Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception. It is a potentiality that we have to discover within us and progressively develop or destroy through our confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us through our life.
Easter Reflections on Saint Julian of Norwich
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
(photo: Leo Reynolds/Flickr)
This concept of wanting to be one with Christ’s suffering…It’s so foreign to all of us. We do whatever we can to avoid and escape pain. And her goal was to be ‘oned’…in our culture, everyone wants to leap to Easter Sunday.
—Rev. Linda Loving
With Easter approaching this weekend, we’ve dusted off a vintage SOF show, "A Program for Passover and Easter," which includes Krista’s 2002 conversation with Linda Loving, a Presbyterian pastor, actress, and writer. For nearly two decades, Loving has been performing a one woman play about the 14th-century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.
As a young woman, Julian of Norwich fervently prayed to embody the depths of Christ’s suffering on the cross. At the age of 30, her prayers came true when she was stricken with a near-fatal illness. In this state of physical duress, she experienced a series of 16 mystical visions that she letter penned in Revelations of Divine Love. In the embedded audio link above, Krista and Rev. Loving probe Julian of Norwich’s ideas about pain, suffering, and healing.
Julian of Norwich is probably best known for the lines: “all shall be well, and all will be well.”
And, as Loving explains in this clip, these spare words reveal the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Happy Easter.
Suffering and Poetry
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
In his essay, "Ecce Homo," Xavier Le Pichon talks about his mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s. He explains that she was aware of her memory loss long before she was diagnosed. After her death, he says he came upon some of her diaries, which revealed how she tried to hide her memory loss.
Le Pichon relates this discovery to a poem his mother taught him, “Le Vase Brisé" ("The Broken Vase"), written by 19th-century French poet, Sully Prudhomme. In his essay, Le Pichon remembers the poem like this:
"The vase where the verbena is dying
Was cracked by the blow of a fan.
The blow barely grazed it
As no noise revealed it.
But the light bruise
Biting the metal each day
With an invisible but sure hand
Slowly progressed around it.”
The original French version of the poem, published in 1865, was slightly different. I asked poet Robert Archambeau to translate it. He recommended that his colleague at Lake Forest College, Jean-Luc Garneau, read both the French and English versions of the poem, and talked about Sully Prudhomme — his background, his style of writing, and what he may have been trying to say about suffering in his poem.
It’s interesting to connect Garneau’s comments about Sully Prudhomme to Krista’s interview with Xavier Le Pichon. As Garneau says, Prudhomme, along with a few other poets, started the Parnassian School of poetry, a style of writing that rejected sentimentality for scientific precision and detachment. Prudhomme’s poem centers around the idea of fragility — a vase that was cracked by the slightest breeze from a fan. It’s a crack that not only goes unnoticed, but also renders the vase unable to keep its flowers alive. Garneau points out Prudhomme’s scientific distance in the line “the vase is broken: do not touch,” which, he says, suggests suffering should not be interfered with.
When I hear Garneau discuss the poem, I think about Le Pichon describing how he felt he was so immersed in his scientific pursuits that he was not able to see the suffering of others, and that it is through “walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.”
Later in his interview with Krista, Le Pichon recalls what it meant for him to see his mother experience Alzheimer’s: “My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease and I could see what the suffering was and that requires from us to invent a new way to deal with this person, with the suffering, to make their life possible, humane. And at each age you have new challenges and you have to face them. And this is how we build the humanity. The humanity is given to us at the possibility of old age, at each birth, and it has to be constructed. It has to be built. It is hard work.”
As Garneau describes what Prudhomme was communicating through the poem, it strikes me as contradictory to Le Pichon’s belief in facing suffering, engaging with it — his idea that fragility is “at the heart of humanity.” I’d be curious to hear more thoughts about how this poem connects with the show and why it surfaces in Le Pichon’s writing.
But, it’s not just “The Broken Vase” that captured Le Pichon’s attention. It is clear from “Ecce Homo” that Le Pichon sees suffering and poetry as intimately linked. He writes:
"As humans are confronted to suffering and death, as mirrors of their own suffering and death, they are confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability and this confrontation forces them to go beyond themselves by entering into a transcendent world that can be metaphysical, artistic and (or) poetic. This has probably been the origin of metaphysics, of art and poetry, which give us the capacity to project ourselves beyond the immediate reality of the difficulties of our life."
Repossessing Virtue: Sharon Salzberg on the Humiliation of Suffering
» download (mp3, 9:17)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I saw Kate immediately after she interviewed Sharon Salzberg for our series on the economic downturn. Kate was awestruck by her simple profundity. And, after I listened, I understood why.
The Buddhist teacher sees the plight of suffering in the U.S. as a source of shame for most people, a kind of humiliation. We are ashamed of losing control. We fear uncertainty.
This burden denies us the right of being human. We’re vulnerable and so we isolate ourselves. So, instead of reaching out to others and finding comfort and strength in our families and communities, we hide. This point gave me pause and, I hesitate to write this, an unsettled feeling — of shame and embarrassment.
In 2002, I was laid off — honestly, I still think of it as being fired — while my wife and I were living in Oxford. The dot-com company I was working for was hemorrhaging money. My boss back in the States called the head of the London office. She ushered me in to her office; over the phone, he said the company needed to cut salaries and positions and had to “let me go”; I was then told to pack up my items and be escorted out of the office immediately while the office manager observed me.
Talk about humiliation. It’s difficult enough being axed. Being the only American in the London office, being chaperoned and escorted out of the building because of standard HR policy (I still cringe at the thought of this type of inhuman treatment.), being left with a mortgage on a home thousands of miles away while your wife’s a graduate student in a foreign country — and then having to tell her about it, well, it is completely humiliating. I rode the Tube for a good part of the day avoiding the inevitable. Classic stuff I’m sure.
Of course I eventually told my wife that day. She was everything I knew she would be. But the pain didn’t lessen; it staked a larger claim. Her magnanimity and compassion were so pure that I couldn’t return the gesture in any form. I couldn’t, and she didn’t expect me to utter transcendent ideas or practice life-coaching skills, to be zen and thoughtful.
My shame increased. I avoided telling our friends taking care of our house for days, my family and other friends for weeks and months. And then feelings of inadequacy and fear and anxiety increased with each day I couldn’t find a new job. My community was completely supportive; it wasn’t enough.
I know no way around it. I know Sharon Salzberg’s suggestions of conscientious breathing and meditation are wise and helpful. That reaching out to ones close to you is the social safety net we all need. But, despite all that, I do wonder what happens once that practice ceases to embrace the reality of the situation. I’m merely a man, an ambitious American who was canned and feared he couldn’t make his mortgage.
So, where did I find community and ultimately respite? In music. I don’t recall the songs that I repeatedly listened to then, but, surprisingly, the music I’m listening to now transported me back in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I started writing. I’m posting them here because listening to them may be as telling as the paragraphs above. And, check out some of the haunting titles. Strange coincidences persist.
"Roshi’s Very Tired" by Philip Glass from The Book of Longing
"Running Scared" by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
"Rooftops and Streets" by Thunder in the Valley
"Vartani Mor Vort" by Yuval Ron
"The Romance of Wolves" by Roma di Luna
"Road to Somewhere" by Goldfrapp
"Robots" from Flight of the Conchords
"Rise" from the Into the Wild soundtrack
"River Man" by Nick Drake
The Weird Glory and Terrible Power of Nature
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
It’s hard not to see life as utterly random and meaningless in the face of disasters like the recent cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China. And this is an issue that comes up again and again in theological circles, referred to as as the theodicy question: How could a just god let innocent people suffer and die?
On our show A History of Doubt, the historian Jennifer Michael Hecht addresses the theodicy question through the Book of Job. To test Job’s faith, God takes away his livelihood, his children, his status, his health, and finally Job breaks down and demands to know how God could do this to him, an innocent man. God appears to Job in a whirlwind and responds with a tirade.
Have you walked in the depths of the ocean? Have the gates of death been opened to you? Where does light come from? And where darkness? Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Has thou seen the treasures of the hail? Hath the rain a father? Who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice?
Hecht gives her wonderful reading of this passage in her book Doubt: a History.
This is how God accounts for himself. He does not say, Here is proof of justice or of my existence; he simply cites the weird glory of the natural world…. [The Book of Job] is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous.
Krista explored the same theodicy question with the geologist Jelle de Boer, not long after the December 2004 tsunami disaster, in our show The Morality of Nature. Jelle de Boer pointed out that the horrifically destructive power of earthquakes and volcanoes is actually the same power responsible for bringing water and nutrients to the surface of the earth, therefore making life possible.
So through these volcanoes, over billions of years, this beautiful blue planet has formed, and its watery expanse is what gives life. And so life is directly dependent there on these geological processes…the processes where these plates separate and crack and where they run over each other and crack, and as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the earth, they are brought to the surface, and they bring not only those nutrients I talked about earlier, but also water. And that is the essence of life.
That magma running under the surface of everything, ready to destroy and remake life, puts a dark spin on something the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote.
By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.
One Interpretation of the Crucifix
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
It’s a fact of radio production that most of the material you gather never gets used. And even though I’ve only been making my own radio for 2 years, I am already haunted by some of the interview bits that I’ve had to edit out of my work. So, as we begin to broadcast our show about the Catholic Church this weekend, I’ve decided to rescue from obscurity this unheard portion the very first radio interview I ever conducted.
I interviewed Mark Schultz (standing on the far left of the photo below) back in 2006 for a story about Catholics who love the church even though they sometimes disagree with its leaders. He is the associate director of the Land Stewardship Project, an organization that advocates for family farmers. I talked to him and several other Catholics, but in the end my editor persuaded me to focus the story on my mother. And so the entire interview with Mark Schultz wound up on the cutting room floor.
I’ve never forgotten the night I went over to his house, nervous about conducting my first interview, unsure of how to work the recording equipment or even how to hold the microphone properly. But the power of what he said cut through all that. He talked a lot about the specifically Catholic values his parents instilled in him when he was growing up on the South Side of Chicago. But I was particularly struck by what he said about the Catholic crucifix — the image of Jesus nailed to the cross. I’d always had ambivalent feelings about the crucifix myself. I never understood why Catholics wanted an image of violent suffering to be the focal point of the church. But in this audio excerpt, Mark Schultz describes the very personal meaning he takes from that ancient Catholic symbol every time he sees it.