Douglas John Hall writes that as Westerners we have a tendency to do everything we can to avoid pain and suffering. Hall states in his book, God & Human Suffering, that we cannot go through a bookstore or drug store without being faced with “graphic terms (of) how to avoid every type of suffering.” From self help books to pharmacologic analgesics, there is constantly some new advertisement for a quick fix or fad that makes life easier and more pain free. But, as the opening quote by Gilbert Bilezikian states, “Buried deep within every human soul throbs a muted pain that never goes away.”
Within our Western tradition we jump quickly (and we are most skilled at this) to denying the existence of suffering within our lives, denying our humanity instead of calling a thing what it is. Hall notes that we have a tendency to deflect our participation in this suffering, refusing to be affected by its force. He takes our response to suffering to an existential level by stating, “A perennial theme in the religious history of the race has been just this docetic motif; pain, whether physical or spiritual, is fundamentally unreal, insubstantial. Or it is only as real as we, subjectively, allow it to be.” Humans have a tendency to deny the reality of suffering. We close ourselves off from our raw experience of things, especially experiences that cause pain.
Existentialists are particularly keen on observing the shifts that take place within different cultures, and many point out a shift that took place post World War II in the Western world toward removing the causes of suffering. There came a re-emergence of writings on theodicy asking the age old question: how can we justify God in view of the immense evil rampant in the world? Theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Pope Benedict XVI had to re-examine what a good and beautiful God is in light of the Holocaust. Where is God in our suffering? Where is God within the crucifixion of Christ? A theology of hope was, in a way, lost, and had to be found again amidst the happenings of the Holocaust. The Holocaust and the crucified God were together. That is the starting place for a theology of hope, the starting place for our redemption, and, according to Moltmann, “the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.”
Hall and Kolb write that Luther’s contrasts between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross is that the theology of glory avoids precisely the place we are afraid to look: Aushwitz, a grave, a crime scene, an abortion clinic, our unconscious, our broken relationships, among many others. A theology of the cross turns us not away from God’s power, but towards God’s solidarity with the suffering of Christ on the cross. Theologian Robert Kolb writes that “God reveals himself by hiding himself right in the middle of human existence as it has been bent out of shape by the human fall.” Yet, this doesn’t make any sense. It is a paradox, and much of this paper is about the paradox that our suffering, specifically our anxiety, is also our redemption. This theme of paradox is essential to this existential view within life. Within this quote by Kolb, I believe what he is getting at is that God positions himself right where we are, in hiding, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. Such a perspective calls us to examine all of life, every aspect of our existence, including our suffering, which is the place that we are more apt to find the hope that we are so longing for. Cooper states, “Creativity and change are always accompanied by tragedy, violence, and strife.” This returns us to theodicy in believing that God has placed us in the perfect fertile soil for our growth, within these paradoxes that we would journey through to make meaning and sense of life. That is the model of health within existentialism, that we would have courage to engage and respond creatively to our anxiousness.
Returning back to the reaction during the time post World War II, Edith Weisskopf-Joelson says, regarding the state of America in the 1960s, (which I believe can still be said of the Western mindset today): “Our current mental hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment.” Many a time I have sat in conversation with friends or acquaintances, and a particular question from me (it may be a different one for each person) unleashes a story of their pain and struggle in life. Every human has this story within them, but it requires the right invitation to share it because there is pressure from our current society to present a strong, happy front, to show no weakness. Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, a professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Seminary, believes that these messages thrust an individual into a deeper traumatization to the point of “shaming them into silence and truly unbearable isolate.” Our culture’s ways of coping with suffering, of all forms, has the tendency to separate us even more from our selves.
Yet, experiences of pain and suffering are bound to happen in our life. Hall states that as Christians we are a “tradition of Jerusalem,” meaning we are in the heritage of Jewish faith and should, as we try to make sense of the world and our faith, include the biblical testimony as a whole. Within Christianity, Hall states that there are two basic beliefs imbedded in the scriptures concerning human existence: “First is that suffering is real and is the existential lot of fallen humanity. The second is that suffering is not the last word about the human condition and therefore that it is needed not and must not become our preoccupation.” This will be delved into a bit later as we begin to discuss Holy Saturday.
We are preoccupied with what Hall calls “cheap positive psychologies” that have distanced us from ourselves. In other words, we deny the reality of our lives, and in doing so repress much of our being. We take what feels good and call that life, shoving the more unpleasant experiences, and thus a large part of what life is, under the cloak of denial. I believe that we do live in a world of immense suffering, along with happiness, but that we have built a philosophy and being around putting aside the pain focusing on the alternative. But as humans we are crying out for meaning within and around our lives. To find it we must go beyond the reality of our thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, to the cogs and experiences that direct them. Those who have participated in some form of long-term psychotherapy know all too well that the breadth of our internal reality mirrors the vastness of the universe in the composition of what makes them, them. Having gone through such a process myself, I believe that life’s greatest adventure and challenge is the one we can undertake with ourselves within the unconscious, the work of understanding ourselves, and our universe within, as we go about interacting and engaging in life. It is from a place of understanding that we will move into our most intimate calling in life, what John O’Donohue calls the return to the home of ourselves.
Hall states that the denial of our condition is not just a religious development, but a product of our progressive modernization, or “the modern spirit of progressive redemption.” As a Western society we have grown by leaps and bounds in our ability to prevent disease, famine, and even to a degree death itself. In doing so we have failed, or more accurately, refused, to entertain the possibility of denial in our “quest for a pain-free life and the imaginative unfolding of techniques of the achievement of such life.” Such techniques are not just present within religious mindsets, but throughout the human condition.
This very paper could be seen as a technique to make sense of my own suffering, to construct some illusion of control over my pain. That is what theories do. Hall states that every worldview, or “system of meaning” that seeks to contextualize the human experience runs the risk of “insulating its adherents, at the level of intellect and spirit, from some dimensions of reality.” But I hope, with this paper, to do what most theories do not do, and that is to get in touch with reality. Not so much to delve into a philosophical discussion of what reality is, but rather to begin to cultivate a curiosity for what is unconsciously felt and believed, and tap into some dimensions that are evident and hopefully some that are repressed.
I recall the words of John O’Donohue in the opening page of his book, Anam Cara, when he states, “It’s strange to be here … the mystery never leaves you.” Theories are just methodologies humans have chosen to make sense of experiences. If we were to return to them later on, we may very well have a different view due to the addition of new experiences. Any theory can define an experience as unreal, but that does not mean that the experience didn’t happen, and negative experiences do not go away easily. One of my first clients during my counseling internship struggled severely from something she experienced a few years back. She came to me wanting so much for these memories and feelings to go away, to disappear, believing that life would be “all better” and “fine” once she had gone through a specific type of treatment. I could not think of a way to break it to her that I believed her view of therapy and of life to be very unhealthy. We all have experiences that we would prefer not to remember, but they are part of the full reality of life, and what make us who we are.
Shelly Rambo, in her book Spirit & Trauma, moves us toward a theology of suffering as being through a lens of trauma. She writes that “trauma is the suffering that does not go away.” She begins to bring new musings to the study of suffering, that indeed we are bound to suffering in life but that we have some experiences that cause a type of suffering that does not go away. Namely, trauma. Through this lens of trauma, Rambo proposes that the distinction between death and life is not as clear-cut as we make it out to be. The story of our lives never really ends “happily ever after” as we fantasize. Take the case of the woman described earlier: her view is that if she could get this treatment and do that thing then the pain was going to end. Rambo’s thesis is far from this. Rambo suggests that our traditional Christian theology tends toward “covering over suffering, in altering a redemptive gloss over its deep wounds.” We want the quick fix, the pill, pay this fee and go get that service and you’re healed. Just like in the case of the patient I described above, as Christians we do not accept suffering, but rush too quickly to redemption or we put on a veil of painlessness, not accepting the experience of life for what it is.
Rambo shifts the focus of this theological research not outside, looking at history or diagnostic categories, but to a more tenuous place to the gaps of the experience itself. Psychological research has shown that within traumatic experiences the memory of the event is not complete. Something is lost in these experiences. Because it is too painful or frightening, we are not able to make sense of our experience, so in defense we repress what does not fit into our ability to comprehend. In shifting inward to the experience of trauma and remaining with it, Rambo believes that something new begins to arise as we discover a new “language of remaining” with this pain that has no context for comprehension.
Because our current frameworks are inadequate, we begin to construct a new framework of suffering, one that speaks to the depth of pain that we experience through trauma. It is within the gaps in our experience that meaning begins to surface. This is where Rambo is urging us to enter and remain. It is the reflection on death and suffering that leads us to growth and meaning.
Traumatic experiences are crying out to be listened to, or witnessed, as Rambo proposes, so that they can be understood and reintegrated. They force us into a place of witness. With the events of the beginning and middle of the 20th century and the vast amount of research with survivors of the atrocities, scholars and scientists have been forced to reconsider what it means to “witness” an event. Yet, there is an interesting contradiction within what it means to witness, as proposed by Rambo: a paradox in that the events themselves also refuse to be captured. “It carries within it the imperative to tell and be heard.” These events that cause us so much pain want to be told and experienced, yet all the while don’t. Even though a survivor might be able to describe an experience, they may not have actually encountered the full expanse of the experience themselves. To a degree the experience is still very raw, still trapped and unprocessed within the body.
I can recall sitting across from my own therapist telling him about some of my experiences in life, only this time they were received and experienced by another, perhaps not fully, but in a new way, alongside me, helping me bring meaning to the event and fill in gaps in the experience. From a Rogerian or humanistic psychology vantage, we cannot save or actualize ourselves on our own, since the fall, healing must be mediated to us through another. Terry Cooper, states, “Self-acceptance and the healing of our self-estrangement comes as a result of being accepted and understood, and not from our own heroic efforts to accept ourselves. Healing is relational, not individual.”
We are being asked, called forth, to a new relationship to our suffering, of witnessing and remaining. In order to do so, Rambo states, “we need to wrestle in new ways with the impact of suffering on persons and communities and position ourselves differently in relationship to that suffering.” Just like with my own experience, we need another person or persons amidst this paradox and context of pain and suffering. The way forward, is actually the way back, a return to the rubble of stories within our lives in a way that adds new perspective and meaning that not only moves us forward but creates an icon that guides us.
To begin to witness trauma is to stand in the place where we cannot fully comprehend the event itself, but rather experience the jarring turbulence of knowing and not being able to comprehend. This requires a high degree of courage and willingness to remain in an uncomfortable or even painful space. Yet, as Rambo states, “feeling from the trauma cannot take place without witness.” We need someone to listen within the gaps of our experiences. To be a witness with such experiences is to remain with someone in the place where pain and suffering persists and relief has not yet come. To remain within these terms carries, according to Rambo, an “existential weight,” meaning, I believe, that it is something requiring all of who we are, every aspect of our being.
Rambo deepened her theory of trauma to viewing it as a moment of death and life encountering one another, hence driving us toward the theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who asks, “What persists between death and life?” and leading us to our topic of Holy Saturday, the middle day between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, where we are left in silence and incomplete understanding of not only our past, wondering about its credibility and purpose, but also what will become of us. This is the fear that we are left with: What will become of me? Or as Rambo writes, “What does it mean to remain in the aftermath of that death? What form of life arises there, if any?” What do we make of our lives after the ravages of something that has caused us immense pain? Or to echo Rambo’s earlier question, what sense do we make of the pain that remains after the event has passed?
Witnessing is a middle activity. To be a witness from the middle is to continually position oneself at the intersection of death and life within the experience of suffering. I believe that to be in this place is to position ourselves amidst silence. John O’Donohue stated that if we want to understand ourselves and find words, look not to the psychology books but to the poets and artists. In looking at the theme of silence he points towards the words of Meister Ekhart, who believed that the divine resided in silence. Yet here is another paradox of suffering and darkness. The very thing that will heal us is found in the place that scares us most. In the words of the French poet, René Char, “Intensity is silent, its image is not. I love everything that dazzles me and then accentuates the darkness within me.” To be here is to be in a place of unknowing some things that we may believe or think we know. It is the loosening of attachments that are no longer serving us.