I was talking with a teenager about death. From his perspective death was the worst thing that could happen. It would be the end of everything – dreams, hopes, plans, pleasure, purpose… I’m glad he thought that way. I wish every young person would think that way.
Yet those of us who are older know there are things worse than our own death. Indeed when we are older, and have lived a long life, death can come as a friend.
One of the things worse than our own death is when death comes to rob us of our young.
John’s Gospel has Jesus’ mother watching him die on the cross. And Michelangelo’s Pieta then places the dead Jesus in his mother’s arms. Mary looks about 48 years young, or after that day, forever old. Some things change you irrevocably.
I talked to a mother whose son had committed suicide. She went to a support group every week. She’d been going for four years. That group was her daily bread and water, the sustenance that enabled her to keep on living with so much pain. These ordinary people in the support group, whom four years ago she’d never met, where now extraordinary. They were the stars in her darkness of despair.
We don’t know how Jesus’ mother carried on living with such pain. There’s nothing historically known about her after that day. Maybe she put on a face of bravery behind which she withered, dying from the inside out. Maybe she poured herself into the movement that resurrected her son, driving out her personal pain with new purpose in his name, in his memory. Maybe she looked at the specks of light, stars for her, and survived with the hope they gave. Maybe she found a friend that helped.
There are a lot of quotes about suffering, often trying to alleviate pain with pithy words, trying to make something noble of it all. Maybe such talk is better than silence, but I’d prefer instead a loaf of gingerbread.
A lot of Christian theology about the cross reads like this, trying to find words to bring meaning to it all. But as Kate Jacobs says, “Sometimes suffering is just suffering. It doesn't make you stronger. It doesn't build character. It only hurts.”
Pain comes in various forms. Sometimes it comes as sickness, sometimes as death, sometimes as uncertainty, sometimes as loneliness, sometimes as abandonment, sometimes as loss of meaning, sometimes in seeing the suffering of others, especially those you care about. Pain is like our Auckland weather, you never know quite what the new day will bring.
For most of history sickness has been a precursor to death. We feared the common cold. We feared the neighbour with a cold, let alone the stranger to the village. Life was often short. Many children died in infancy, and mothers in childbirth. 50 was old.
Fear was a constant companion. It still is. Though what we fear has changed a bit. Physical pain, for most of us, is now better managed. Not many worry these days about the afterlife, despite what Israel Folau tweets. And we can be in communication with those dear to us even though they might live on the other side of the world. Distance is not what it was.
Yet fear is not a rational thing. It visits us at all times of the day and night. It visits us when we are young and when we are old. It visits us when we are happy and when we are sad. It visits us when we are about to set off an adventure, when we are about to see others set off on adventures, and when adventures pass us by. It just lurks.
Some talk about ‘overcoming’ fear, or ‘facing’ our fears. I suppose those terms can be helpful; especially when fear gets fed, and overfed, and large, and larger, and then blocks out all light.
But usually fear, especially in its milder form, is something we just live with – like that loud creek in a floorboard we inadvertently stand on in the night, or the winter draught that just comes in bypassing the shut windows. Yes we try to fix it, plug it, and get rid of it. But it’s persistent, and we have other things needing doing. And so we just live with it.
Sometimes in the wee hours we have a conversation with fear.
In times past fear was personified in religious language as a demon or demons, and their home base was called Hell. Hell was where fears reigned. It was where every action, every thought, every relationship capitulated to fear.
This is the context I would suggest to understand the words given to the Orthodox monk St Silouan the Athonite, “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.” These words suggest that the pilgrim can enter the world of fear and not be captivated by it. The pilgrim can speak to fear, even learn from fear, without fear’s negativity taking control of the pilgrim’s life.
Fear can teach us that we care about others, and want others to care about us. Fear can teach us what we care about most. Fear can teach us our vulnerabilities.
Fear can teach us too that we are not as self-reliant as we think we are. Self-reliance was always an illusion, for we were always connected even when we just heard engaged signals. Fear suggests that the ones we love won’t pick up; nobody will pick up.
For that’s the other thing about fear. While it might be teaching us it is also trying to trick us into believing all the negative things others say about us and we say about ourselves. It has a high speed programme that condenses every negative hurtful thing anyone has ever said or imagined saying about us, and then replays it again and again and again.
Another of fear’s tricks is having us believe that we are running out of time. The relationships that aren’t quite right won’t be fixed in time. The things we want to do, and need doing, won’t be done in time. Fear tells us we aren’t busy enough, as if busyness is what should dominate our time, and consume us.
The demons called fear try to consume us. And some nights they succeed. Some nights the darkness of despair is all there is; until the dawn.
Fear, the creek in the floorboard, the wintery draught, the demon who tries to diminish us with half-truths, the dark of despair… is our companion. It lurks around our living. And those of us who’ve lived a while, or who’ve travelled into caverns of suffering, know it well.
But fear doesn’t have to define us, and nor should we let it define those close to us, or those who need our help. Even with all our flaws we can be, at least for a little while, another’s light. When a few of us flawed ones get together, and share our laughter, our sustenance, and our fragility… the starlight can grow stronger.
This day, the day of darkness, when the memory of suffering and the pain of our living is acknowledged and in a strange way honoured, on this Good Friday let us remember that the goodness arises from us. We are the fragile stars that need to shine both for others and others for us.