Tag Archives: suffering

The chimes of neverwhere.

THE CHIMES OF NEVERWHERE

How many times did the Church prevent war?
Who knows? Those wars did not occur.

The neither state of Neverwhere
is hard to place as near or far
since all things that didn’t take place are there
and things that have lost the place they took:

Herr Hitler’s buildings, King James’ cigar,
the happiness of Armenia,
the Abelard children, the Manchus’ return
are there with the Pictish Grammar Book.

The girl who returned your dazzled look
and the mornings you might have woke to her
are your waterbed in Neverwhere.
There shine the dukes of Australia

and all the great poems that never were
quite written, and every balked invention.
There too are the Third AIF and its war
in which I and boys my age were killed

more pointlessly with each passing year,
but there too half the works of sainthood are,
the enslavements, tortures, rapes, despair
deflected by them from the actual

to rain on the human-sacrifice drum
which millions never have to hear
beating for them in Neverwhere.

-Les Murray

I discovered an earlier version of the poem online which speaks overtly of the Devil and of Christ’s love, but this is the one the poet chose to include in Selected Poems.

He takes our face in His hands…

“The theme of the Orthodox account of Christ’s suffering and death is that of bearing shame and mockery. You can search the texts of Holy Week for the word ‘pain,’ and come up with almost nothing. The mocking and the shame, however, color everything.

“The same is largely true of the New Testament as well. When St. Paul describes Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis) on the Cross, he says that Christ ‘became obedient to death,’ and adds, ‘even death on a Cross.’ The point of the ‘even’ is not that the Cross is painful above all pain, but that the Cross is shameful above all shame.”

In an article titled An Atonement of Shame Father Stephen discusses how our own shame and vulnerability before God are the key to our understanding what has been done for us on the Cross, and he points us to the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose father ran to embrace him while he was yet in shame.

“The first instinct of shame is to look down, to turn the face away and hide. Blood rushes to the face (it ‘burns with shame’). Shame is the very sacrament of broken communion, the most proper and natural expression of sin. When Christ enters our shame (and bears it), it is as though God Himself stands before us, takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes back to Him.”

Fire, smoke and ashes.

That wonky redwood is the “Dr Suess Tree” as we call it, on the other side of my backyard fence, that towers above my garden from my neighbor’s place. I took the picture from down the street, quickly before the sun set.

We are seeing the setting sun through smoke. It’s been like this since last Thursday, when shortly after wildfires began to destroy the town of Paradise in Butte County, ashes and cinders from that destruction floated three hundred miles to the south, here and beyond here, at least to San Jose. Students and teachers in our schools are on the fifth day of their weekend, what with Veteran’s Day and smoke days.

It’s gloomy. My friend Myriah may have lost her house, though she was mercifully stuck in Texas when the chaos began. Or, her house might still stand, one of the few that weren’t destroyed by the blazes. The prospect of being a householder on an outpost in the middle of a burned-out town, “in the middle of an ash heap,” as Myriah puts it, is bleak. Whatever the condition of her house, her home is gone.

Lately in Liturgy the litany has included prayers for those suffering as a result of shootings, and this week “fires” was added to the phrase, along with the extra remembrance of soldiers slain in wars. Our parish was also commemorating the repose of a beloved priest, and we met at the cemetery Sunday afternoon for a prayer service in his memory. Several parishioners wore masks against the bad air.

It was a sweet gathering and memorial, for a man who was in many ways the heart of our parish — and still is. After the prayers and hymns and aromatic censing of the graves, we sang “Memory Eternal,” and the service ended. A little table had been set up on the grass next to the grave, with a candle and a icon on it, and our priest poured the melted wax from the candle on to the grave marker in the shape of a cross. Then he emptied the charcoal from his censer and remaining bits of incense on top of that.

A couple of the children crouched down to ask what he was doing, and I didn’t hear his answer, but I did hear him say, “I need to you blow on that, gently.” He wanted the incense to go on smoking for a while, so the kids got to provide the supporting wind.

A lawsuit has been filed against the utility company that supplies electricity to Butte County, claiming negligence on their part; it may have been sparks from their wires that started the fires. They had previously talked about the possibility of shutting off power to several counties because of extreme fire danger, and wanting to avoid all possibility of sparks or downed power lines instigating a disaster. I can see how they would at the same time like to avoid depriving their customers of what is a means of life support for many, especially in that mountain community where many retired people are now missing the comfort of winter coats that are turned to ashes.

I have no thesis around which to organize my ramblings, only sightings and impressions and feelings. Myriah is collecting clothing and supplies that match the actual needs of specific people in her hometown, and she will stop by here to get a few things on her way there. That is the most concrete and encouraging thing I have to write today; as was the case last year when the inferno was right here, the stories of sacrifice and true community are heartening.

One friend at church wrote on a chalkboard by his front door, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke, and depression is a close second.”

I need more than energy.

Yesterday when I wrote about my grief, I had started out to write a critique of the book I quoted from. Being my sweet self I had begun my essay not with what I didn’t like, but with something I appreciated about this grief counselor’s message. Immediately I realized that I wasn’t competent at that time to do anything requiring intellectual focus, because the quote helped me to see that I was scrambling to find my bearings without my “landmarks,” and that can consume all of one’s inner resources. So I wrote about that.spiral staircase

The fact is, I recommend the book with great reservations. It is Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping With Loss, by Sameet M. Kumar. The author presents several helpful metaphors like Landmarks and (traveling up) a Spiral Staircase, and important warnings about not trying to relieve the pain and depression with drugs, because that prevents you from doing the work of grieving.

All of those good things, and even the advice I didn’t find useful, could have been presented in a book half the length. The author is very repetitive, as though you are consulting him in his office for a year during which he has to reiterate the prescription every week.

Kumar is a clinical psychotherapist and grief counselor, and a Buddhist who credits the Dalai Lama with giving him the tools to find his career path and change his own life for the better. I mentioned some major concerns I had about his philosophy in my post on Changing Views, so if you like you can read them there; today I have thoughts on other aspects, though I haven’t the time, and maybe not the ability, to treat all of the problems I find.

I just read over that article and find that back then I unknowingly used a phrase that I hadn’t yet encountered in Kumar’s book: emotional energy. On the day I was writing about in August, I was surprised to find that I lacked emotional energy to do simple everyday tasks that should have been easy and even fun. But Kumar says that we should “use the tremendous influx of emotional energy that comes from experiencing loss to nurture life.” This labeling of the debilitating pain of grief as just another kind of power we can use to drive whatever activity we want is very odd, if not ludicrous.

Kumar writes a lot about compassion, and how we can turn the energy of our grief to compassion for others, but the book is short on concrete examples of what this looks like. From what I can tell, it means telling people, “Everyone suffers. Get used to it.” Can compassion be cold? Buddhists say yes.

Recently I read a brief account of a Buddhist who converted to Orthodox Christianity and became a monk on Mount Athos. He was questioned by a visiting priest about his reasons for leaving “such a great cultural tradition,” and he answered,

“Divine companionship!…In Buddhism, my Father, you are very very much alone. There is no God. Your entire struggle is with yourself. You are alone with yourself, with your ego. You are totally alone in this path. Great loneliness, Father. But here you have an assistant, a companion and a fellow-traveler in God. You are not alone. You have someone who loves you, who cares about you. He cares even if you don’t understand Him. You speak with Him. You tell Him how you feel, what you would have hoped for – there is a relationship. You are not alone in the difficult struggles of life and spiritual perfection.”

I can well understand this man’s natural desire to be with God, a Trinity of three persons in love and community, because it is a desire instilled in us by that God, who made us in such a way that we can’t be fully ourselves until we are pulled into that love relationship.

But Kumar says, “The acceptance of emotional hardship is the core of radical acceptance—simply being present with your feelings in the here and now, rather than longing for something different.” [italics mine] Acceptance, I realize, is the path I am also on, but I think of it as being something like full contentment. My favorite word on contentment is in the book of Hebrews,

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”

For many of us, being with God is something different and well worth longing for. To accept and be content with our lot is only proper and possible if we have found the One who will never leave us or forsake us. Divine Companionship is the very Presence of the Almighty God who has many names, each one speaking to one aspect of our heart’s longing.

Names_of_God

This brings me to the last point of disagreement I will address, which is the form of mindfulness and meditation that is taught in this book. I don’t think it hurts to “simply be present with your feelings,” or to “come in full contact with yourself,” at least as a starting place. But I don’t believe that those encounters are likely in themselves to reveal “how capable we are of containing and healing the grief we carry.”

Jeffrey Brantley tells us in the Foreword that “…the benefits depend not upon trying to change anything, but instead mainly upon one’s willingness and commitment to reside in the present moment, while making room and becoming intimate with the texture of unfolding experience – whatever that is.”

And Kumar goes further in describing the intended results of this activity: “Mindful attention does not try to change what is happening. Instead, it reflects— accurately and precisely.” This idea of the accuracy aHolyTrinity new sketend precision of our thoughts that float by also seems to me lofty and unrealistic.

What we need is PRAYER, People! I am no expert on it, except to know assuredly that I need to do it, and that it is work. It doesn’t spontaneously generate from my random thoughts, but it comes from finding God in the present moment, in spite of our thoughts. Just google Orthodox and Prayer and you can find all the resources you need for getting started. My spiritual father told me early on to read anything that Anthony Bloom writes on the subject. It is in real prayer, in Divine Companionship, that we will find healing and contentment and a truly spiritual kind of energy, the Energies of God.