Life oscillates between a desire to avoid pain and welcoming the sense of achievement that suffering often brings. We know, in our bones, that there is ‘no sweet without sweat’ and yet we are surprised by suffering.
It is an unwelcome intruder. Just after a peak moment in the gospels where the disciples recognise who Jesus is – ‘you are the Christ’- Jesus pours cold water on their euphoria with the words, ‘the Son of Man is destined to suffer grievously.’ When we hear or read of the lives of great men and women, we know there is something just round the corner, waiting to happen. Beethoven will suddenly go deaf; Martin Luther King will suddenly be shot.
We also know that this diminishment or death mysteriously enhances the work and reputation of the person. Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the Union but he was also assassinated. All three events go together to forge his place in history. Martha Quest is an autobiographical novel by Doris Lessing about a teenage girl monitoring her own moods and thoughts in an environment of constant rebellion against her parents on a farm in colonial era Zimbabwe. She eventually breaks free and takes a job in town but the luta continues. It is a struggle to find herself. Who is she? Who am I?
Every life, in one way or another, faces this question. The struggle and the pain is to stay with the question until there is peace. This peace, or consolation, is described by Jerome Nadal, one of Ignatius of Loyola’s closest followers, as ‘an inner joy, a serenity of judgement, a relish, a light, a reassuring step forward, a clarification of insight.’ It is sad when we get stuck along the way and give up. This was Jesus’ quarrel with the Pharisees. They gave up the search and settled for something seemingly secure but ultimately lifeless. The whole of Jesus’ life was, in Paul’s words, a ‘groaning in giving birth’. He announced the coming of the kingdom but that was only the beginning. The struggle was yet to intensify; it had started with the beginning of creation and would go on until there is true peace on earth.
I wanted to call this piece ‘Fashion or Fission’ but decided it was too catchy, too cheap! Still, ‘fashion’ – what others do – is what we settle for when we can’t face the pain of fission. Fission means division, splitting and exploding. It means energy, even atomic or nuclear energy, the energy we feel when we ‘split’ off from our parents, our home, our security and start something new. The prophet Joel announces, ‘your young people will see visions and your old people dream dreams,’ and Peter kicks off Pentecost with these words. They are echoed by poet T. S. Eliot; ‘old men ought to be explorers.’
Children are born explorers too and it is a great sadness when this spirit is drummed out of them by the demand to ‘conform.’ The desert is blooming with flowers, unseen.
September 12, 2021 Sunday 24B Is 50:5-9 James 2:14-18 Mark 8:27-35
Nadal, cf The First Jesuits,p83.