Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Send a Poet

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
               ~ C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
I've been circling around this question of pain, the age old why-do-good-things-happen-to-bad-people routine.  I've been pacing around it like a Schnauzer who's found the femur of an elephant, sniffing at it, trying to get my teeth around it.  Maybe if I turn my head this way, position my teeth just so, I will finally get purchase and be able to lift this giant thing.

But I can't my teeth around, can't get my weight underneath it.  Can't get my head around it all some days.  I know the official church line on the subject, the prepackaged statement we throw at each other to get each other to stop talking about uncomfortable things.  But I have grown resistant to prepackaged statements, having been exposed to them so many times it's as if my body has created an intricate string of antibodies to disarm them on sight.

And when I look at this problem, when I lean into the question of "why so much pain in this life?", the well of unsure and tremulous thought it opens is a vast, echoing cavern that leads deeper and deeper into the heart of what it means to be a human being.  I think to shy away from this question, to throw glossy answers at it or repeat "God is good all the time" at it, is to pretend this world and our lives are something that they're not.  Pain is stitched into the fabric of human existence, braided in with the good in a way that is profoundly inseparable. 

I forget that.  I always forget that until I am in a season of pain.  And right now, I am lodged in a season of heartache and disappointment, watching my one-time due date approach, arms wrapped around my silent belly, feeling profoundly empty.  It was Good Friday when the doctor told me our baby was gone, and I went home to wait out the inevitable conclusion.  While the Easter choirs were singing their hallelujahs, I was swallowing at the bitter lump of why me stuck just below my voice box.  And now, we watch November 4th approach with empty arms and dislodged hope.  No second chance growing inside me, no round replacement tummy to wrap my hands around protectively while we wait.

Perhaps, as Addie Zierman says, "this is not a question to be solved in a 28-minute sermon. It should be an art installation. A book of poems. A sonata."  I think of the movie Contact, when Jodie Foster's character witnesses the indescribable beauty of a cosmic event far from Earth and says, in a voice tinged with awe and even fear, "They should've sent a poet."  Her character, Eleanor, has been campaigning to be chosen for the trip, promising that she is fluent in the language needed to catalog this voyage, the language of science, of facts and calculations.  And when faced with the very thing she has spent her whole life preparing for, Eleanor realizes her inability to describe it, needs a new language to even begin to do it justice.

{NASA image of the Eagle nebula}
To tell the truth, I think I always knew the problem of pain would never be solved through logic.  I felt it instinctively when I heard a song that stirred the deep sadness in me and yet overlaid it, somehow, with quiet beauty and effervescent joy.  Addie Zierman says, "There is a place, of course, for logic and reasoning and well-spoken sermons in the world of faith... But we also need art, that cloudy, undefinable thing that cuts like a laser into our souls. We need more than just worship songs, we need music, beautiful and complex and haunting and loud. We need more than how-to books on Christian living. We need poetry and fiction, the stories and songs that move through our dry hearts like rain."

We need these stories and songs because, although I don't know if we will ever intellectually understand why a God who is good would allow us to suffer, I believe through stories and songs we can release cries of mourning, reclaim beauty in times of healing, and remember there is still life beyond the point of initial grief.  The story continues and there are more pages to be read, even after the hero is given to the sword. 

A music teacher once told me that music theory does not prescribe what makes beautiful music; it only attempts to describe what humans have found for centuries to be music that is pleasing to the ears.  There are guidelines we follow most of the time, except when we break them, and the only real rule is "does it sound good?" because music that sounds good is good music. I think this problem with pain might be the same kind of thing.  We create these theological responses to questions that, despite our pride in the words we've strung together, only ever manage to vaguely describe what we think is going on.  We are no closer now than we've ever been to having the right words to say to a grieving widow or a jilted lover.

I don't think that art will give us answers anymore than logic has.  I don't think art can explain the existence of suffering.  But I think it can illuminate, to some degree, the purpose of suffering.  These things don't exist on their own, joy on one hand and sadness on the other.  They exist on top of each other, woven throughout each other.  We feel sadness because of joy, joy because of sadness.

And we see that perhaps most clearly when we read a lovely poem written about tragedy, or when we hear a haunting melody that raises the hair on the back of our arms.  We see such beauty in the portrait of a melancholy woman.  We find, in these creations born of sadness and ache, the phoenix rising from the ashes.  We remember how we laugh through our tears, how we hurt and ache and think we will break but how, miraculously, we do not.  How we fall down and then get back up.  And how, when we are back on our feet with gravel still pressed into our shins, the pulse of blood in our legs doesn't just hurt.  It also reminds us, with its throbbing insistence, that we are alive.

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