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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

On Being Sick

Well I’m recovering from a brief illness that put me more or less out of commission during the past week.

Lest you think I’m going for the uber-dramatic, let me come right out and say that I had the common cold. A pain, but hardly the plague.

Okay — so this gave me the opportunity to organize some “thoughts worth thinking about” with regard to sickness. One or two of these (and not the best ones) came from me, others from surer sources of wisdom.

For what it’s worth, here goes: (more…)

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Still_Alice_-_Movie_PosterThe very beautiful and exceptionally talented Julianne Moore took home her first Academy Award this year, after four previous nominations.  Among the many worthy roles she has filled, that of Dr. Alice Howland in Still Alice is easily the most poignant, heartbreaking, and…well, real.

still alice openingHowland is an accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia University and a happily married mother of three.  As the film opens, we see her enjoying dinner at a first-class restaurant with her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and their three children — Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) — in celebration of her 50th birthday.

By turns, we see her as an ardent jogger, a renowned scholar, and a “hostess with the most-est.”  Throughout all this, though, we also see signs of trouble.

It starts small.  She forgets the names of everyday things.  She thinks the people around her are talking about people other than the individuals about whom they are actually talking.  She forgets the word “lexicon” at a linguistics lecture.  Something is clearly wrong.

She consults a neurologist, who runs some very thorough tests.  After a short time, she is given the bad news: She has early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease.

alice deterioratingAs the film progresses, we see Alice’s mental condition deteriorate rapidly.  More painfully, she experiences it.  Memory loss, and the resultant compromise affecting one’s hard-earned sense of identity, is a tragedy in all cases; and yet it is also in each case unique.  Alice’s case is particularly tragic given that for the whole of her life, she has defined herself in terms of her intellectual prowess and her facility with language; now, both are being taken away from her.

Perhaps this is the main factor motivating her, when she is still relatively lucid, to make a video message addressed to her “future self,” in the event that she should progress to the point at which existence becomes intolerable.  She leaves instructions for finding a bottle of pills which, if she takes a large number at once, will draw her into a quick and peaceful death.  You could call it a premortem suicide note.

When the time at last comes and she discovers the video on her laptop, Alice quickly seeks out the pills and nearly succeeds in following through with her own advice.  She is, however, interrupted by the arrival of her caregiver, and the opportunity is gone.

kristen stewart still aliceThe film ends with Alice’s daughter Lydia, who until now has lived in California pursuing an acting career, moving home to become her permanent caretaker.  At this point Alice is barely able to speak, and her cognition has been reduced almost to the rudiments of mental functioning.  Sitting with her in the living room, Lydia reads her the lines of a play (which she presumably once either starred in or auditioned for) in which the spirits of the departed unite in harmony to protect the world.

She asks her mother if she can tell her what the material was about.  Alice offers her somewhat slurred, one-word reply: “Love.”

Ok — there is a lot more to the movie than my summary suggests.  But this is the “skeleton” of the film, and the material most relevant to the analysis I intend to offer.

Speaking as a Roman Catholic, I am struck first and foremost by the light the final scene casts upon the rest of the film.  Viewed in the right light, Alice’s journey can be seen as a human reality that, like so much else in this world, points beyond itself to something infinitely bigger, something of profound significance to the spiritual life.

If you read the great saints and mystics throughout the ages — from St. Paul to Thomas a Kempis, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, and on and on — you’ll find they all say the same thing: Once a soul has progressed to the higher stages of the spiritual life, God will put it through what is called the Dark Night of the Soul.  This describes a state in which the soul is, by the invisible workings of God, stripped of all attachments and consolations, both of the senses and of the intellect…in fact, even the spiritual joys of the earlier stages of the spiritual life are taken away.  It is tantamount to a forfeiture of the ego-self, along with everything it thought fundamental and defining in terms of its identity and happiness.

At this point the soul stands in a sense between heaven and earth.  It has not yet received — indeed, is not yet quite ready for — the joys of heaven, and yet it can no longer take delight or comfort in the things of earth.  It is in this state that the soul is most fully united with Christ’s sufferings on the Cross.

After this, emptied of all selfishness and all created things, the soul is finally ready to be fully permeated by the Spirit of God.  From then on, the soul can truly say: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19-20).

But this does not amount to anything like a Christian “Nirvana.”  Paradoxically, one finally discovers one’s true self in this experience, after having turned away from him/herself.  For at the height of the contemplative life we become connected to that Power which not only created us, but continues to create us even now.  This is also to discover at the deepest center of our own being the same Power at the deepest center of the being of all other people, and indeed of all created things.  Hence, in the Lord, we find the great value of all that exists, as well as the depth of our fellowship with one another and with all creation.

Still_Alice_Ocean

Let’s be clear about something: Alzheimer’s is not the Dark Night of the Soul, and the Dark Night of the Soul is not Alzheimer’s.  But life here below is significant — that is to say, full of signs.  And just as the health-building diligence of one who exercises strenuously is a kind of earthly sign of the spiritual diligence that ends in glory, so Alice’s case and others like it can potentially point to the salutary role of suffering in the spiritual life.  And the fact that the loss of all of Alice’s faculties leaves her only with the fundamentality of love likewise points to the fact of love’s primacy as ultimate reality (see 1 John 4:8).

While the majority of us will not likely reach the aforementioned height of contemplation in this life (thankfully, we Catholics believe in Purgatory), any progress in the spiritual life is priceless and expands our humanity.  And suffering, borne patiently, has more power to help us along the way than almost anything else in this life.  Had Alice Howland known about this, perhaps she would not have been so quick to arrange for her own suicide.  Likewise, the rest of us should think twice before turning to “compassionate death” as an answer to serious suffering…indeed, even terminal suffering.  For to take this route is to deprive ourselves and our loved ones of an invaluable opportunity, and to reduce the unfathomable greatness of human personhood to a form of dignity that, at best, fits an animal.

Sorry this took so long, but I really wanted to make it in just one post with this one.  Thanks for reading.

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1. “Still Alice – Movie Poster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Still_Alice_-_Movie_Poster.jpg#/media/File:Still_Alice_-_Movie_Poster.jpg

Remaining images obtained through a Google image search.

 

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For parts one and two, click here

RaisingofLazarus“RaisingofLazarusBloch” by Carl Heinrich Bloch – http://www.familyartusa.com/site/253614/page/917008. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RaisingofLazarusBloch.jpg#/media/File:RaisingofLazarusBloch.jpg

I’d like to segue into the next topic with an analogy to the raising of Lazarus from the tomb.

The tomb, for our purposes, can represent the “old geography” — beautiful in itself (indeed, part of God’s good creation), but unhallowed by the presence of death.

And then there is Lazarus, who (again, for our purposes) can represent us, to whom comes Christ bringing new life.

Now imagine laying in the musty darkness of the tomb, newly awakened as though reborn.  Christ, the Lord of life, stands above you with hands extended.  You take hold and begin to allow Him to help you up.  As you stand, and as your bones and joints creak, you realize just how hard this is, and how completely dependent you are on the grasp of your Savior.

This makes you grasp all the tighter, and yet you hesitate.  You’re afraid that if you grasp Jesus’ hands any more firmly, you will pull Him down into the darkness with you.

But here’s what you do not yet understand: He is already there.  Just as surely as He is there before you to pull you up, so also is He there behind you to push you forward.

Grief(“Evstafiev-bosnia-sarajevo-funeral-reaction” by Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev – Mikhail Evstafiev. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evstafiev-bosnia-sarajevo-funeral-reaction.jpg#/media/File:Evstafiev-bosnia-sarajevo-funeral-reaction.jpg)

But why does it have to be this way in the first place?  It’s all well and good for God to be united to us in our suffering, but if He is all-powerful and all-loving, then why won’t He make our path to Him less agonizing?

There are numerous answers to this, but let me throw this out there for you: If the divine-human relationship involved all blessings and no crosses, that would give us less of a guarantee of God’s love, not more.

When we talk about a pattern of blessings for good works, gifts as tokens of love, etc., we find ourselves within the borders of commutative justice (this is a fancy way of saying fee-for-service, or quid-pro-quo); this is true even with tokens of love, in which case the Giver gives in order to get love from the receiver.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with commutative justice; it has its place.  But of itself it is impersonal, and does not necessitate the presence of love.  Co-suffering (which is the literal meaning of com-passion), on the other hand, does.

Prodigal Son“Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn – Return of the Prodigal Son – Google Art Project” by Rembrandt – 5QFIEhic3owZ-A at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Instead of a gumball-dispensing Santa Claus in the sky, what we have is a Divine Lover who so loves and values us that there is no kind of suffering — even death itself — that He will not (indeed, has not deigned to) fully enter into with us in order to give us life.

This does not mean that if we are faithful to Him, we will have to suffer forever.  As Scripture tells us, there will come a day when “He will wipe away every tear” (Rev. 21:4).  But until then, we fallen creatures have need of the tutelage of suffering.

With that in mind, I’d like to close by sharing the thoughts of Cardinal Francis George, who recently died after a long battle with cancer.  In this very brief clip of less than two minutes, he shares some very profound and moving thoughts on how suffering prepares us for eternity.  Take a listen before reading the next sentence.

So the “New Geography” is a work-in-progress — but the good news is that the work has already been finished from on high, by He who holds all time and space in His hands.

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My heart is heavy tonight, and I know I’m not alone.  Twenty of my little brothers and sisters, and six of my adult brethren, were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I have no words.  This is unconscionable, and the fact that this sort of thing has happened before makes it no less so.  This, indeed, is the dark side of the great “dance” of which we are all a part.

I flatter myself if I suppose that any of those directly affected by this tragedy will possibly read this post, but on the off-chance that this does happen, let me just say this: I am so very sorry.  I know only too well that I cannot offer adequate consolation — just know that I love you, and I love the children who were taken from you.  And when I enter into the Presence of the Lord in prayer, I will bring you and them with me.

While I can’t pretend to have the answers people are looking for, I can offer some insight into how a Catholic makes sense of things like this.  It’s only natural to ask why God allows things like this to happen.  I can do no better than to cite one of the great saints of our Tradition:

Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind (St. Catherine of Siena, “Dialogue on Providence”).

Life is more than the short and often troubled time we have here on this earth, and until the end we will not know the full purpose of God.  But no matter what happens, we need never doubt the unfathomable, tender love of God for all humanity.  He, and He alone, knows how to bring the greater good out of even very great evil…and He will do so.

Love and peace suffered a defeat today.  The temptation to give into despair and cynicism is very strong.  But please consider this: If we give into such an attitude, the enemy will have won.  Whether by acting directly or indirectly, the devil — by whom sin, evil, and suffering entered into human history — wants to throw tragedies, disasters, and other obstacles in our way so that we will give up on goodness, on hope.  Let’s not give him such an easy victory.  Instead, let us use this tragedy to spur ourselves onward in the pursuit of peace, in the building of a more humane and just world.

St John of the Cross

Today was the Feast Day of St. John of the Cross, whose reflections on the place of suffering in the spiritual life are perhaps the most famous among those of all the saints.  I would like to think that this is no accident, but rather a providential assurance that God remains in control.

What we need to realize is this: In the last analysis, God does not allow us to suffer because He does not care about us, because He is unaware of or distant from our sufferings, or because we are so bad that He wants vengeance upon us.  Christ the King reigns from the Cross, and He loves us so very much that He invites us to come up to the cross with him.  Not because “misery loves company,” but because the cross is the way to eternal life, to unending joy.

And yes, even those who lost their lives in this tragedy are included in this great mystery of God’s redemptive love.  So let us mourn, but not despair.  The will of the One Who turns the starts is that all tears be one day turned to joy.

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In the award-winning HBO series “Game of Thrones,” the sword master Syrio Forel introduces his young apprentice Arya Stark to swordplay through “dancing lessons.”  No, he is not teaching her to waltz Matilda…he is teaching her how to fight.  But to learn to thrive in combat is, from his perspective, not much different from learning to master the intricacies of a dance.

In his 1973 film “Mean Streets,” director Martin Scorsese gives audiences a bar fight that is set (I might even say choreographed) to the tune of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.”  I like to use this scene as an example of Scorsese’s genius as a director, having as he does the ability to create a sort of “dance” even out of a portrait of violence.

Cinema – along with its distant relative, television – is a kind of “dance of images,” like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.  And with these images come circumstances, which involve characters faced with challenges and adversity…all ingredient in the beauty of the dance.

To those who question how I can believe in God when the world is so messed up, I posit a question of my own: If filmmakers and swordsmen can bring beauty out of otherwise unwholesome images and sticky situations, then how much more can the Creator do so with the disorder of the universe?

Here is what I believe and hold to as a Catholic: All of creation, and all of history, is a dance, designed to reflect the eternal Dance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (see my Thanksgiving post for a reflection on the Trinitarian character of creation).

But as with any dance, life is not one dance partner puppeteering the other.  In such a case, the dancers are not partners at all.  Each party must be free to cooperate with the other.  Unfortunately, free will entails the ability to err – and as we know, creatures have indeed erred.

To turn again to “Game of Thrones,” there is a scene from a later episode of Season One in which Jaime Lannister, one of the story’s primary villains, questions the existence of the gods on account of the world’s dysfunction.  He asks the age-old question: If the gods are real, then why is there so much evil in the world?

Catelyn Stark’s answer is striking: “Because of people like you.”

God respects our freedom.  He invites us – and through us, all of creation – to join in the divine Dance, but He will never force us.  In the words of Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College: “God seduces, but He never rapes.”  But what He will do is incorporate our mistakes, our transgressions, into the Dance in such a way as to maintain – and ultimately, by His infinite power, enhance – its integrity and beauty.

The shining instance of this is the Cross.  In the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, we see that God’s response to evil is not to snap His fingers and cancel out its existence.  His answer, rather, is to assume the consequence of evil unto Himself and swallow it up in the ever greater Divine Mercy.  He thus affirms the free will with which He endowed all human beings while at the same time sharing His redemptive love.

That is why the Cross is the point of reference for all Christians regarding life on this earth.  Because of what Christ did for us, all of humanity’s sufferings and trials, all tribulations in this world that “groans in travail, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19), can now take on redemptive value.  Passing through these struggles as through an Exodus, we can lead the world into renewal, shedding light along the path as signs of hope.

Let’s return to the combat metaphor.  Dr. Kreeft wrote a book titled “Love is Stronger Than Death,” a philosophical reflection on the ultimate evil of human life.  He explores five stages of humankind’s relationship to death – Death as Enemy, Death as Stranger, Death as Friend, Death as Mother, and Death as Lover.  In the chapter on death as a friend, he compares death to a sparring partner whose thrusts and jabs put us on guard and force us to exercise our skills a bit.  I think we can apply this metaphor to suffering and life’s troubles in general, not just death.  Even the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche understood this: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

And doesn’t the darkness sometimes make the light shine all the clearer?  Doesn’t the light at the end of the tunnel look so much brighter for our having passed through the tunnel itself?  Don’t the lofty mountains look all the more majestic for the depth of the valleys?  And don’t experiences of surviving adversity in the company of others have the power to forge strong and lasting bonds of fellowship?

It’s almost like the contrast of lights and darks in a painting, high notes and low notes in a symphony, or even complementary dance moves in a ballet.

Suffering is part of the fabric of human experience.  Yet the resilience of the human spirit comes from hope, and I believe mankind’s primal hope comes from being made in the image and likeness of the God Who loved us enough to redeem us and Who will one day renew the cosmos, filling creation with the glory of His Kingdom and lifting humanity to an inheritance which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

I believe that in every human heart rests this hope, a hope that manifests itself in a variety of ways: The sense that in the midst of the apparently impossible circumstances of this world, there is always something worth fighting for; the sense that suffering and loss are not all there is, or at least the conviction that they shouldn’t have the final word; dedication to preserving and sharing what is good, beautiful, and true in life…the “Seeds of the Word.”

What’s my point in all this?  My point is simply that life, in both its seen and unseen elements, is a dance.  It is a wonderful, terrible, exalting, humbling, heartwarming, terrifying, comforting, challenging, community-building, isolating, healing, ferociously painful, mysterious dance.  And for better or worse, we are all in it together…not just we who are alive today but we as in the whole of humankind, past, present and future.  As the great British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “We’re all in the same boat, and we are all seasick.”

So there you have it.  That’s the idea behind the name of the blog, and the blog itself.  You may still be wondering, however, why I am choosing to focus primarily on the movies.

Sobchack

Film is unique as an art form.  Vivian Sobchack, professor of theater arts and film at the University of California at Santa Cruz, defines this uniqueness very well in her book, “The Address of the Eye.”  All art forms use creative means of expressing the realities of direct, lived experience for our reflection; but what sets film apart, as Sobchack says, is that it expresses direct experience (part of the “dance”) using direct experience.

Therefore, I feel that it is the most profound way for me to present my faith and to dialogue with the Seeds of the Word in contemporary culture.  If you have read this far, I assume you have some interest in joining me.  I don’t know what this journey will bring, but I look forward to the adventure.

And so onward, upward, and into the dance!

Note: All images were obtained through a Google image search except for the pictures of “Love is Stronger Than Death” and “The Address of the Eye,” which were obtained from Amazon.com.

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