I started this post more than a month ago, struggled to untangle my thoughts, wrangled with its deep theological implications, and tried to set it aside – but it weighed on me. Time and again, my thoughts returned to the ideas, as I had revelations – from intimate to transcendent – related to it.
I have a lot of fodder for this journal – thoughts on adoption and race, the Hatching plan, as well as wanting to post updates on some things I wrote last year – and very little time. (I haven’t even written about my 40th birthday and the Next Forty Years plan, let alone my recent experiences at our UU church.) I squeeze in writing – as I can, usually at the end of the day after taking care of everything and everyone else in my life. I decide what to journal by what needs to be written, what I feel compelled to share. It’s a similar sensation to what I’ve felt in Quaker meeting, when moved by the Spirit to speak – intense, pressing, uncomfortable, profound.
I don’t know why, but I cannot seem to set this aside. It returns again and again to my heart and mind. It is a veritable tome, so set aside some time to digest it. I’ve been sacrificing sleep and other personal needs to get this out. I don’t know why, but perhaps it is meant for you or someone you know to read. (But, be prepared, it’s LONG, over 3,400 words, so long that it has started to crash WordPress! And perhaps forgive me for sparse posting over the last month, as I have been working on this.)
I. A World of Hurt
I have a new friend whose short life has been hell on earth. In her two decades, she’s been raped, stabbed, beaten, prostituted, deprived, ignored, then tossed onto the streets to struggle for survival with no money, no job, no education, no health care, no family, no friends, and no support. Worst of all, she received no apology for the abuse heaped on her – so she is left to try to find an explanation for these experiences.
As I struggle to find meaning in the events of her life, I have a sense that she is profoundly special, and I am humbled to even know her. Her will to survive is awe-inspiring. As I build a friendship with this young woman who has been hurt in so many ways and by so many people, I can feel my heart soften with a desire to treat her gently, lovingly. I feel called – no stronger, I feel a heavy responsibility – to be greater than my normal self. I must be kinder, more thoughtful than I am with others. I must be quick to apologies for my errors and long on patience with her.
It’s similar to how I treated my mother, after she had been living with cancer for over a decade. I had a tenderness inside my heart for all she’d been through, which led me to treat her more like an “elder” even though she was only in her 40s. As the years passed and she grew nearer to death, she did seem to become more saintly, in particular for the graceful way she bore the “slings and arrows” of her illness – and modern medicine’s ghastly treatments. (A double rainbow even appeared over her house on the day of her death, similar to the most highly ascended Tibetan lamas.)
As I examined these unconscious reactions, I came to realize that I hold an underlying belief that suffering makes a person sacred. But what does that mean? What is sacred? And how is it connected to suffering?
II. The Oprah Culture
According to Wikipedia, sacred means “considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas.”
Awe is “a mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might.” Reverence is ” a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; veneration.”
Veneration doesn’t have any additional meaning, but definitely has an interesting etymology. It’s from the Latin venerari “to worship, revere,” from venus “beauty, love, desire” – as in the ancient Italian goddess of gardens and spring, identified by the Romans with Aphrodite as the goddess of love and beauty. Venus was originally a common noun meaning “physical desire, sexual appetite,” (as in, “Is that a venus in your toga, or are you just happy to see me?”), hence “qualities exciting desire, seductiveness, charm,” and later “a goddess personifying sexual attractiveness.” Even further back, vanaḥ, which meant “desire,” akin to wish. The root of awe and reverence, then, is desire. One fascinating side note is that the word venom, which originally meant a magical herb or potion, comes from this same root. I’m wondering whether nirvana, “freedom, liberation from cycle of birth and death,” does too, actually meaning nir- “without -vana “desire.”
There is no question that people who survive great hardships inspire us with awe and reverence. We accord people who have “triumphed over adversity” with respect, generally in proportion to how horrifying their problems are to us. It is exactly that dread of their maladies occurring to us that translates into our respect for their survival. That is the appeal of movies like Stranded, videos like “No Arms No Legs No Worries,” a vast majority of Oprah episodes, and every issue of People magazine. I could go on and on – the American public seems to have a near endless appetite for these “human interest stories.”
There’s definitely a level of “circus freak” voyeurism involved in this phenomenon, and we seem to demand that our “heroes” have “overcome” their problems and “thrived” – mainly by being able to put on a happy face in front of the cameras. Angry, aggrieved people are much less acceptable in our culture.
III. Martyrs Among Us
Catholicism is full of stories of suffering – so many of the saints are martyrs. Even those who weren’t subjected to terrible, torturous ends have often chosen lives of asceticism, essentially choosing to suffer in service of their faith.
The story that has captured my imagination is Saint Philomena, pictured above. She “was the daughter of a king in Greece who, with his wife, had converted to Christianity. At the age of about 13 she took a vow of consecrated virginity. When the Emperor Diocletian threatened to make war on her father, he went with his family to Rome to ask for peace. The Emperor fell in love with the young Philomena and, when she refused to be his wife, he subjected her to a series of torments: scourging, from whose effects two angels cured her; drowning with an anchor attached to her, but two angels cut the rope and raised her to the river bank; being shot with arrows, but on the first occasion her wounds were healed, on the second the arrows turned aside, and on the third, they returned and killed six of the archers, and several of the others became Christians. Finally the Emperor had her decapitated, which occurred on a Friday at three in the afternoon, as with the death of Jesus.” She is now the matron of children, youth, babies, infants, virgins, sterility, and lost causes. Her name means lover of light, in Latin.
But you can take your pick of saints and martyrs – throw a dart and you’re knee deep in violence, torment, and agony. Actually, there seems to be nearly as many saints’ horror stories as there are Oprah episodes.
Someone very dear to me recently dismissed this aspect of religion as belonging to times long past, when people needed a theology to make sense of “famine and tragedy.” In stark contrast, I wrestle with how to reconcile my concepts of the divine with a world filled with tragedy. My friend whom I described in the opening is just one storyof all too common horrors – across our country and around the world, people are being hurt, traumatized, exploited, maimed, and abandoned. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. This is the dark knowledge that haunts me and taunts me for my privileges, crying out “What are you doing? How are you helping?”
In that light, I can now see how the mythic lives of the saints – and the People Magazine’s “ordinary heroes” – reiterate the tropes of The Passion (from the Latin passus, to suffer, to submit) – helping us make sense of the suffering that we experience and see around us in the world.
I can’t really express how incredibly mind-bending this idea is to me. This aspect of Christianity has long mystified me. My reactions to the Stations-of-the-Cross variety of Christianity have ranged from disinterested to grossed out to baffled. I just couldn’t understand why one would focus on that or what the spiritual value would be. For me to have even a bit of understanding of this perspective is a huge paradigm shift. Even though I still cannot quite embrace (yes, that’s a pun) the “Jesus Loves You This Much (Arms Outstretched)” mindset, I can see how engaging with the lives of Jesus and the saints can help us respond to modern-day martyrs.
IV. The Suffering God
When I started researching to try to understand why I believe people who have suffered are sacred, the tradition of suffering in Christianity provided a rich resource. One piece that captured my attention was “Excerpts from Healing Power of Suffering” by Mother M. Angelica:
“Jesus knew suffering would not pass from any of us after His Resurrection and He made sure we understood its role in our lives. Throughout the Gospels He promises us suffering and persecution and asks that we accept it with Joy.” “He called all those who suffer ‘blessed’ when they overcame their natural weaknesses. He promised Heaven to those who suffered interior and exterior poverty. To those who preferred God to themselves He promised Union with the Father. To those who put their feelings and resentments aside and forgave, He promised Mercy. To those who struggled to maintain peace, He promised sonship. And to those who suffered because they loved Him, He promised Joy. “Before all these fruits would be manifested, some kind of suffering was necessary. His own suffering would have been powerful enough to destroy suffering from the face of the earth, but He did not choose this course. He preferred to continue permitting suffering and make Himself the example for all men to follow.”
I found the writing of Thomas A. Stobie, S.F.O. to really break this down for me to a level that I can understand:
“What sufferings can be holy?
- Sufferings over which I have no control – These sufferings can always be holy if I bear them with holiness.
- Non-harmful sufferings which I choose for my own or other’s good – These sufferings can be holy if I bear them with holiness and if it is not against God’s will that I accept them. In these sufferings, I am attempting to better myself my either doing something that is good for me or denying myself something that is not.
- Non-harmful sufferings which I choose as penance – These sufferings can be holy if I bear them with holiness and if it is not against God’s will that I perform them. In these sufferings which I take upon my self, I bring the suffering upon myself as an act of penance, hopefully increasing my attachment for God and decreasing my attachment to worldly things.
- Non-harmful sufferings which God asks me to bear – These sufferings can be holy if I bear them with holiness. They will tend to improve my spiritual wellbeing and help or witness to others. An example of this is the Stigmata.
- Harmful sufferings which I choose to help others in love – These sufferings can be holy if I bear them with holiness and God would want me to bear them. Martyrdom is an example.
- Harmful sufferings which God asks me to bear – These sufferings can be holy if I bear them with holiness. They are very rare and care should be taken to discern that the request is from God (talk to your spiritual director about the it!) and not another source. An example of this is God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him.
- Sufferings that can be cured, nullified, or reduced – Generally if a suffering can be cured or reduced and we have the means, prolonging (or enduring) the suffering is not holy unless God asks us to do so or prolonging the suffering is necessary so that we can perform good works.
To be very clear, I am talking about number one – neither my friends, nor the orphans languishing in Ukrainian orphanages, nor the Congolese women raped as acts of war had any control over their fates. They did not choose or cause these afflictions.
Stobie goes on to describes how to bear suffering with holiness, by following Jesus’ example and reframing the lived experience of pain as a gift to the Divine. I also unearthed an interesting series summarizing and musing on the work of L. Ann Jervis, At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message. Over several posts (Parts1, 1a, 1b, 2, 3), Jervis’ idea the suffering is the portal to holiness is discussed. She writes:
“By virtue of suffering ‘with Christ’ we are called to face the darkness, to face down what destroys, to reshape what is so that it comes to be dominated not by suffering but by God’s glory. The burden of our vision of the depth of the pain in which creation is caught is to be both borne and used. Where we see suffering and death we are obliged to bring their opposites.”
(To see a vivid example of this kind of amazing work in action in the world today, follow The Journey in Uganda.)
But what if someone has no knowledge or belief in any sort of God yet suffers greatly, surviving as best she can and bearing the scars as any human would? Certainly, this is due the awe and reverence we discussed earlier, but can it make her holy if she does nothing more than live through it?
V. Human Nature
In my worldview, everything and everyone is sacred, from a grain of sand to the Dalai Lama. Each is enlivened with the Divine spark and fulfilling a greater purpose in the Universe. In that case, is there really any meaning to saying that one person – or place or object – is more holy than other? Aren’t all places temples? And all of us saints? Well, yes, but….
Practically, some people do seem holier than thou – Mother Theresa, for example. People who have dedicated their lives to spiritual pursuits: study and understanding of religion and the Divine, abnegation of material possessions and worldly pursuits, sacrifice of personal needs to allay the sufferings of others. We associate these practices with holiness.
In earth-centered traditions, spiritual power tends to accrue with experiential wisdom. Initiation requires the seeker to face fear, face death in order to reap the rewards of deeper faith.
Energetically, some places and things become imbued with deeper spiritual meaning, either through the design of an architect or the greater design of nature. Despite the common myth that attributes this sanctity to the essential nature of these things, it seems to me that these people and places accrue holiness as we assign that meaning to them. As more and more people worship at Stonehenge or the Salisbury Cathedral, the location takes on more and more spiritual energy. This is basically the make-your-own-deity, Mists of Avalon school of thought – but it is also consistent with the talismanic practices of the pagan traditions. In other words, the Dalai Lama – or my friend – doesn’t become consecrated through some impersonal process, but rather because the people around him believe him to be holy, bestowing holiness upon him.
As I considered this, I came back to my opening question: What is holiness? What does it really mean? Is it goodness? The ability to inspire goodness in others? What is goodness?
I view humans – and animals and plants too – as spiritual beings in an incarnate existence. In every cell, we are both matter and spirit. Of course, as a pagan, I celebrate our bodies, our physical nature, our embodied experience – but, in the context of this discussion, I am thinking that “becoming holy” reflects the idea of living your spiritual nature more and more fully, modeling this path for others to follow.
Then, I must ask: What is spirit? What is our spiritual nature?
After much thought, for me, the answer is love (cue the upswell of string music). Yes, I truly believe that the best way to describe the energy animating the universe is love. Love is the force of creation, the force of attraction – gathering matter together to form subatomic particles, binding electrons, protons, and neutrons in a primordial dance, drawing the sun, moon, earth and celestial bodies to each other.
My recent revelation has been that the true nature of religion is to call us to the side of our nature that is love. To me, love is goodness, the power that heals and inspires us to improve the world. All the great prophets and holy gurus are trying to teach us to love ourselves, others, and the world more fully.
In that sense, people who have survived tremendous pain and loss are holy. The open our hearts wider than we thought possible, beckoning us to the best part of our nature. Their suffering summons us to change the circumstances – abuse, war, disease – that caused the atrocities.
Mother M. Angelica put it succintly:
“What is the purpose of all this suffering for others? ‘It is all to bind you together in love,’ says St. Paul, ‘and to stir your minds, so that your understanding may come to full development’ (Col. 2:2).”
VI. Our Sacred Duty
I found a wonderful definition for sacred: “the power, being, or realm understood by religious persons to be at the core of existence and to have a transformative effect on their lives and destinies. Other terms, such as holy, divine, transcendent, ultimate being (or reality), mystery, and perfection (or purity) have been used for this domain.” How rich is that?
According to Wikipedia:
“The word ‘sacred’ descends from the Latin sacrum, which referred to the gods or anything in their power, and to sacer, priest; sanctum, set apart. It was generally conceived spatially, as referring to the area around a temple.”
“The Hebrew word for ‘holiness, ‘kedushah’ (Hebrew: קדושה) has the connotation of ‘separateness.’ That which is holy in Judaism is set apart, and the separation is maintained by both legal and spiritual measures.”
The concept of separateness is interesting, because it seems like many who have suffered do feel set apart. My mother, as she recovered from surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, felt she had left the ordinary world. It’s easy to become isolated in illness or grief, both physically kept away from your friends and activities, as well as emotionally removed from everyday life. Infertility, miscarriages, layoffs, disability, chronic illness – all can make us feel as if we are different from “normal” people, and honestly the stupid things that people say, however well-meaning, don’t go very far to counter this impression.
I also have a sense that my new friend, after a lifetime of travails, feels like she doesn’t belong amongst people. While she grapples with demons beyond imagination, others go about their mundane lives oblivious – and it makes her feel different, and not in a good way. It’s easy for me to view those who have suffered as being set apart, marked as special by the divine, and I believe they should be given a special place in the world, granted the special care and services they need in order to function.
In my mind, our society failed to protect them, so it is our society’s responsibility – our sacred duty – to care for them as they continue to suffer the aftereffects of abuse. We cannot expect them to fit in to our world, rather we much stretch our world to accommodate their needs. This, to me, is part of the atonement we must make to those whom we have harmed with our inattention. It is simply restoring balance. If we seek to actually create good in the world, we must go one step further and prevent these evils from being perpetrated in the future.