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            Suffering can lead to Life

            The following passages are taken from Patricia H. Livingston’s book “Lessons of the Heart,” published in 1992.

 

Life is mixed, we say It’s always mixed. Sometimes the messenger comes to say we’ve won the sweepstakes. Sometimes it is the news of death.

Breaking in can bring harm. An old woman lived beneath us back in our law school days. Before she moved into that apartment, two women lived there who worked for the phone company by day, and were prostitutes at night who probably sold drugs. The news that they had left did not get all the way around. In the middle of the night great trucks, eighteen wheelers, would pull up in the parking lot. Drunken drivers would lurch out and come pounding on the door of the old woman. She was very frail and utterly refined. Her husband had been a small town minister. We would get up and go down and explain to the men that the other tenants had moved, but sometimes, if they were drunk enough, they would try to break down the door and see. Our poor neighbor would cower in her bed. It is an image of menace I’ve remembered ever since. Harm trying to break in.

Once, long ago, Randy ran through the sliding glass door that led out onto the porch. The kids were playing back there, clowning and dancing to loud music. When Randy left to answer the phone, they closed the door to keep the music from bringing me to insist they turn it down. He did not realize they had closed the door, and, in great high spirits, he jogged back out and struck it at full run. The sound of that great splintering is with me still. Horror sometimes crashes in on our world.

How can we understand suffering? There are so many kinds of hurt. I think about my mom. At eighty-one, she is in pain most of the time she is awake. “Old age is not for sissies, she observes. “It takes so much courage just to take a bath. To face the risk of falling. I give myself a medal when I do.”

My dad is just fine physically. You would guess him to be two decades younger than he is. But his mind’s confused. His past keeps overtaking his present and he forgets the simplest things. He might get mad, and in the midst of putting forth his argument, forget what angered him. He can’t be independent. He must be watched like a young child. Once he was the Chief of his Corps, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the legal branch of the Army.

One of my best friends growing up has had tragic hardships. Her husband discovered on their honeymoon that he had Parkinson’s disease. He died slowly and horribly over the next five years, leaving her with four small children. Both sons had damage to their brains from RH factor incompatibility. It is something that can now be prevented. Her freckled face is lined, arthritis swells her lovely hands. She has never lost her sense of wonder or gratitude or humor, but her pain has been enormous.

Someone I love very much battles mental illness. Manic- depressive is the diagnosis most often given. It is an agony, the imbalance stalking her, lurking, snarling, like all our deepest fears; the terrorizing, bottomless brutality of the agitated depression, and the alternating unremitting intensity of manic light where she cannot sleep or even rest.

Rejection is another form of suffering. A friend described what happened in this way. During the news one night, as casually as if she asked him for the paper, his wife informed him that she wanted him to leave. “I do not love you, and I haven’t for some years. Now that the youngest is in college, I want you to move out. Be gone by morning.”

Losing someone you love, however it happens, can unleash a pain that seems to take up the entire world. It’s as if you cannot find a corner in yourself to stand and try to bear it. It is not really a shattering. That implies an event too quickly over. It is a slow, sickening wrench of the sinews of your being. The psychological term is de-cathecting. That is such an antiseptic word for the long, slow anguish of trying to reconstruct the center of your being.

There are so many kinds of suffering. I am trying to reflect here on the pain that is an inevitable part of life, the difficulties involved in living out our lives. It is important to me to be clear that pain is not something we should seek. Pain is an evil. It is not something to exult in. It is not holy to inflict pain upon ourselves. Self-inflicted suffering is never life-giving.

In situations where we once saw people (or ourselves) as “heroic martyrs” or “helpless, saintly victims” we now question whether there is “co-dependency.” Is the person cooperating in their own abusing? Self-imposed anguish is not a virtue. God does not glory in our pain.

How do we enter the mystery of suffering? How can it be a place with some potential to meet love, not to wall love out? I have no final answers. This question was old when Job was on the dung heap. I just have some reflections, some observations from my own life and the lives of those who have let me know this part of them.

It is important to me that you view these conclusions as very humble offerings. The world of suffering is vast: hunger, poverty, oppression, disease, rank fear, desperate heartbreak. Some kinds of pain do not let up; people can twist and break and lose all life that seems worth living. These thoughts that have helped me may not help someone else. I only offer what has brought me life.

Goethe said that colors are the deeds and sufferings of light. I have found that sometimes colors can be prismed through the pain.

A great potential lies in the fact that suffering makes us vulnerable. We are broken open by it, we need help, we know that we need love. Theologians call it a limit experience in which we are forced to reach out of ourselves for help and meaning. For me it is the implication of the beatitudes. Blessed are we when we know we don’t have it all together, for then we let in love.

It is the paradox of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

“It is when I am weak that I am strong.” Pushed to our limits, over our heads, we have to reach out. We have to grasp for power beyond us, we are forced into realizing dependence, we are pushed to risk discovering the enormous underpin- rungs of love. “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness my power reaches perfection” (2 Cor 12:9-10, JB).

What about people who do not find God’s power in their weakness? What about those who reach out, and fall into a void of meaning? I do not know. I have no answer. Our old image of the tapestry where we see just the threads and knots, and God sees the pattern from the other side, is little consolation for those moments. My hope is that a time will come when love is felt and meaning shows itself from long perspective. The psalms are filled with lines that cry, “How long, 0 God, how long?” It is an ancient plaint. I cling to a hope that somehow, in our weakness, love will come.

There is a terrible story about a woman who works in my sister Peggy’s office. I have never been able to tell it because it is so dreadful, but at the same time so enormously profound. The woman has begun to tell it herself to people whom it might help, support groups for people with similar experiences.

The woman is a mid-life person who became blind when she was twenty-one, already a mother. When we met I was deeply moved by her. She stood with her curling auburn hair and flowered dress, a great blonde guide dog by her side. There was a peace in her, a stillness and a power. I treasured the conversation we exchanged. A few months later my sister told me the awful news. The city paper had done a feature on this woman, describing her heroic life, raising her five boys after her divorce, working in a profession that cared for the aging. They had a picture of her with her children and her dog, and they printed where she lived.

Someone read that paper and began to follow her. He memorized her movements and watched who came and went into her house. One night when she was home alone he broke in through a basement window. She awoke to a noise; he grabbed her, put a knife to her throat and said he was going to kill her if she did not stop fighting him. He also told her he would kill her guide dog. He raped her more than once, and told her he knew where she lived and would come back to kill her if she told anyone. He left.

She called 911 and made it to the hospital. Her former husband was called to the emergency room. He kept the children for a few weeks. She said later to my sister that the experience had made her vulnerable. “I have tried so hard to be independent in my life,” she said. “I was determined not to need anyone. When this happened, I couldn’t help myself. I found out how much people loved me. I let them give to me. As strange as it seems, this incident showed me love. I felt held by God.”

Suffering, as it throws us on our limits, can open us to love.

Knowing we are not alone in it may help most in our suffering. Years ago I had surgery. I didn’t think it would be bad. (That just tells you I had never had surgery before.) My dear friend Benni insisted on coming with me even though it was in another town. She sat with me that morning. We talked and prayed together. She let me babble on and on when I’d had the pre-op shot. Afterwards she was there when I woke up. An old woman was in the other bed in my room, a backwoods cracker woman who looked as if she’d worked hard all her life. She was very frightened being there. She had not even gone to hospitals for childbirth.

“That must be your sister,” she said to me. Benni and I looked at each other, considering. “Yes, you know, she is.” We realize in a special way that we are brothers and sisters in times of pain.

“I’m glad you’re both in here with me,” she said. “It makes this seem a kinder place.”

The first time I had this type of experience was when I had my first baby I had prepared for that labor. I was going to offer the first twenty minutes for the souls in purgatory and the next twenty minutes for those imprisoned for the faith in China—--I had a whole long list. I managed for about half an hour before the pain overtook me.

It is important to know that when pain is intense we get really lost in it. That is nothing to be ashamed of. It is crucial not to turn on ourselves because of that. Jesus himself cried out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

At times in that first labor I felt totally alone. But when the pains would ebb, I had a remarkable experience of not being alone. I was at an Army hospital at Ft. Bragg, N.C., a post with thousands of young couples who all seemed to be child-bearing. The labor and delivery section was jammed and very understaffed. I did not see a nurse for hours.

In the labor room with me toward the end (two other women had come and gone) was a black woman. She was having her fifth. She had four girls. She said, “This is your first, isn’t it honey? And you’re a long way from home.”

She said it with real tenderness. She was much more concerned about me than she was about herself. She kept telling me how to breathe and push, kept telling me how well I was doing.

At one point she said, “Now honey, I’ll be gone a minute, but I’ll be back.” She was gone about half an hour and then back. She’d had her baby! “Praise God, a fine strong boy!” she said. “Now how’s your’s coming?”

She insisted that they let her stay to help me until they took me to delivery. “You let me help this child, she needs me.” About an hour later I had a daughter, delicate and lovely, dark-haired and strong. Every year on her birthday I think about that woman, give thanks for her, ask blessings on her son. She was my sister. She helped me in my pain. She was a corporal’s wife, I was the wife of a West Point lieutenant. Her father was a Carolina cotton picker. I was a general’s daughter. She gave to me. I was frightened and in the great poverty of ignorance and pain. She had the riches of experience, and an enormous heart.

Someone being with us helps us enter the mystery of suffering.

Most basic of all is that God is with us in it. Sometimes we lose that. We are still haunted by what most disturbed Job, that somehow suffering is a sign of God’s disfavor. Job’s friends kept saying “You must have sinned.” We have a primitive image of God handing out the pain.

I think we must work to be grounded in the opposite reality. The God whom our scriptures bear witness to is a crucified God, no stranger to our suffering. God has not remained on the other side of pain, but has joined us on this side of human anguish. With God on the same side of suffering with us, it cannot swallow us up forever.

Some time ago, while I was home on vacation, a major crisis blew up. I was outraged. Not another crisis! Not on my vacation! I went for a walk in the woods by myself and ended up shouting to the sky: “I do not need another rotten opportunity for greatness!”

Gently, sadly, it was as if I heard replied: “Neither do I! How are we going to get each other through this one?”

We are not alone.

Somehow suffering has meaning. There is no way to prove this, or even explain it, and, I don’t know, it might not even be true of all suffering. All we can do is leap to our faith in what we call the paschal mystery itself.

Death led to life.

Crucifixion was followed by resurrection.

Somehow the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, and then it bears its fruit.

The fruit I have noticed most of all in people who have suffered is the birth of compassion. Leon Bloy wrote in “Love Suffers” that “We have places in our hearts which do not yet exist, and into them we enter suffering in order that they may have existence.”

Kim, the daughter of my friend Benni, was in an accident this winter. She was taking pictures, I think for the yearbook, sitting on the hood of a car. The car was going very slowly, but somehow she fell and it ran over her. They tried to back it off, and only dragged her underneath. Her leg was broken in four places, and she had third degree burns from being up against the catalytic converter. The burns were terrible to heal. The doctors tried not to do a skin graft, not wanting to scar her further by taking other skin. What she went through those weeks of scraping, soaking, and breaking open could not be put in words. The responses of the nurses, Benni related to me later, was notable. Some said: “Don’t act like a baby, straighten up!” when Kim would writhe and cry and find it more than she could bear.

This young woman is a trooper, she was brave and stoic way beyond her years. But burns are dreadful, and they were not healing, only getting worse. The nurse who really helped her was one who’d been in pain herself. She didn’t pass it off as “just discomfort.” “You feel like you won’t make it one more hour,” she said, “I know. I know.” Compassion is forged from having been there on your way.

I remember a group of us at Ft. Bragg—--eight lieutenants’ wives—--many of our husbands from the same West Point class. Each woman had a certain look after her baby came. It was after the experience of pregnancy, labor, and delivery, and then those first hard weeks of being up at night, of being so unsure of what the crying meant, of not knowing how to ever do it all. I remember noticing it in Joan. She was the first of us to go through it. I said to myself: “She looks like she has been through the fire.” She seemed taller, more beautiful, more humble, more—well—real. She said: “There is very little time for personal loveliness!” But she was lovelier.

I think it is very, very important, at least nothing has ever been more important for me in bearing suffering, physical or psychological, than knowing that somehow it is part of the paschal mystery. That there will be life on the other side of this; more life. Without it, the grain of wheat remains alone, the gospel says. The falling to the ground, the dying, brings the fruit.

Jesus was not the same when he rose from the dead. His was not just a resuscitated body, like the body of Lazarus unwrapping from the tomb. Jesus was different. Those who saw him did not recognize him. Over and over in the appearance stories this was the case. He did not look the same. He was transformed. Somehow, in our sufferings, so are we.

In some cases, the people who saw him—--the women and the disciples—--thought he was a ghost, that he was from another world. He insisted that they touch him and he shared their food. He was alive here, in this world, transformed, but very real. He still had the marks of his wounds. Our wounds are part of transformation.

Knowing our lives are one with the dying and rising of Jesus can help so much. It may be the central lesson of the heart. Sometimes we may have a moment to pass it on to someone who has not yet quite realized it. The opportunity is very delicate. It could sound like moralizing, like trivializing another person’s pain. “Oh, good for you, another chance to be transformed!” But sometimes making the connection can be a gift. You’ve probably done it many times. I remember once for me.

It happened on the phone. I had a call, mid-week, mid morning, from a woman I had not heard from in over fifteen years. I had been on her mind a lot, she said, and she just decided to see if she could find me and discover how the years had treated me. I was scrubbing the kitchen floor when she tracked me down, and when I told her that, we both laughed. We had just hated scrubbing floors when we knew each other years before.

We had met in the Army Post at a coffee for officers’ wives. Our husbands were newly stationed there. We were standing next to each other in line, and found out in a few minutes that both our names were Pat, both of us were expecting babies at the same time, and both of us were Catholic. We formed a bond that day that kept us close the whole time of that station.

We lost touch somehow after that, but every Easter I thought of her because she had made darling tiny baskets for my children that I always used as a centerpiece for Easter dinner. Now, on the phone, we talked of many things, my brush and bucket quite forgotten. She caught me up on all four of her children in some headlines, and I did the same with mine.

Then she went back to Joe. Joe was their oldest, perhaps the brightest, handsomest. She told how after years and years of crises, doctors were finally sure he was manic-depressive. They were treating him with lithium, and the disorder seemed under control. He had a job, was living on his own, stable and happy. “I am so grateful,” she said. “There has been so much pain.” Deeply moved, remembering Joe well, a captivating tow-head, I said, almost to myself: “It’s the paschal mystery.”

“What?” she asked.

“The dying and rising.”

There was a silence. And then, “It is. It is!”

I wish you could have heard Pat’s voice. Pat is the salt- of-the-earth, utterly dependable, capable embodiment of hearth and home and country. She chose 1776 for their mail box number, and led the family rosary if she could ever round the others up.

What had been missing for her was the symbol, the distillation of the truth that named her experience and let her claim its meaning. Year after year I’d had the little baskets, one with lace and ribbon and seed pearls, the other with brass buttons and red and blue velvet. (There were just two, Boo was not yet born.) I had her baskets in the middle of my Easter table, but she did not have all the truth connected inside of her.

“It is. .“: the truth connecting.

Her voice sounded as if something totally simple, yet utterly and fundamentally profound, had filled her whole world. Her voice was soft and bright, as if she were seeing some kind of dawn. All the fear and anguish, the shame and devastation, the police stations and hospitals and shipwrecks of hope suddenly fell into meaning. The terrifying landscape of night became in that sunrise a cross and an empty tomb.

“Peace be to you,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she said it to me, or was repeating it, hearing it back, spoken to herself.

“Peace,” I said.

After a long, full silence, we both hung up.

Nothing has ever meant as much to me as learning that all the heartbreak and failure, all the weakness and the death of dreams, all the shapes and textures and colors and sounds of a thousand lettings-go, were the paschal mystery.

To pass that on to my friend, to have that mean something to her, was one of the beautiful moments of my life. The water in my scrub bucket had gotten cold. As I emptied it to start again with hot water, I felt the wonder. This is holy ground. When we enter the mystery of suffering we are somehow on holy ground.

Moving into suffering, the change from light to dark, the falling to the ground of the grain of wheat, is the theme of the Bible. No character escapes this rhythm: not Abraham or David, Ruth or Mary the Magdalene or Paul.

Demetrius Dumm, a marvelous Benedictine theologian, teaches biblical spirituality for our program. He calls this “the genetic code of the Bible”: first we know God’s love through ways we understand. God speaks to us in our language. We learn to trust. We know God’s care, God’s tenderness, God’s present love. Demetrius leans forward on the podium, a twinkle in his eye. “And then.. . and then God gets mysterious,” he says.

“This is the whole theme of the Bible,” he explains. “It is everywhere. It is the meaning of God’s name.”

Somehow challenge and suffering are how we grow up. They are the fire, the hammer blows, that form us on a forge. They call out the strengths that would have gone unformed. “God loves us too much to allow us to remain children,” Demetrius says. “God knows we need to be called to some things that are hard.”

I found his explanation very confirming. I knew that was the story of my own life, but I didn’t realize it was everybody’s life, that all of scripture had this theme, that it is the genetic code of the Bible. When Demetrius Dumm pointed to it, I could certainly see it was the history of the Jews, a history of triumph and trial, of prosperity and total loss. They were conquered by the Assyrians, probably the most dreaded enemy in all of history, and either scattered or destroyed or taken prisoner to Babylon. Gone was their temple, their language, their royal line, forever. It was during that captivity expressed in the writings of Second Isaiah, that the realization came to them: success and wealth are not the signs of God’s favor. God cannot save us from physical destruction, but God will never leave us. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you and I love you.” “I have carved your name on the palm of my hand” (cf. Is 43:2-5; 49:16).

Both Old and New Testaments tell these stories. The genetic code in the lives of the ancient biblical men and women was most fully true in the life of Jesus. At first there were clear signs of the presence of God, and then there was mysterious challenge. First there were times of miracles and crowds of thousands. Then he moved to Jerusalem and Gethsemane and death.

Can’t pain be prevented? Why couldn’t God protect us? Doesn’t it say in Luke “I have given you power to tread down serpents and scorpions. . . nothing shall ever hurt you” (Lk 10:19)? I heard master storyteller and theologian John Shea speak on this passage. “We need to consider,” he said wryly, “what harm meant to Jesus. Reflect on how he ended up! Harm did not mean to him what it means to us. For Jesus, the deepest harm is breaking of relationship, the double relationship of God and neighbor. That is real harm.”

The assurance we have from God is that the relationship will hold. God will be with us with sustaining love. If that is true, nothing can really destroy us. Somehow, somehow, even though it is beyond our understanding, perhaps even beyond the bounds of this lifetime, we will bear fruit. There will be a way we might not know until death in which we will be transformed into love by the God who was holding us through it all.

Years ago I read a biography of seventeenth-century poet John Donne. There was a powerful description of the death of his wife, Anne. She was delirious with fever, and kept calling and calling for him. She could not tell in her terrible torment that he was right beside her, holding her, answering.

Even if we can trust that God is somehow with us, how do we stand the pain? Anyone who has ever really suffered knows that question is quite just. Kim (my friend’s daughter who got run over by the car), before they finally gave in and did a skin graft on her burns, had days and nights she was sure she could not bear it. Somehow we try to just endure.

“How will I ever do it?” I have moaned, when some big challenge fell again.

“The same way I did it before, I guess,” I try to answer to myself. “The same way I cleaned up forty-eight ounces of cooking oil spilled by the baby on the kitchen floor twenty minutes before a dinner party. The same way I drove one hundred miles each way for every class of graduate school. You don’t do it all at once. Just the next task. Just this five minutes.”

My friend Frank McNulty tells the story of Janet Lynn, the skater. She always performed, he recounts, in the shadow of other great women skaters. The frequent refrain was, “She’s good, but not as good as (for example) Peggy Fleming.” Despite this, Janet started to get ready for the Olympics with all she had. She got up early, and practiced late, a grinding, constant routine. Finally she was ready. This was her chance. The big day came, she was out on the ice, doing her beautiful routine to music. Four minutes into it, she slipped arid fell in a wet spot on the ice. Even so, her performance was still good enough to get the bronze medal. Without the fall, she clearly had the gold. Afterwards, she was mobbed by reporters, trying to out shout each other to get her attention. One finally could be heard above the rest: “What did you think about when you fell?” She gave him that look that young people can give, puzzled at absurdity. “I thought about getting up.”

We work at getting up. We move the next step. And we try to believe it has meaning. We try not to give in to despair and cynicism, although it seems quite tempting. (It’s hard, sometimes, not to sing the refrain of a country song I heard once that said: “Work your fingers to the bone, and what do you get? Bony fingers. Bony fingers.”)

There are seasons of these challenges or sufferings in all our lives. Physical pain comes sometimes—--breaks or sprains or illnesses, kidney stones or migraines. Or it can be anguish of the spirit: losses or depression—--”the mean reds,” Holly-Go-Lightly calls them in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Failures, disillusions, rejections that fill us with the aching sense of the song “When the Shadows Came to Stay.” There can be the devouring angst that someone we love is in trouble or in danger. Or, worst of all, the Ogre.

Elizabeth Goudge, my favorite English novelist, wrestles with this mystery in her books. Like any of us, she could not explain it, but she helps us see how we might embrace it.

In The Heart of the Family she has Hilary, the endearing, unpretentious Vicar, speak about it. He is often tormented at night by his fears and guilts.

For there is always the Thing, you know, the hidden Thing, some fear or pain or shame, temptation or bit of self-knowledge that you can never explain to another... if you just endure it simply because you must, like a boil on the neck, or fret yourself to pieces trying to get rid of it, or cadge sympathy for it, then it can break you. But if you accept it as a secret borne secretly for the love of Christ, it can become your hidden treasure. For it is your point of contact with him, your point of contact with that fountain of refreshment down at the roots of things. “0 Lord, thou fountain of living waters.”

That fountain of life is what Christians mean by grace. That is all. Nothing new, for it brings us back to where we were before. In those deep green pastures where cool waters are there is no separation. Our point of contact with the suffering Christ is our point of contact with every other suffering man and woman, and is the source

of life.

 

I have thought of this so often in times of pain or fear. When I am very worried about money, I am aware of the multitude of parents, most of the world, who have no sure way to feed their children, for whom never knowing if they can survive is a constant way of life. We are one in the human condition, I tell myself, and try to picture all of us by the fountain of living waters.

How does suffering occur? This is the puzzle we will never untangle. How could God allow it? Does God cause it? How could God be all-powerful if. . . ? We’ll never figure it out. The best that we can do is try to enter trusting.

We try to trust, we try to endure. Sometimes there is strength in what my sister Peg calls “the remembering trick” --—remembering other hard times we havvee survived. We can recall the feeling then that we didn’t know how we would make it, and also the fact that somehow we did.

Sometimes practical things can help us endure, like scrubbing the kitchen or cleaning out the garage. Sometimes it helps to buy a bunch of flowers or get ten books out of the library or take the time to eat. For me it is important not to eat watching or reading the news. There is so much tragedy in the news.

It helps to look at Jesus’ life. The scripture says “the Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for forty days, and was put to the test by Satan” (Mk 1:12). Forty days and forty nights Jesus struggled. This was right after the baptism, the pinnacle moment of the Father’s speaking: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you” (vs. 11). The very next passage is the desert.

We, too, are lured into the desert. “To make our souls,” the English say. In the trial, we find out who we are. The times of these are intermittent. They are cycles, Ignatius says, of consolation and desolation. The truth of this is very, very old. The Psalms, sung by heart hundreds of years before Jesus learned to sing them, tell of this:

Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.

Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown,

They shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves (Ps 126:5-6, NAB).

We could never make it through if this weren’t so. It is horrible to think of there not being any rest. After Randy ran through the glass door, his arm and leg and chin all cut wide open, there were hundreds of stitches and weeks of recuperation. But then he moved, scarred but healthy, into many years of strength.

Each time we are caught up in a time of struggle (“Boot camp, again,” my friends and I say) we go into the dark. What rising comes is always on the other side. There’s no short cut. We have to let go, accept the fact that the falling to the ground is here again. It is the Gethsemane time. Demetrius Dumm says that the Garden was the worst of Jesus’ Passion: the struggling to avoid it, the desperation not to drink the cup. Perhaps that’s true for us each time as well. The hardest part is to let go, to trust. I have a friend in the midst of the anguish of a divorce after twenty-five years. He feels as if he may never be free of pain again. He repeats to himself the lines from Robert Frost:

Yet all the precedent is on my side.

I know that winter death has never tried

The earth, but it has failed.

 

On the other side of dying, some new life begins. Scripture scholar Don Senior preached for us at liturgy when he last came to teach in our program. He spoke softly, almost tenderly, of something he had noticed. The moments of dying are often loud and harsh and public in our lives. The wrenching fills the world. In contrast, the risings are mostly quite simple. One day the pain has lessened. A tree blooms out of season. We find we are able to sleep. Someone we pass on the street looks at us and smiles, and we find ourselves smiling.

In the hard times we think that no good thing can happen out of all of the difficulty. But then, imperceptibly at first, some good makes a small beginning.

“My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon,” a friend quoted from a Chinese proverb. She said it slowly, looking at her hands. She had been speaking of the terribly difficult season the last few years had been for her. First there had been an enormous professional disappointment, a clear injustice, that devastated her and left her without a job. Then, a personal loss, the ending of the relationship that had been central in her life. “I thought the depression would never lift,” she had been saying. “All I felt was loss. Last week someone sent me a card with the Chinese proverb.

“I knew what it meant to have my barn burned to the ground.” There was pause, and then she looked up, her blue eyes lit with a touch of wonder. “That same night, as I was going to bed, I went to the window. I realized that for the first time in a very long time I could see the moon.”

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