I’m reading a book called Enduring Creation: Art, Pain and Fortitude. It’s a comprehensive look at religious art over history, but more specifically suffering related to religious art. I wrote earlier about empathy in art and the ways that we are able to connect to the experience of the portrayed when we see them, when we relate to the strain in the eyes, when we meditate on the subject and a story then becomes uniquely alive.
One of the first chapters of this book goes into the detail of art in the medieval times and the ways that hades was depicted. Suffering in hell was portrayed in really realistic ways with people that were just like us and the endless torture they would have to endure. I was suddenly re-burdened with the fear of such a fate, all of the ways I have fallen short started running through my mind and the pit of anxiety grew deeper and stronger. The very last paragraph reminds the reader of the cross and I felt relief, oh ya the cross. Grace is a relief beyond comprehension, but we only see it as such when we recognize our depravity and what we are doomed to. We preach the gospel of grace so loudly I think so often we forget its hope, when we’re saved from a fab western life into an eternity of paradise we lose the groans of grief that should always accompany our release. Maybe it’s good for us to walk into a church and see what we’ve been saved from depicted for us in the most gruesome ways, because way too easily we forget what we deserve.
I think the same goes for the cross. Early Christians were embarrassed to paint Jesus’s crucifixion because of the weakness revealed through his death, instead they would paint him as a father figure strong like a roman soldier carrying a lamb over his shoulders. In the evangelical tradition we do this in a different way for different reasons, we celebrate the resurrection because the pain of his suffering is less exciting. We would much rather remember that we’ve been saved, than remember the suffering necessary for such salvation and our heinous acts that caused it. It is in our ability to empathize with the suffering Christ that we comprehend such outrageous notions as grace. Artists give us this capacity to relate to such suffering, it becomes an invitation to share in the grief of our causing. Jacaphone da Todi wrote, “Let me truly weep with you, to lament the crucifixion, as long as I shall live.” This is the Eucharist, this is a crucifix.
I was talking with my friend Nick the other day about a miraculous experience that happened in the lives of some mutual friends of ours that everyone is rightfully celebrating. These mutual friends have also been through some great pain as well, specifically 10 years of infertility. Nick and I were discussing why no one wanted to hear from them in their suffering, because isn’t that just as much the process of faith as a miraculous healing. Can’t we find the stuff of miracles in the presence of God through pain? What if God in motion is just as much displayed through the process of pain as it is through science defied. We forget that lamenting is an honorable form of worship, that God presents himself not always in taking us from pain, but from remaining with us in pain.
The root of it all is we don’t want to feel our pain, talk about it or recognize its existence. We want happy, and if we can’t have happy we want Norco. I do recognize the need for medication, but as a whole we have an unbelievably overmedicated society and I would imagine that a large portion of the blame goes to our inability to feel our pain, face our anxiety, or cope with our depression. This is reflected in our Christian slogans, the ones that have been on repeat for years that are essentially telling us not to grieve because God's got it, which is just a cover for our incapacity to empathize and truly lament with one another.
It is in this, we miss a whole part of reality and God’s work in us that must be recognized if we want to come close to developing a robust faith. I would imagine that over the course of our lives we might find that to accept, empathize with, and experience such pain is the only way to be truly authentic. This is the only way to sincerely and fully celebrate, because by it we understand and see God in really deep ways and through it we can understand true redemption.
Maybe we should be concerned about our rhetoric of blessedness and the assumptions that happy is all that is blessed. I wonder if we elevated the chronic sufferer and made a point to hear from them, the mass of inspiration we might receive would blow our minds as we squirm in our cushioned church pew. We would see that lament gives us an education and a form of connection with God and ourselves, infinitely more robust that we can know in only bliss. And yet the miracle is there just the same, it’s the grace of God in the pain.