The Suffering that Becomes Us

Photo: Kat J, Unsplash

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.

  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. The Enlarged Edition. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, p. 10.
  2. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 129.
  3. Taylor, p. 133.
  4. Williams, Rowan. Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1994, p. 17.

Faith at the ‘Between’ Places

“We are beginning to see

now it is matter is the scaffolding

of spirit; that the poem emerges

from morphemes and phonemes; that

as form in sculpture is the prisoner

of the hard rock, so in everyday life

it is the plain facts and natural happenings

that conceal God and reveal him to us

little by little under the mind’s tooling.” — R. S. Thomas, from “Emerging

NeonWoods:beschte-photography-1058069-unsplash

“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

as speech.”

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.

Photo: Beschte Photography, Unsplash.com