"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

16 January 2007

"Now My Eyes See You"

I have been reading in Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island lately, especially chapter 5, "The Word of the Cross," on suffering. Last night I was particularly struck by this:

What, after all, is more personal than suffering? The awful futility of our attempts to convey the reality of our sufferings to other people, and the tragic inadequacy of human sympathy, both prove how incommunicable a thing suffering really is.

This reminded me forcefully of Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts." He describes paintings by the great masters, who understand the inevitable isolation of the sufferer -- most people don't even notice the suffering of others, much less have any great concern for it:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along . . .

When a man suffers, Merton continues, he is most alone. Therefore, it is in suffering that we are most tested as persons. How can we face the awful interior questioning? What shall we answer when we come to be examined by pain?

This is the hardest place in the world to be. Alone, and in pain, with the inevitable "why" of our human inadequacies. Even Job, the most righteous man of his time (according to God Himself), could not avoid the questioning.

Merton's answer: If [. . .] we desire to be what we are meant to be, and if we become what we are supposed to become, the interrogation of suffering will call forth from us both our own name and the name of Jesus. And we will find that we have begun to work out our destiny which is to be at once ourselves and Christ.

Job received no answer to his questions. God didn't assure him of how much He loved him; He didn't offer emotional comfort to him; He didn't explain how the wicked will be punished later; He didn't explain the purpose of suffering. In essence, He said to Job simply, I am. He showed Job that he couldn't possibly understand Him, and so his questions were irrelevant. All Job needed was sight: I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, he declares, but now my eyes see You.

Suffering is not a good thing -- it is a result of the Fall -- but it can be a blessing: if we allow it to give us eyes to see the One who created and loves us.


Fieldfleur said...

There's an idea out there too that there's always a blanket within suffering, particularly if you're a believer. I like to believe in it, a warmth within the pain, a grace, a bit of repose. However, Job's account often shows us that there may not be this. Will the knowledge of the I Am be enough? I hope to be able to submit to it when my discomfort and cold comes. Anyway, you've written a thought-provoking blog. I love Merton!


amelia ruth said...

Thank you for those thoughts.

Eddie bought me The Greater Trumps for Christmas--thanks to a recommendation from you a few years back--and I am almost finished reading it. Very strange, very supernatural; it leaves me with a lot to ponder.

How is the back-to-school?