Tag Archives: suffering

Good Friday: Be the One

Regular readers may recall my review of Dr. Edward Siri’s book, “Walking with Mary”, which I read while spending the day over at the Dominican House of Studies.  One section of the book which particularly struck me was a story about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  It’s not only related to Scripture, but I think appropriate for this Good Friday.

Mother Teresa had a prayer card with an image of Jesus in suffering on the front.  Below the image it bore a verse from one of the Psalms which we often hear during Lent, particularly on Good Friday or at Stations of the Cross.  Psalm 69 is one of those prophetic Psalms foretelling the “Suffering Servant”, as described more fully in the Book of Isaiah; verse 21 of the Psalm, says, “I looked for one that would comfort me, and I found no one.”

Underneath the image and the quote from the Psalms, Mother Teresa wrote, “Be the one.”

There is something disarmingly simple, but also profound about this juxtaposition.  The call from the Cross, as contained in the Psalm, is answered in the to-the-point response of Mother Teresa. Hers is not simply a pious reaction, but a command to herself.  I liked the combination so much, that I created a Lenten laptop wallpaper with both quotes on it, to remind myself on a regular basis during this season of fasting and penance what I ought to be doing more often all the year through.

Maybe you aren’t called to go out into the slums of a faraway place like Calcutta.  Yet there are people you know who could use some love, some attention, and some comfort from you.  Be the one to bring it to them.

Detail of "Christ Crucified" by Diego Velázquez (1632) The Prado, Madrid

Detail of “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez (1632)
The Prado, Madrid

2 Comments

Filed under culture

Nine Inch Nails and the Attraction of Nothingness

This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired.  I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience.  Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.

Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.  Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.

Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music.  NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people.  My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things.  So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.

For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was.  NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20′s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins.  His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.

The music itself was unbelievably complex.  There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses.  There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance.  This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.

In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking.  That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments.  However there was also something else going on.

There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness.  How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in.  And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.

To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way.  Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain.  Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.

This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself.  Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.]  Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.

I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say.  And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it.  Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.

Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering.  Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.

That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course.  I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings.  However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.

That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due.  I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table.  However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS'  "Austin City Limits"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”

5 Comments

Filed under culture

A Message from Mrs. Kennedy

Fifty years ago yesterday, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy went on camera for the first time following the assassination and funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, to thank the nation for the outpouring of support she and her children received.  This brief film was shown around the country in movie theatres as a newsreel, and exists in two different versions – one showing Mrs. Kennedy seated with Robert and Edward Kennedy, and the other of her shown from the side.  Both are worth watching, since the effect on the viewer, or at least on this viewer, changes based on the angle, the lighting, and the closeness of the camera lens.

Now the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts has announced that more of those very condolence messages which Mrs. Kennedy received will be made available to scholars and researchers.  Some items in the collection are quite remarkable indeed. For example, there is a letter from the mother of one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama only a few months before.

Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, politically or otherwise, anyone who has experienced a great loss in their life can appreciate how these pieces of paper – cards, notes, letters, photographs – are simultaneously both hurtful and helpful.  They hurt, obviously, because the reader is reminded of their loss, and can be reminded of it again and again, should they choose to hold on to the documents.  Yet at the same time they can help, because they also remind the sufferer that they are not alone, whatever it is they may be going through.  It is then when humanity and decency are so important, in those moments when the widow or orphan is feeling they have nothing to hold on to as they attempt to go on with their lives.

Although JFK’s assassination was over 50 years ago, the images and words which Americans associate with that event continue to have an impact on the national consciousness. This message by Mrs. Kennedy was only about a minute long, and yet when one considers what had happened less than two months earlier – and the fact that she was only 34 years old at the time – her grace was truly remarkable.  It reinforced the public’s perception of her bravery as a young widow in overwhelming circumstances.  Yet it also showed that she really did appreciate the prayers and encouragement she received, and that she felt a duty to acknowledge that kindness publicly. It is quite a piece of history.

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

Leave a comment

Filed under culture

Words to Keep Close

Martin Jahn (c. 1620–c. 1682) is probably not a name with which you are familiar, and that is perfectly fine.  For to be honest until yesterday I was not familiar with his name either.  Allow me to rectify that for both of us, gentle reader.

During the Offertory at Sunday Mass, our choir performed what is commonly referred to in English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J.S. Bach.  However instead of using the English adapted lyrics, with which most of us are familiar, particularly around the Advent and Christmas season, the choir sang the words of the original, earlier text by Jahn.  Fortunately, our parish music director prepares handouts for Mass each Sunday containing not only the listing of the hymns which the congregation will be singing, but also the texts of the pieces which the choir sings during communion, etc.

Reading the unfamiliar words to this very familiar music, I was struck not only by their intimacy, but their hopefulness in the face of suffering. Admittedly, all translations are but an approximation of an original text.  As anyone who has studied foreign languages knows, some of the subtlety of meaning is lost when a work is adapted to another tongue.  That is particularly true in areas such as poetry or in lyrics, for oftentimes a composer has deliberately chosen a certain word or phrase to express a host of ideas in an economy of language.

However even in their admitted imperfection in English, this short, simple reflection of one man’s love for Christ is powerful in its sincerity: it gets down to the heart of the matter. If you have ever been in the place where Jahn clearly must have been, in order for him to be able to so succinctly express the nature of worry and pain overcome by hope and love, then this will speak to you, or to someone you love who may be going through a tough time.  (And if you have not experienced such things yet yourself, just wait.)

In short, these are words to keep close.

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe, o wie feste halt’ ich ihn,
daß er mir mein Herze labe, wenn ich krank und traurig bin.

Jesum hab’ ich, der mich liebet und sich mir zu eigen giebet,
ach drum laß’ ich Jesum nicht, wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.

[Translation]

Well for me that I have Jesus, o how strong I hold to Him,
that He might refresh my heart when sick and sad am I.

Jesus have I, who loves me and gives to me His own,
ah therefore I will not leave Jesus, when I feel my heart is breaking.

Cristo

Detail of “The Descent from the Cross” by the
Master of the von Stauffenburg Altarpiece (c. 1454-1460)
Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France

2 Comments

Filed under culture

Never As Good?

With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another.  In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances.  “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.”  I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.

Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader.  Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole.  This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.

This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.

One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it.  Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.

This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely.  What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.

This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief.  It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due.  We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.

Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering.  We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death.  Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering.  In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.

This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.

Judith 8: 25-26, 27

Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise.  Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.

There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come.  It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.


Still from the video for “Never As Good As The First Time” by Sade

4 Comments

Filed under culture