The Cauldron of Loss
(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)
Suffering, loss, and the grief that follows . . . we endure the wounds, then the infection, and, finally, stare in horror at the scars. There are no clean wounds. We awaken in sweats at all hours of the night, we shake during the day, we stare at untouched food, and our thoughts run to pain when all around us people laugh and smile and feast and enjoy. But our joy is tainted, our loves hollow, our very selves a fragment of what was, what was to be, of all that the word “hope” meant back then, back then when life was somehow “normal.” Drug-addiction, marital betrayal, desperately ill children, cosmically bizarre accidents, criminal victimization, traumatizing mental diseases, alcoholism, familial violence, the malice or indifference of friends, the misunderstanding of allies, and the utter absence of the church . . . it never ends, this cacophony of suffering. We claw the ground, we scream at the heavens, we tear into our own flesh and rip out our hair. We long for that age when men wore sackcloth and ashes, so that someone would have to acknowledge our pain. We stare at the bottle of pills next to the bed, the revolver that somehow found its way onto the night stand, the blade that could end it all, but also at the crucifix or icon on the wall that whispers, “No.”
In the midst of such loss we are nevertheless confronted with a reality of abundant life all around us, close to us, caring—even from a distant shore. Those that survived our horror unscathed—our children, perhaps, or our siblings, our parents, our friends—all have their own stories, their own agonies, but they are here, aren’t they? Aside from asphalt, brick, and plastic, another world teems with life too—not given the gift of rationality, perhaps, but very much alive—the bird that stares through the kitchen window, the two pointy ears and whiskers looking anxiously in our direction, the herbs in the garden and the quiet trees. Life continues, it surges onward, it carries us along and forces us to admit that we have so much. We stare upward and see the same stars that Abraham counted, the same sky that bore witness to the birth of the Son of God. What can we do but give thanks? We think of Mary, all she endured, and yet through her endurance all the grace that poured into the world through her. What are we to do? We have to give thanks, because God is here. Every Sunday he is up on that table waiting for us to come, to bow, to receive his love. God is not absent, but his is not the comfort of the pillow. He is not a cup of hot chocolate, nor that attractive shot of tequila. But he made all of these things, and he is here.
Yet with our bounty, we have our agonies. The one does not negate the other. There’s no divine or human balance sheet. You cannot make it right when we’re talking about the loss of persons. A new child doesn’t make up for the ones that are lost. A new wife doesn’t negate the treachery of the former. There is no amelioration, no fairness, no equality. Splendor and horror are compatriots in this most undemocratic world. Some would call it vilely unfair, how some people seem to lead such charmed lives and others walk the fire. But then we come to the world that lies beyond the world that we can see, a world of faith and, therefore, also of hope and charity. For each moment of suffering is correlatively a moment for charity, for nurture and tenderness and care, deeply feminine qualities. Not to fix, not to correct—for that belongs solely to God. Maybe that is part of the point, especially for us men, that we cannot fix it, that we have to learn the feminine, learn to hope and care and succor and heal when we cannot do anything else. And also for us men, we have to refrain from rage and screaming at the heavens, for we cannot make war on God. All that remains is faith. Ironically, even though the order of generation usually begins with faith, perhaps through suffering we reverse the order. In suffering, faith is hard to find, but love, paradoxically, is not. And so, maybe we learn that love begets hope begets faith. In the midst of our neighbor’s pain, our prayers, our flowers, our meals, our cards, and our long silent walks—these gentle little loves—love for neighbor teaches the love of God and through that love, hope and, ultimately, faith. Whether giving or receiving the love of the suffering, we learn faith from hope, and hope from love.
Is there some larger scheme at work? Yes. Without doubt. But what little we see of it is disconcerting. The story of Job is one of the best glimpses we are offered. And it really makes us mad. Are we just the chips to be bet by the gods in their game of cosmic poker? Is that what it is? And yet, the final chapters of Job’s text then come to mind, where God points out to Job that he cannot understand it. Job doesn’t even understand the internal navigation of birds (we don’t either, as it turns out), so how could he grasp the divine providence, the divine combat with evil and its demonic purveyors? It’s almost like the entire book of Job is itself a test of our faith, to see if we will take the bait of Satan’s challenge to God about his faithful servant Job, to see if we will begin to calculate and conjure and then find it all grossly unfair, simply because we cannot see that it’s reasonable. Well, what if we’re not supposed to? Why should we even assume that Satan’s challenge and God’s response to Satan is a revelation of God’s real providence for Job himself? What is God really up to? The high counsel between Satan and God is ultimately between them—Satan and God. It’s not really about Job and, ultimately, not about us. We aren’t the only ones in the universe, and some—perhaps much—of what happens here is for them. But we see very little of that other side of things.
So, are we just wholly blind? Do we have no substance to our faith? Is faith pure will, utterly without hope, without anything to inspire our imaginations, to give us something real to hold onto? Are we left with Job’s chilling battle-cry, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him?” Well, no. Because the theological virtues come as a package, and faith is given to us with hope. How, then, do we secure this hope?
St. Paul offers us a glimpse in his beautiful eighth chapter of Romans, where he tells us that all is sacrament. Every good thing here bespeaks what is there, what will be. In fact, no good thing ever dies. They all are reborn into the next world, for our charity here is the recreation there. St. Paul explains that all that lies in this world are the birth pains. They are severe. Terribly severe. But look what they offer us: hope. We smile and we cry as we think of our children, as we are so privileged to love them and care for them and to participate in the divine creation. We know that as God is a community of persons, a family, so he has adopted us as sons, drawn us into his own family, not only as children of God, but as parents who bear the fruit of persons ourselves. And they are worth it, aren’t they? What pain would you not endure for the sake of your son or daughter? None. We would take anything for them. They are worth it. Well, then this life must somehow be worth it, because it’s all about persons; it always was. So, if love is the purpose, and faith the beginning point of theological virtue, how does hope mediate the two?
I think this is the answer: use your imagination. The imagination is the sacramental vehicle, linking the senses to the pure intellect. All the sacraments have matter (senses) and form (intellect), but they are also all images, bespeaking something greater than themselves. The imagination unites form and matter into one fully human, one fully embodied experience. So, what do our imaginations tell us? What do we most long for? For this is the secret, I think. Jesus said it like this, “Ask anything of the Father in my name, and I will give it to you.” Or again, “Ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be given unto you.” Am I speaking of a divine magic eight ball? No. Rather, I think that though these texts have some battlefield application to our walk through this tortured world, I wonder if their real meaning is for what is to come in the next. In short, God will give us all that we require, all that we yearn for, because he made those yearnings in the first place. All form has final cause, and he is the final cause of all things. Thus, in creating these deeply human longings, he likewise created their fulfillment. If that fulfillment is not found here, it necessarily must be found there. God is up to the task of satisfying his own creation. Anything that we want, he will do. He can eradicate memories we must forget. He can recreate moments where we took the wrong path. He can return children that were lost and let us raise them in a very different world, a world without tragedy and betrayal and malice and indifference. There is nothing too hard for God.
So, we most definitely have hope, something to give material substance to our faith. That in turn reinvigorates our love, which we so badly need, because tomorrow another person we love will fall into the cauldron. And we’ll get up, and wipe away our own tears, and pick up the sponge and wash that person’s feet. And then we’ll do it again, and again, and again. Because the persons with whom we interact every day are, as Lewis so aptly put it, either “everlasting splendours or immortal horrors.” I’ll cite the selection entirely:
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection prior to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours (Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 39).
The path to sainthood is the path of love. To love one another is to suffer with and for one another. Whatever is thrown at us in this world, the stakes are too high for us to give up. We are called to persevere, for they that persevere will receive a crown of life. St. Paul says that our perseverance is a participation in the “completion” (can you imagine that?) of Christ’s own suffering. Thus, we are co-sharers in his passion, a passion that didn’t end in the garden that dark night. And it feels like that, doesn’t it? Christ’s passion is our passion. It’s not just that he bore our sins and our agonies on that cross. Rather we bear his passion right now. It is the joint suffering of one body, of one family, of groom for bride and bride for groom.
The true mother doesn’t give up on her children, not ever. And the true husband doesn’t give up on his wife, not ever. We see in the suffering mother and betrayed husband the persevering love of Christ for us. No matter what happens, let us remain fixed in this same determination: to love one another. Love is never wrong. It is always right. We can always do it. And that’s fortunate because the greatest two commandments call us to love. Such love is suffering when it is rejected, when it is lost, when it is ineffectual. But this is the divine burden too, for God is rejected, his love is ineffectual, and we fail and deny him. So, in loving one another, we know the heart of God. Some day that will make perfect sense; we will see then that our loves for one another were all along his love for us. For now, we are but children, we are mortals, and it is not fit for us to know what goes on in the divine bedroom. But we will grow, and when the sun finally sets on this world, he will take us into that bedchamber and there, finally, we will rest.