As we make our way towards Holy Week, we will begin a three-week series of meditations on suffering. I do not mean Jesus’ suffering. That is done. I love that God would suffer for and with us but I am more interested in our suffering. For we do suffer.
Each one of us carries suffering – some raw and terrible, some light but painful. We do so much hard work to avoid discussing this suffering and pain so that we appear to each other as all put together. When I look out on the cathedral nave from a chair in front of the altar I see so many well-dressed people. They all have the most wonderful clothes. Hair has been coiffed. Ties set well against suits. Cloth has been pressed. outfits are often of the latest fashion. Fingernails have no dirt under them. Skin has been polished with creams, faintly scented with those delicious smells I so used to love to inhale – lavender, rose, sandalwood.
But were we not so busy tucking frayed ends of slightly torn cloth away into unseen seems of aesthetic perfection, we might see each other’s struggle. It is funny on television when a character emerges from a terrible fight or struggle, all a mess. I think of Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball or a 007 character – hair tousled, face a mess, clothes discombobulated – and a companion will take one look at them and exclaim “What happened to you?!” and the interesting thing to me is that the answer to that question is usually the central plot of the show. How they are beautiful is never the plot. How they are messed up and mussed up and disheveled – that is always the plot. And so too, I think, with you and me.
At a glance from the chair in front of the altar I see a group of people looking their “sunday best.” But I know the stories. I and my clergy colleagues (and a few trusted congregants to whom people go for their wisdom) know that what we see is only a colorful and attractive venire on terrible suffering which lies just underneath the put-together-ness of the fashion icons which process those stones.
When I find my mind wandering in church, I find myself day-dreaming about what church could be. I wonder what it would be like if, instead of only collecting our wafer and wine-sip, we could each then go to a side chapel, 700 side chapels, and meet with 700 wise old women and sit with them before going back to our pew and our ordered music and elegant prayers. I wonder what it would be like to be able to sit with a trusted, wise old crone and tell her our week’s story. Tell her of our suffering. Tell her of our pain and regret and the abuse visited upon us. Tell her of the manipulation we experience under such soft calk-skin gloves of relationships. Tell her of our struggles to look quite so perfect – quite so put together. Tell her how tired we are of maintaining our silences. What if we could really tell the story of our suffering each sunday instead of just telling the story of one man’s suffering. Might that not contribute to our healing rather than simply maintaining our piety and religious put-together-ness?
When Jesus meets the Rich Young Ruler on the road, the gospel says “looking at him, Jesus loved him.” but that is not what the Hebrew says. The original translation says “Jesus stared right at him and warmed to him.” Jesus is able to see past the piety, past the words of right-religion, past the “I have done everything right – now what do I do?” and past the “look how well dressed I am – I have made a success of life” and deep into that man’s suffering – suffering whose results on the man’s character even annoyed Jesus at first. Jesus’ response then is simply to invite the man to let go and follow Jesus.
In my experience, suffering is best met by letting go of the tight hold on pretending we have it all together – clergy and laity alike – and follow that man in the sandals. He seems to the the only real source of healing. How that works, we will work on together in this blog over the next few weeks.
If there was one thing I could offer for your suffering and your management of it in your life it would be this: be gentle with yourself. And if at all possible, find a trusted friend and tell the story of your suffering.