For several years prior to my coming to the monastery I was a parish priest. Along with a good many other pastors in the area, I took a monthly rotation as a night chaplain in the local community hospital. During these night shifts, we chaplains would spend most of our time on-call in the intensive care unit and in the emergency room, caring for traumatized patients, whose urgent needs were beyond what only medicine could cure, and their family members, and sometimes the medical staff,. On more than a few occasions I recall standing beside a hospital gurney that was weighted down by a tragedy-in-the-making, and my having little or nothing to say to the patient or loved ones or the staff. What we often shared in those moments were tears, but I had few, if any, words. At those moments, my attempting to theologize – to say that there surely was something good in this terrible thing; that this beautiful child or cherished adult who had just died was in a “better place”; to say that this beloved spouse or parent or friend, now dead, was actually spiritually “closer” to their shocked family than if this departed family member were still alive; to attempt to rename a heartbreak with language about God’s love or God’s will – my attempt to theologize in such a way at such a time would have largely been for my own sake, an attempt to convince myself of something other than what I was now witnessing, an unspeakable tragedy.
I suspect that all of us here have our own experience facing trauma tic tragedies, on both a personal and corporate level. The Psalm appointed for this evening has a certain poignancy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf regions.
If the Lord had not been on our side…
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
And the torrent gone over us;
Then would the raging waters
Have gone right over us… Psalm 124:2-5
In the soon aftermath of Katrina (and much the same with the Tsunami in Asia during Christmastide) the waters did go right over many people, washing away lives and livelihoods, and people’s hopes and dreams and plans for the future. Washed away. Gone. What’s to be said? I would think less rather than more, and for several reasons.
For one, a pastoral reason. People in trauma more likely need our presence than our preaching. We will bear a more comforting witness to someone facing deep loss by simply being with them, by re-presenting God Emmanuel – God with us – by our being with them. Not by our words, but by our presence. And we let the words come, first from them. They may need to speak words of rage or sighs of grief, or questions, or crushing doubt. By our presence, by our being with them and bearing this with them, they may find the courage to cry out, perhaps cry out to God, uncensored, unrestrained, like a child in great need. Like a child of God. I would say, the question is notwhether God is with this other person, these other people? The question is rather, how is God with them? We do well, most days in most ways to listen first before we define or deduce what God is doing in and with someone facing enormous loss. Before we speak, there’s often a prior invitation to simply be with another person – to listen and to help in the most prac tical of ways – and in so doing to re-present God Emmanuel, God with them in their grief and loss. God Emmanuel, not God Homiletical.
Second of all, if we speak too quickly or define too readily what we are witnessing or experiencing, we may actually confine God’s revelation to us. Other people’s tragedies can shake us to our core and fill us with our own uncertainty, which may be terribly disorienting but not necessarily bad. Our English word “doubt” comes from the Latin dubitare, which means, quite literally, to hesitate in the face of two possibilities. Did God will what happened with the hurricane and tsunami as if these disasters were in some way “necessary,” or is this something else? Something else, I would say.
There’s some things that we don’t want to say. We don’t want to say or imply that God in some way “needs” this suffering to be or to become God or to evoke God’s love or to offer God’s redemption. God does not “need” our suffering. (God does not “need” us to be God.) I’ll draw here on the insight of the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. “God is not nourished by our sacrifices or ennobled by our virtues, any more than [God] is diminished by our sins and sufferings.” God’s identity and God’s love is not dependent on or reactive to us, for God to be who God is… otherwise we have a God of or own making.i
Nor would we want to make some “Christian” identification or conflation between the incalculable suffering we know and witness and the cross of Christ, as if the cross justifies or explains the suffering. David Bentley Hart says that “the cross of Christ is not… simply an eternal validation of pain and death, but rather their overthrow.” The cross of Christ is God’s “immutable love sweeping us up into itself, taking all suffering and death upon itself without being changed… or defined by it, and so destroying its power and making us, by participation in Christ, ‘more than conquerors,’” using St. Paul’s words.ii
And we would not want to say that the people who are suffering globally from natural disasters – floods and fires and earthquakes and droughts, in present time and in times past – are somehow getting what they deserve. It would be too convenient, it would be imperious to impose such an explanation upon these sufferings, especially for those who are not Christian, or upon the sufferings of those who throughout the ages have lived and died apart from any knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. I’m drawing here again on David Bentley Hart, who continues, that “it makes a considerable difference whether one says that God has eternally willed [suffering] and sin and death… as the necessary means of achieving [God’s] ends, or whether… God has willed his good in creatures from eternity, and will bring it to pass… by so ordering all things toward God’s goodness…. …Even evil (which [God] does not cause) becomes an occasion of [God’s grace].iii
And in the meantime, often, a very mean time, we witness and participate in a freedom, with which God has created humankind, to do all kinds of good stuff and all kinds of bad stuff in this world, and among God’s creation – among human beings, birds of the sky, fish of the sea, trees and flowers, and waterways, and the very air we breathe. We have the God-given freedom and power to do a great deal in this world, for good or ill. And we have been created with a God-given freedom to love – not the requirement of love but the gift of love – including the God-given freedom even to accept God’s love and to love God in return. (I think that God’s love is ultimately irresistible… though it may take some of us an eternity to realize it.)
But I’m now doing more of what I suggest we should do less. In the presence of suffering, listen more, say less. There is an ancient theological tradition, apophatic theology, that attempts to speak about God in terms of what one cannot say. That is, because God is beyond what we can intellectually understand or name or codify. God is always More. The apophatic tradition weaves it way through Christian mysticism.iv If I may be so bold as to say what is very “practical” about apophatic theology is understanding its profundity when you face unexplainable loss, suffering, and death. This may be in your own life or someone you know and love. There may be many things about God, at that moment, which cannot be said. Someone’s (maybe your own?) “belief system” may have absolutely collapsed. And yet, there still is something left of the God’s presence and God’s love evident and resilient in the soul. We’re hearing this from our brothers who are ministering now in Baton Rouge. We saw evidence of this on the front page of Newsweek magazine a week or so ago. The headlines were a plea of a woman, clearly ravaged by Katrina, who words were capture: “Pray For Us!” Why? What is left there of God in the soul of this devastated woman, this child of God? Something. Something very real, something to be listened to and reverenced. And so with you, here: with everything you now find you cannot say about God, things you may have been weaned from even in these past few weeks, what is left? You are here tonight. There’s something left!
I’ve been reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. There’s a very touching scene where a young woman who has suffered greatly and lost much speaks to the wise old monk, Father Zossima. She asks him, “How can I get back my faith?” “How?” Father Zossima responds, “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul…. This has been tried. This is certain.”v “Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably.” In this mean time, there is much to love. That is clear. There is much to love.
i David Bentley Hart in The Doors of the Sea; Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Erdmann’s, 2005). “This is the doctrine of divine apatheia, or impassibility, the teaching that God is, in his nature, impervious to any external force of change – any pathos or affect – and is free of all reactive or changing emotions.” Hart, pp. 75-77.
ii Hart, p. 82. St. Paul, quoted from the Letter to the Romans 8:37.
iii Hart, p. 79-82.
iv See the tradition surrounding Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth-century monk, in Mystica Theologia , and from the 14 th century writings, The Cloud of Unknowing , and the Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, who referred to apophatic theology as “the understanding of not understanding.” A very fine contemporary book is The Inner Eye of Love; Mys tic ism and Religion by William Johnston (Harper & Row), 1978 .
v The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), p. 60.
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