The September 14th feast day of the Triumph of the Cross (also known as the Exaltation of the Cross) is a reminder of the paradox that the greatest tragedy became the greatest triumph.
To think that the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will was released in 1935, four years before a Jewish-Catholic named Edith Stein wrote the following words in addressing her religious community on the September 14th feast…
The other day I met a woman who is a classical singer and musical therapist. Over lunch she told me about how she works with some stroke patients who cannot speak, yet who can sing.
The photo accompanying this post is from this article explaining how this works.
Take a look at this quick clip showing showing an example of neurologic music therapy:
This classical singer has also worked with orphans, palliative care patients, and others in vulnerable states.
Another musician at the lunch explained to us that the more complexity there is to the music, the more order the music can put into your soul. This led me to think: Instead of medical aid in dying, we need musical aid in suffering.
Fr. Mark Goring, CC of the parish I attended in Ottawa likes to preach often on the first verse of the second chapter of the Book of Sirach which says, “My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.”
It is a startling sentence when we stop to think about it because most of the time we go through life trying to prepare ourselves for loving relationships, meaningful successes, a reasonable amount of prosperity, and an abundance of opportunities.
What, if anything, are we doing to prepare ourselves for an ordeal, for tests, for trials?
What young person, on being asked what he or she is doing or hopes to do, will respond that they are preparing themselves to suffer hardships honourably?
And yet, the verse above speaks about “preparing yourself” – not even being prepared simply by God or by circumstances – but intentionally and resolutely preparing yourself for the tests and trials of life that are sure to come.
What difference would it make if we set ourselves up not only for success but for ordeals?
And, what sort of education and training constitute such preparation?
Simone Weil, who died on this date in 1943 at the age of 34, was one of the most audaciously creative writers and earnest spiritual seekers of the past century.
In her aphoristically-styled Gravity and Grace, she has these words about suffering and affliction:
Suffering: superiority of man over God. The Incarnation was necessary so that this superiority should not be scandalous.
I should not love my suffering because it is useful. I should love it because it is.
Suffering, teaching and transformation. What is necessary is not that the initiated should learn something, but that a transformation should come about in them which makes them capable of receiving the teaching.
Pathos means at the same time suffering (notably suffering unto death) and modification notably transformation into an immortal being).
In James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, he wrote: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
This is a startling diagnosis of how racism betrays a person’s own existential insecurity.
Extending beyond the issue of racism, there is this fascinating insight that another’s suffering can actually intimidate us because, in some ultimate sense, we know that it could just as well be us.
Recently a friend of mine introduced me to James Baldwin (1924-1987), an American author who wrote books, essays, and memoirs on the experience of Blacks in America.
I just finished reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which contains two essays exploring race relations in the U.S. in the early 1960s. “Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality,” he says.
Continuing to reflect here on what case there is for suffering being redemptive without sliding into any justification of (or indifference to) real injustices, Baldwin offers a credible voice.
Here is an excerpt on how suffering can be a school in maturity:
The other day I was listening to a talk by author Rod Dreher who, in discussing the contempt for suffering in our contemporary culture, brought up this excerpt from chapter 17 of Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World:
“But I like the inconveniences.”
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to- morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
As I reflect on the elderly who are, far too often, subjected to our cruel and dehumanizing throwaway culture, I recall an oft-repeated story about Mother Teresa.
She was tending to the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick when someone exclaimed, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!”
To this, Mother Teresa replied, “Neither would I.”
It is important for caregivers to be well compensated for their deeply important and meaningful work of accompanying persons in their vulnerability, particularly as they near the end of their lives.
But do we understand that this kind of work cannot be reduced to being a means to a paycheque without creating a crisis in the hearts and minds of those who come face to face every day with human suffering, weakness, and fragility?
Mother Teresa, of course, saw herself as capable of doing the work that she did insofar as she could see God in His “distressing disguises.”
What is it that will enable caregivers today to do the necessary service about which many would say, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars?”