03 November 2020

Thanks and Why Did You Reprise the Piece on Solace?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for the piece you put up yesterday by David Whyte. It is really wonderful and I missed it the first time you put it up several years ago. (Maybe I didn't miss it and it didn't really speak to me then, but it did this time!) I know this is a personal question but do you mind telling readers why you put it up again? I don't think you have done that with your "Contemplative Moment" posts so it piqued my curiosity. Is it because of the pandemic? Did you think this was particularly meaningful at this time because of the suffering the world is experiencing? I thought maybe the reason it spoke to me this time was because I really needed consolation that did justice to my own suffering and this piece did that. Sometimes what you write makes me think you know me and just what I need! I am going to get David Whyte's book!]]

Many thanks for your comments and questions. Yes, David Whyte is a really wonderful writer and what he has to say is rooted in a deep wisdom which is only gained through experience. I think you will love his book; I have posted several passages (definitions) from it over the years and it confirms for me that quite often we need to spend more time thinking about the words we use too blithely or facilely. Consolation (and/or solace) are among these. 

For instance, in spirituality people speak of experiencing consolations and usually they mean by that that somehow God did something "pleasant" or pleasurable for them in prayer, and sometimes they will mean that something that happened in prayer eased their pain and made them feel better. Thus, they will speak of "sweet consolations" and play these off against "bitter desolations" --- where desolations are unpleasant and, at least momentarily, make one feel worse. But in Ignatian spirituality these words are not so easily defined in this sort of black and white way. Instead, what Ignatius meant by a consolation was anything that helps us grow closer to God (and our deepest selves), and desolation is anything which does the opposite. A consolation in this sense might be immensely painful; it might entail serious struggle and various lesser forms of death (or even death itself), while a desolation might be deceptively pleasant when in reality it draws us away from God, and so, away from the very source of life and meaning which is the ground of real happiness or beatitude. David Whyte's piece on solace understands the complex dynamics of these words and captures them very very well.

So why did I reprise this piece? In the Scripture class I am teaching on the Gospel of Mark we had finished the first half of the Gospel, the portion that includes Jesus' non-stop "campaign" through Galilee and environs, his seemingly unceasing miracles, exorcisms, teaching, and his calling and missioning of his disciples/Apostles. This is the story Mark tells in a breathless way, much as an excited 4 year old might recount the story of Christmas morning or a beginning writer just discovering conjunctions might link sentences together with "and" after "and" after "and". This section concludes with Jesus' transfiguration and Peter's compromised profession of Jesus as the Christ or anointed One of God and Jesus' instruction on his death. As Jesus and his disciples move towards Jerusalem and the cross, the first story of the second half of the Gospel (Mark 9:14-29) is Jesus' last recounted exorcism, the healing of the boy with epilepsy which occurs against the backdrop of the disciples' failure to do this and the boy's Father's request to Jesus to heal his son if he can. 

I have never taught this story before and, because of my own seizure disorder, it has always been a difficult one for me. I have tended not to spend a lot of time with it, but now I had to teach it and that meant understanding the story in terms of Mark's Gospel, why it is placed where it is in the text, and attending to what Jesus says about the disciples' failure and the place of prayer in the successful healing. As part of this I especially had to be ready to deal with my own identity as a woman of prayer and the importance of suffering in discipleship (because of the story's context); I needed to do this in light of my own struggles with continued seizures.  Consequently, I spent more than two weeks with the story, reading commentaries, journaling, praying with it (lectio, etc.), and using a couple of sessions with my spiritual director to explore all of this and particularly the way the story affected me. Central to this period was recognizing and articulating the questions characterizing my own struggle to be myself in the face of competing gifts and limitations. Especially I had to pose some sharp questions to God, questions I had never specifically asked Him (unlike the exchange that occurs in the dialog between Jesus and the blind man in the story of the healing of Bartimaeus which ends the section in Mark 10:46-52!!); the process was both incredibly painful and healing for me. Thus, the following paragraph was timely and particularly powerful:

To look for solace is to learn to ask fiercer and more exquisitely pointed questions, questions that reshape  our identities and our bodies and our relation to others. Standing in loss but not overwhelmed by it we become useful and generous and compassionate and even amusing companions for others. But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light, and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?

A second reason had to do with several conversations I had with a writer for the New York Times. (More about this later.) We were talking about eremitical life and the place of solitude in a truly human life, but also, yes, there were links to the pandemic and the added dimensions of solitude so frequently forced upon people as a result. Especially, we were talking about what is possible and necessary then with regard to solitude, not only for hermits, but for every human being. I had written some about the place of struggle and even of suffering in growing in one's capacity for compassion and had cited Douglas John Hall's God and Human Suffering where he says: 

[[The question therefore becomes: How can one at the same time acquire sufficient honesty about what needs to be faced, and sufficient hope that facing it would make a difference, to engage in altering the course of our present world towards life and not death?]] a page later he observes that acknowledging suffering is not enough. What is also required is [[ the trust that something --- the life process or Providence or God --- something “enduring,” as Isaiah put it, is able to take into itself all that does not endure, even things that are not, and give them a future that infinitely transcends the bleak promise of their past.]] 

Eremitical solitude combines all the elements needed for sufficient honesty about "what needs to be faced" with a defining orientation to God and God's Providence; together these provide significant hope in the midst of suffering in a way which is profoundly consoling. Above all I recognize my own eremitical life as motivated by the desire and sense of a call that, by virtue of the grace of God, can [[shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth (me), and bring (me) into the light.]] So this too was on my mind and in my heart, and David Whyte's piece on Solace helped clarify and contextualize all of this for me personally. However, yes, I certainly believed it would speak to readers during this time.