I read Luci Shaw’s poem “Caged Bird” in a talk I gave on suffering recently. Unable to spread his wings to the sky, forced to “sort millet” instead of seeking and delighting in “the sun-filled / film and fire / of insect wings, / [or] worm's wry / juice,” his “trinity of claws” gripping the cage’s steel perch instead of tree’s rough bark, the bird still sings. In fact, he discovers how to
in one long,
He creates beauty from his suffering – perhaps because of his suffering.
Someone asked if the poem wasn’t rather existential in nature, the song surely meaningless because it doesn’t liberate the bird from his cage – therefore it must be an exercise in futility, no matter how beautiful. I responded as best I could on the spot: the point isn’t to escape from suffering; we can’t escape suffering in this life. The point is what we do with the suffering: do we give in to it in bitterness or do we create beauty – allow God to create beauty in us – from it? Do we draw closer to Him and thus love others better; do we offer beauty to the world that invites them to look to our God in their own suffering?
A suitable response in the moment, and true. But as I reflected on the question later, I realized a more profound answer: the creation of beauty in suffering does indeed liberate us – it liberates us from the prison of self-pity and self-absorption. It cannot, however, liberate us from the cage of circumstances – of the suffering itself. Of course, particular occasions of suffering end; but they don’t end because we create beauty from them. After all, many occasions of suffering never end in this world; they only end when we come into Christ’s presence in the next. And suffering ends as often for those who hate God as for those who love Him. Yet extraordinary beauty is created by many who suffer continually until the freedom of their death. They create beauty not because they have been freed from suffering, but because they have been freed from self.
I keep thinking of my mother-in-law. The painting I chose to hang in my office tells her story: gloriously flaming canna lilies burst from swirled purple-black soil, as the painting itself was born from the twin sufferings of cancer and heartache. She suffered to the moment of her liberation in death. Yet she created profound beauty, in her art and in the art of her life, because of that suffering – not in spite of, but because of. Oh, it’s true she had always loved well, but in those last years her love became focused, poignant, every detail sharpened in a joy that attended to the littlest things – a loaf of just-baked bread, a glass of freshly squeezed juice – as cause for delight and care, that drew us to her as moths to the flame to be warmed and then invited, in our turn, to offer warmth to those around us.
Sonny, in James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues,” says of a street singer in Harlem, “It struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through – to sing like that. It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” Yet he finds eventually that this is the calling of the artist – and, ultimately, of all of as we create, by the grace of God, the art of our lives. Suffering can’t be avoided, and it is indeed repulsive – it is a result of the Fall – but it won’t drown us if we step into it in faith and make something of it, something of beauty that touches the lives of all who experience it and reminds them that joy and triumph are realities, too, even within the suffering itself.
The cage of circumstance cannot be torn away; we cannot liberate ourselves from suffering. But we can – by God’s grace – be liberated from the prison of the self when we decide to create a psalm of praise.