t mean a literal selling off of my goods; most of what I owned, except for my books and guitar, fitted in a couple of suitcases. I mean the packing up and disposing of my image of God.
How do we know when the view of God we hold is no longer right? Do we listen to our intuition or to our trusted leaders? Do we hide in fear? Do we dare swerve from an image of God’s nature that is corrosive to our faith?
One such image was on the pamphlet that my friends and I handed out in a small town in Northern California after church. The day was blazing hot, dry, with a light wind, early fall, probably September, hot enough to melt candles indoors.
This was all part of “witnessing for our faith,” the well-intentioned effort by youth leaders to teach us how to share the Gospel with our neighbors. I went along with it; I felt uneasy, but I couldn’t say why.
My friend and I split up, each taking one side of the street. I was carrying a pamphlet with the title, “The Great Radar Sees You.” It showed a man with a face contorted in fear, sweat running down his forehead, eyes wild. Behind him loomed an enormous radio telescope, the kind SETI uses to track incoming signals from alien civilizations. That was supposed to be God.
I tried, I really did. I handed them out to people who answered their doors. It was an awkward exchange. Most people were polite enough to accept the pamphlet. No one actually crumpled it up in my face. But when I got to the end of the block, I was done. I dropped most of them in a trashcan in an alley, and my friend and I made our way back to the rendezvous point. That was the end of my pamphlet proselytizing. I knew this image simply couldn’t be — in fact, shouldn’t be — how we understood God or God’s wrath. I sensed, mutely, that this mattered.
If there has been one constant throughout my life, it has been the need to understand who God thinks I am. That sounds trite and cliched, but there it is. By the circumstances of my childhood and upbringing I missed out on some crucial experiences but was blessed immeasurably by the love and care of my grandparents. Still, like every other person on the planet, there is a hole at the center of my life which refuses to be filled.
Like Augustine, I have adopted the prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” But my paths to religion have not brought me rest. Like Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” That has weighed upon me at times and brought me sorrow. But the ache for wholeness, the very need itself, points to its possibility.
This requires a certain spiritual innocence that is neither naive about our failings nor a denial of our shared reality. It means standing, exposed to the whirlwind. “To be innocent,” says Christian Wiman, “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature . . . You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”2
The metaphor I have carried throughout the years is of pilgrims traveling light. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who link us to the past. We travel into the future singly, but together. We are trying to become our true selves. We are born again daily, in suffering that bears us toward the joy of wholeness.
I realized this when I immersed myself in the writings of Harry Williams, an Anglican priest and scholar who was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. A collection of his sermons, The True Wilderness, was recommended by a friend, whose assurance was that I would find in him a soul companion. “All I could speak of,” said Williams, “were those things which I had proved true in my own experience by living them and thus knowing them at first hand.”3
What is our experience of the judgment of God? Does it beat us down mercilessly, day after day, when our own voice is amplified by fear? Then it could also be the cold silence that we face when our days run out.
Or it could be the means of our salvation.
“Christ, our Creator, redeems us first by His wrath,” says Williams. “The wrath of God is His refusal to allow us to rest until we have become fully what we are.”4 We can believe this, says Williams, because Jesus walked this path himself.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. It is not a rhetorical question nor is he trying to elicit the response which Peter blurts — “You are the Messiah.” This is one of those self-revelations in which the full humanness of Jesus is seen. In the Gospel of Mark, this story follows one in which Jesus is asked to heal a blind man. The first attempt at healing is partial: “I see men,” says the fellow, “they look like trees, but they are walking about.”5 Jesus touches him again and this time he can see clearly. “Don’t tell anyone,” says Jesus.
This is not a story about the failure of Jesus’ touch. It is a story about how difficult it is to see clearly, even when Jesus touches us. And when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” we hear a man struggling against self-doubt, hoping that those who know him best could bolster his wavering confidence. After all, he is beginning to realize that he faces a violent and lonely death from which God will not protect him.
Could there be a more poignant example than this, that Jesus was a man like us in every way? Who am I? he asks. Am I wrong in following to the last degree where my heart and faith are leading me? And when at last, on the cross, he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he confirms what we experience in our extremity and suffering.
When we feel ourselves to be overwhelmed, bound by our circumstances, or spinning in the futility of our guilt, we are assured that “Christ comes to us by means of our ordinary, common experience of living. In the heartache, the fever, and the fret, there is Christ in His wrath refusing to allow us to stay as we are, reminding us of our intolerable halfness.”6
In our halfness we long for wholeness. “God’s love harmonizes us by convincing us that we are accepted as a whole . . . God accepts both sides of us, not just the man humbly praying on his knees, but also the man in a flaming temper.”7 According to the Gospel of Matthew, the last thing Jesus says to the disciples is, “Be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.”8
All the rivers in God’s country flow into the sea of redemption, through which we are made whole. In my mind’s eye, I see a figure on the shore in morning light. Over the thunder of the surf he calls out to my companions and me. “It’s the Lord!” cries Peter, and I follow him over the gunwale of the boat to catch the wave that will bring us to his side.
Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, pp. 130-131. ↩
Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 64. ↩
Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 11. ↩
Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 132. ↩
One of the surprises of growing older is to realize, on days that are bright, cold, and clean, that we feel younger than we really are. I don’t mean how we measure the occasional absence of aches and pains, but rather the mental image of ourselves that we carry, as if our present self looked with affectionate amusement upon our younger self, dressed in raiment three decades back and striding purposefully into the day.
We might want to say to that younger self, “Be mindful; listen to the sound of your footfalls; be dazzled by the choreography of birds overhead; allow yourself a smile directed nowhere in particular. Consider generosity with your time.” This private image we regard subjectively, as if we are watching a group that includes our younger self.
When we are young we think we’ll live forever, but that’s a characterization that only the old make of the young. The young might think in the abstract about death now and then, but for the most part they are just getting on with life—as they should. Perhaps we older folk confuse their attention to the present and the near-future with indifference to the terminus point for all of us. There’s time enough to think about death, much more time than one so young would think.
But time runs on and we run to keep up and much of what we grasp about life is learned breathlessly as we run. In the midst of going to college, first real jobs, raising children, seeing our parents age and become infirm, divorces, loss of jobs, switching careers, and retirement—we may have our moments of reflection waiting out the light at the intersection. Or we may wake at four in the morning, trying to puzzle out the riddle of our lives.
For many, religion is what they turn to when suffering overwhelms. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha, a simple statement of fact in his lexicon, and he went on to offer examples. Pain, obviously, was suffering, but so also could happiness be suffering, if by that we indulge in desire before arriving at it, and bitterness when it’s gone. It was not so much the particulars within the general condition, as it was the general condition itself.
When I would introduce the Buddha’s statement to my Religions of the World classes, there would be puzzled looks and a shifting in their chairs. Almost invariably, someone would take exception by stating how good life was—or could be—if we would just quit moping around and be happy. It was almost an affront—almost unAmerican—to admit to anything less than the best of all possible worlds. But others, those who would speak up hesitantly after others had had their say, would ask if the loss of innocence was suffering or if the pang of never arriving at a place one could call home counted as suffering.
Epicurus, working his garden and discussing philosophy with his students in Athens in the fourth century BCE, took the long view. “Death,” he said, “the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.”2 Serenity in the face of the inevitable contrasted vividly with Dylan Thomas’ anguished cry to his dying father, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”3
Augustine, whose book Confessions, is the first and longest open prayer to God, pours out his heart about the death of his best friend, unnamed to us.
“Well it was said of a friend that he is the soul’s other half. My soul and his I considered one soul in two bodies—so my life was unbearable, to live with only half of our soul, but my death was terrifying, perhaps to see his remaining half of soul die in me whom I so much loved.”4
Augustine fears death, not so much for himself, as for the extinction, finally, of his friend. Half a life is better than none at all. But that was when Augustine was a pagan.
Some years later Augustine has a different reaction to the death of his mother, Monica. She had been praying and weeping and beseeching for his conversion for years. When it occurs, as Augustine dramatically describes in the Confessions, her life’s work seems complete. Some days later she falls under a high fever and within nine days is dead. Augustine, in private, loosens the tears he had held in, “resting softly on my sobs at ease.”
He writes, somewhat defensively, “whoever wishes can read me and, as he wishes, decide whether I mourned my mother excessively, by this or that part of an hour, but not deride me for it.”5 He is asking us not to judge him too harshly for weeping over his mother’s death, even though his weeping was for less than an hour. His grief is doubled, he says, by the fact that he is grieving. Apparently, he believed that for a Christian, such grief is unbecoming. In his own eyes Augustine is condemned for not having enough reliance on God to tough it out without giving way to his emotions. But we grieve because we love and a love that is not grieved is less than love.
And yet later, when his own precocious Adeodatus, a fine young man of seventeen, his son by a long-time mistress, is suddenly struck down, Augustine is at peace, for both of them—father and son—had been baptized on the same day. He does not weep nor break stride as he goes about his duties. His son is with God. And as he looks toward the Resurrection, missing Monica, Augustine foresees his own Mother and Child Reunion—an event greatly to be anticipated.
For Christians, Augustine tells us, our fear of death diminishes the nearer we are to God.
But not everyone has seen it quite that way. Consider Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), Renaissance statesman, philosopher, part of the nobility in France at that time, and the father of the modern essay. When Montaigne was thirty-six, he had a near-death experience. He was riding in the forest with three or four companions, servants in his household, musing over something intriguing to him, when suddenly he took a tremendous blow to his back, was flung from his horse, and landed ten yards away, unconscious. It seems that one of his men, a burly fellow, had spurred his horse to full gallop to impress his friends, and had misjudged the distance between himself and his master, inadvertently knocking Montaigne and his little horse off the path.
Sara Bakewell tells the story in her book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne.6 At the time, Montaigne felt himself to be drifting peacefully toward eternal sleep, although he was actually retching up blood and tearing at his belly as though to claw it open for release. For days he lay in bed recovering, full of aches and grievous pains, marveling at the experience he’d had and trying to recall every moment of it. It changed his life, which, until then, had been dedicated to learning how to die with equanimity and grace.
In an essay on death, written some years after the incident, Montaigne rather offhandedly sums up the lesson: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”7
Bakewell notes that this became Montaigne’s answer to the question of how to live. In fact, not worrying about death made it possible to really live. In an era in which a man of thirty-six could, by the limits of those times, see himself on the verge of getting old, the contemplation of death had been refined to a high art. Montaigne picked this up from his voluminous study of the Greek and Roman classics, his admiration for the Stoics, like Seneca, and the Roman orator, statesman and philosopher, Cicero, who famously wrote, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
Death was an obsession for Montaigne when he was in his twenties and early thirties. In succession, his best friend died of the plague in 1563, his father died in 1568, and in 1569 his younger brother died in a freak sporting accident. In that same year Montaigne got married; his first child, born that same year lived only two months. Montaigne lost four more children, only one of six living to adulthood. Yet, in spite of all that early sorrowful practice, he had grown no easier with death.
It wasn’t until his near-fatal accident that he began to understand how little his own death need affect his life. His memory of it was one of peaceful release; he had almost kissed Death on the lips. From that experience he gradually migrated from the fear of dying to the love of life.
Sometimes, we may be so concerned with dying that we forget the point is to live.
Lewis Lapham, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, parses the difference between how he was raised to think about death as a young man in the 50s, and today. He says that several thousand years of art, literature, and religion raise the question, “Why must I die?” And the natural follow-up question is, “How do I live my life?” Our question today is, “Why can’t I live forever?” And that, says Lapham, consigns the custody of one’s death to powers that promote the fear of it, among them the church, the state, the biochemical engineers, and those who will profit from our endless war against terrorism.8
If religion functions as a device (and I use the word deliberately) to ingratiate us to an absent god or to palliate the pain of our swollen egos, then it belongs in the medicine cabinet alongside the opiate of the people. But if it is so engrained in our being that it is first about being and only then about doing, then we have something that can see us through the valleys of suffering on the way to death.
“Religion is not the answer to the unknowable or the unfaceable or the unendurable,” says Peter Gomes in The Good Book; ”religion is what we do and what we are in the face of the unknowable, the unfaceable, and the unendurable. It is a constant exercise in the making of sense first, and then of meaning.”9
As a person of faith, I am grateful for the insight of Eamon Duffy who says of the Christian’s way, “Our dignity and our burden is to be that part of creation which is conscious not only of itself but of its finitude,” and, “We sing to the light in the midst of a darkness which we know will one day devour us.”10
We may sing, not because we are indifferent to death, not because we resent the encroachment of death upon our absolute right to endless life right now, but because “This is eternal life: to know thee who alone art truly God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”11
Thomas, R. S. Selected Poems 1946-1968. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 13. ↩
In Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly. “Memento Mori, ”Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 2013, p. 15. ↩
Thomas, Dylan. Miscellany One. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1963, p. 31. ↩
Saint Augustine, Confessions. Translated and with an introduction by Garry Wills. New York: Penguin Books, p. 68. ↩
Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves . . . We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.1 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The balance of power in human relationships often turns on the contempt we feel for those who suffer. There is something in us that finds the crack in the shell, the split in the veneer, the tear in the fabric, irresistible to the touch. More dangerously, some find the weaknesses in the armor we construct around ourselves. These cracks can be wedged open and widened by those skilled in the art of humiliation—of making a person regard himself with shame and even derision. Then the humiliated stands apart from himself, seeing himself as the abuser does—as an object, not a subject—that is deserving of punishment for pretending to be that which “It” is not—a “Thou.”
In accepting humiliation a person enters into an implicit contract with those who cause the suffering. In that moment of exquisite isolation, the humiliated one desperately seeks to belong again at all costs. A line is flung out to the drowning person, who believes that grasping it might save his life—but the price will be his soul. Jacob’s cunning tricks robbed Esau of his birthright because Esau was famished—near death’s door by his own account. The resentment and hatred unleashed by that humiliation reverberated through their family for decades.
The story of the woman caught in adultery usually appears in the Gospel of John in the eighth chapter, although in some versions it is dropped in at the end of the book. There is dispute about its authorship, but the consensus of the centuries places it within John’s message.
It is early morning in the temple. Jesus, as is his custom, has spent the night under the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. He makes his way down through the quiet streets to the courts of the temple. A crowd gathers to hear him, and he sits down to teach them. Then, in a commotion of jeers and shoving, a woman is flung down on the stones in front of him. A knot of temple authorities and Pharisees stands triumphantly over her. She is on her knees, her hair disheveled, her hands trembling. It is clear that she is naked under the blanket she clutches to her.
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery,” crows one of the men triumphantly. Some in the crowd laugh and a few of the women shake their heads scornfully. Their husbands angle for a better look, but when the woman pulls her hair back from her face, several of them quickly turn away.
“Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.” There is no irony evident in his tone, despite the clear omission of any condemnation of the man with whom her adultery was committed. This woman, murmur some in the crowd, is what’s wrong with society today. Women like her trap our boys. “And if I ever caught my husband with her . . .”
The crowd begins to stir restlessly; the promise of a stoning heats the air. The priest in charge looks around at the crowd and then at Jesus. He pauses dramatically, swelling with the knowledge that all eyes are upon him.
”Now what do you say?” He smiles and arches an eyebrow.
There it is: the Law of God up against the Son of Man. To the priests, the woman is merely useful. They’re not concerned with the man she slept with; he has been paid to slip away and keep his mouth shut. They are after a bigger prize.
What shall we say then? If we are the priests, we cannot find it in ourselves to forgive this woman. After all, it’s the Law. Obedience to the law is what keeps a society together and functioning well. Flouting the law, so clearly in evidence here, is simply courting chaos and disaster.
And it is God’s law. As religious leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that those entrusted to our care are compliant with the commandments of God. The burden is on us to carry out the penalty if God demands it. Wouldn’t it be the height of hypocrisy to wink at so grievous a sin? And wouldn’t we be punishable if we didn’t honor God’s law? Really, we have no choice; our hands are tied. There can be no waffling, no equivocating in matters like this. To excuse such wrongdoing is to open the floodgates of sin. No, the commandment is clear: death is the penalty, and this woman was caught in the very act.
That would be the end of the story in any other time and place. But not today. Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the dust of the temple floor. The priests are badgering him for an answer, the crowd is restive, the woman has slumped to the ground, leaning on one arm, and still Jesus writes in silence. “What do you say, Master?” demands the priest. Jesus straightens. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And he bends down again and continues to write.
The priests slip away, beginning with the eldest. They are silent, red-faced, confused. They find themselves in a moral vortex. While they have no love for Jesus, they grudgingly admire his fluency in debate, his charisma with the people, and—truth be told—his intimate relation with God. They are people tasked with the responsibility to know the Scriptures. They know the Law and the Prophets, and they meditate on them day and night. Keeping the commandments is what God calls them to do. Keeping the peace is what the Romans demand of them. Jesus disrupts and distorts both of these; he seems to see the world through a different lens. They fear him, for encounters with him leave them with vertigo. He insists that they know God first and that love toward each other is a way of knowing God—an epistemology of love. Then what about the Law? they ask, as they slink away.
“God’s relation to the world is personal and particular,” says John Taylor in his book, The Christlike God. “He knows each thing only as a ‘thou’, and his knowing is not by cognition but by communion. Only by becoming this one man has God brought humanity in general into such communion with himself.”2
In the incarnation, God’s infinite openness to the human experience is echoed in our finite possibility for transcendence. Taylor offers Karl Rahner’s insight that “Human beings are creatures with an infinite horizon and, though they have become so flawed as to settle for the self-centered here and now, they still possess the instinct to reach out toward the limitlessness of God.”3
The woman’s accusers stole away because, having denied that infinite horizon to people such as her, they could no longer see it for themselves nor did they want to. Guilt narrows our vision, lowers our heads, confines us to our immediate steps. And they could not let it go, the priests. Having lived their lives within the circuitry of sin = punishment, they resisted the rewiring that would give her—and them—a new life.
At last, Jesus straightens up. The elders are gone, the crowd is silent. They watch Jesus and the woman without moving. “Woman,” says Jesus gently, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she looks up, “No one, sir.” Jesus smiles then. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
This is a story about God, for having seen Jesus in action, so we see God. There is a wondrous truth that we awaken to the closer we get to that infinite horizon of new chances for life, and it is that God cannot be other than true to his nature—and his nature is only and ever that of life-giving love.
And this is a story about us, for we are that woman and we are those priests, and like them we will fall again and again, and in our falling we will condemn and lash out at those we hold some power over. Suffering will beget suffering.
But in Jesus we have a priest who was tempted as we are and more so. What he suffered in temptation we could not bear. “And what his struggles seem to have produced,” writes Rowan Williams, “was a sense of the precariousness of goodness, love and fidelity so profound and strong that no failure or error could provoke his condemnation, except the error of those legalists who could not understand that very precariousness.”4
He understands us, he knows us, he sees our paths, errant and erratic as they may be, and he loves us still. Through his sufferings we are healed, and in our sufferings we find common ground with those we are tempted to condemn. We may take him at his word, knowing that he will not break the bruised reed nor crush the smoldering flax.
There will come a day, an ordinary day, when we realize with a shock of gratitude that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and as a result we have not judged, but have loved because we first were loved.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. The Enlarged Edition. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, p. 10. ↩
Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 129. ↩
little by little under the mind’s tooling.” — R. S. Thomas, from “Emerging”
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.” So said Dante, and so echoed I, if not in word, then in experience. But Dante woke to find himself there; I stumbled into it with my eyes wide open. Dante had his Virgil—and his Beatrice—to guide him through what lay ahead. I had Rainer Rilke, Jurgen Moltmann, the Gospels, and U2.
With my life at a standstill, trying to write a dissertation for a degree I wasn’t at all sure I would have the chance to use, I woke to who I was — and wished I could sleep again. There is much about our selves that we sense is just behind us, but we’re too afraid to look. There is still more that we don’t know until a fissure opens and we fall into the depths. Once there, every shadow is menacing, every sound unnerving, every thought doubling back on itself in an endless loop. We wonder if we were ever who we thought we were, and we are sure that everyone sees us more starkly and completely than we see ourselves.
Trying to write a dissertation about hope and suffering and the mystery of evil when one has little hope becomes an ordinance of humility. The suffering we cause, when named and owned, is first a fire that sucks up all the air, and then a cleansing flame that scours away our pretense.
Down in the depths, there is nothing to be gained by plugging in the formulae that others assure us we will need for peace of heart. What is needed is clarity, a fierce honesty that stops down the aperture of our soul to a brilliant point of light.
I visited my father once when he was working in research for a major defense contractor. He asked if I’d like to experience a sensory deprivation chamber. He promised to let me out after a few minutes since I would have no sense of the passage of time. That was a darkness that seemed to atomize my body. Although I could touch my hand, I could not see it no matter how close I held it to my eyes. And although I shouted as loudly as I could there was absolutely no sound. None. It was like a mini-death, but I felt no panic, only a pang of loss as if I could no longer remember my name or my face.
When we long for the presence of God, of a word we can hold in front of us like a candle, we feel the limits of our faith. How is it, as Christian Wiman ruefully admits in My Bright Abyss, that he can wake up as a Christian and go to bed an atheist? Why should we expect, as people of faith, that the path before us will be cleared of all obstacles before we touch a foot upon it? Why do we imagine that our faith in that which is eternal will be satisfied once for all? Why do we expect that the flame that is lit between ourselves and the Spirit will burn steadily from that moment onward?
Rilke was there with his angels, those terrifying angels, and the grandeur he uncovered in the spaces between prayers. He gave syllables to the breath within me that could just utter the name of God without choking up. I finished the dissertation in due course, defended it, and reinvented myself. I began to see hope in the crucified God and to turn my face toward the garden of the resurrection.
“It is not that he can’t speak:
who created languages
but God? Nor that he won’t;
to say that is to imply
malice. It is just that
he doesn’t, or does so at times
when we are not listening, in
ways we have yet to recognize
There are days when we put on the brave face and speak of faith to others and pray that they don’t see the desperation in our eyes. Doubt and faith journey together; when one falls behind the other pauses to wait patiently. Thomas became my patron saint, I his twin brother. When he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” he had seen through the familiar figure of Jesus to the God within. I wondered if I could see that God in the pale and fastidious Jesus of religious media.
“Christian faith teaches that the One whom we are to love most is the one whom we can never fully possess,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words. “It means that our faith’s language will be inevitably infused with desire, ache, and search. The One we long for most finally eludes us.”
I learned that faith grows in the ‘between’ places and that if I could not bear the potted version that provided contentment for many, that God would generously, with patience and good humor, meet me where I stood, defiant but uncertain.
Oakley says, “we are not seeking relevance but resonance — not the transient ideas of today that can convince for a time but the truths that address the deepest longings of a human life and a fragile world.” Our faith weakens, “when we think we somehow have captured God or contain God. This is when certainty more than doubt becomes the opposite of faith.”
“But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. . .”
Someone said—perhaps Rumi—that every morning we may say, “Now I begin!” If we can believe it, God starts anew with us every moment; each breath may be our untainted first. Because we carry our memories and our guilt with us, and because we are creatures of time, we think in linear fashion: first this must happen, then that, and finally, this will be the result. God, unbounded and beyond all constraints of time, sees us as we were, and are, and shall be evermore in every moment.
“As a Christian,” Oakley says, “I believe that God has given us all a gift. It is our being. God asks for a gift in return—our becoming, who we become with our being. Because our gift back to God is lifelong and continually shifting and changing, it means that any language that is to be true to this spiritual adventure of being alive needs equally to resist closure, to protest at black and white conclusions and fixed meanings.”
We are unfinished beings, mercifully limited by space and time, and blessed with curiosity and imagination. If we believe that the One who started this good work in us will continue in our renewing, perhaps we will have the courage to see beyond the dark wood.
Poem selections are, respectively, “Emerging” and “Nuclear,” by R. S. Thomas, in Collected Poems: 1945-1990.