There is an old story about a cobbler who came to Rabbi Isaac of Ger and said: “Tell me what to do about my morning prayer. My customers are poor men who have only one pair of shoes. I pick up their shoes late in the evening and work on them most of the night; at dawn there is still work to be done if the men are to have their shoes ready before they go to work. Now my question is: What shall I do about my morning prayer?”
“What have you been doing till now?” the Rabbi asked.
“Sometimes I rush through the prayer quickly and get back to my work – but then I feel bad about it. At other times I let the hour of prayer go by. Then too I feel a sense of loss and every now and then, as I raise my hammer from the shoes, I can almost hear my heart sigh, ‘What an unlucky man I am, that I am not able to make my morning prayer’.”
Said the Rabbi, “If I were God, I would value that sigh more than the prayer.”
Kierkegaard once insightfully said, “A prayer is a wounded word, a sigh sent up from a wounded heart”.
Suffering can be visible and invisible, or one or the other. Suffering can be physical, mental, or spiritual, or the trifecta blending into one.
It can be the suffering of overwork, or underwork, of sustained poverty, or deep tiredness. It can be the suffering of disappointment, betrayal, fear, and abandonment. It can be the relentless unfair discrimination that bars you at every turn. It can be a disease eating into you, a loss consuming you, an accident that has all but destroyed you. It can be watching the suffering of others, especially those you love.
Regardless of the cause the ripples of anguish eke out, disturbing the serenity of lives, disturbing the myths we construct of surety and security. It comes unwanted.
Suffering in time will touch us all. It is the price of living, and mortality.
It is also the price of love. To love another means their suffering will wound our hearts.
Holy Saturday is the name that is given to the 24-hour period nestled between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between crucifixion and resurrection.
It is a day, says Pete Rollins, that speaks of the absence of God and is as much a part of the Christian experience as the day before and the day after. It is a moment to experience the depth of Jesus’ cry: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?). The moment when we feel abandoned by God and utterly alone in the world. This day is never as far from us as we would wish, for there are times when we are unsettled by the feeling that we have been abandoned and that everything we believe may be nothing more than empty words and hopeless dreams. This is the horror of the cross, not the pain and suffering of a victim, but the removal of God.
Holy Saturday ridicules the idea that the feeling of God’s absence is reserved for those who are irreligious.
Kierkegaard suggests we begin any prayer we offer by making open confession that we do not know how to pray, or to whom we are praying, or whether there is anyone to answer our prayers, or what we are praying for. We pray in the absence.
Some will, no doubt, argue against such a suggestion. How is it possible, they will protest, to pray to an unknown God, to pray without knowing if anyone is there to hear our prayer?
But this non-knowing has always been found inside prayer, inside the prayers of the mystics, in the dark nights of the soul, in the moments when the only thing of which these men and women of prayer are sure is that they do not know – they do not know about prayer, or God, or religion. They utter a sigh or a cry into the void. Or stand silent. The Judeao-Christian tradition is full of warnings about the danger of knowing and assuming too much when it comes to prayer.
As John Caputo says, “When it comes to prayer there are no masters of the house, that while we consciously desire this or that, we do not know what we desire with a desire beyond desire, and that this non-knowing, which makes prayer impossible, is just what keeps it possible.”
Or in my language, there comes a point in prayer (the sharp end) when expectation leaves us, certainty leaves, we know not to whom we pray, or even why we pray. But pray is what we do. Sometimes we pray because we love. Sometimes we pray because we hurt. Sometimes we pray because we can’t do anything else. We sigh in solidarity with all suffering. Hoping.
Sometimes I meet Christians who believe in the efficacy of prayer, know to whom they are praying, and seek and get results. They are happy. Their God is so big, so strong, and so mighty, and works for them. I’m glad. I genuinely hope their God continues working for them. I also hope they don’t listen too much to me. It’s better if we only talk again when such certainty has gone, if it ever does.
“A prayer” said Kierkegaard, “is a wounded word, a sigh sent up from a wounded heart.”
If Holy Saturday is about the absence of God, maybe Good Friday is about the sigh sent up from a wounded heart. I’m suggesting, like our tradition has long done, that Jesus hanging on the cross is a symbol of God. Not God triumphant. Not God in control. But God as a wounded word, a sigh.
I’m not trying to make some trinitarian statement. I’m talking about symbols. I’m not trying to overlook the political realities of first century Roman-occupied Palestine that saw Jesus as a threat and dealt to him, cruelly. I’m talking about the deeply theologically disturbing image of a suffering failure-saviour. I’m talking about God as suffering. God wounded.
Let me step sideways for a moment and mention the shifty destabilizing talk about God than sneaks into the New Testament. The shifty talk away from God as a being (and a powerful one of course) to God as a movement (moving, an add to a verb) in which we move.
In Jesus’ day most gods, irrespective of religion, resided in temples. Those temples were not only spiritual centres but economic centres. There one engaged with a God in transactions - like presenting an offering to the deity in order that you will receive a favour. Or, in a modern version, offering to change your behaviour in order that God will answer your prayer. God as an existent objective reality, and God with a fixed centre of patronage for adherents, went together.
When you read the New Testament with this lens you can see the Jesus movement getting into Temple trouble. Instead of having a fixed centre of patronage, with a fixed god, like a temple, they expressed an understanding that every person was a temple, and God was loose. God did not dwell ‘over here’ or ‘out there’ but rather was like a relationship connecting things together. So, God was something in which we not only lived (our body a temple) but participated in (our body politic, our body of Christ). God was a movement, an insistence, towards compassion, justice, and mutuality. God was a network – moving, unfixed, on the loose, dangerous.
So, when one person suffered, like a crook or a messiah hanging on a Golgothian cross, this network of relationality called God also suffered. When there is suffering, God too is suffering. God is the wounded word.
Suffering can be thought of as the fractures and tears in our relationality. It comes unwanted. It comes because we are connected. It comes often because we love. Suffering is the price of love. To love another means their suffering will wound our hearts.
And so, we pray. An exhausted sigh. A heart-gripped cry. A longing for relief. A thirst for belief. That this might not be the end.