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Talking About Suffering

I’m still engrossed in the book Shantaram – today reading a discussion about suffering that takes place among 9 guests of Khaderbai.  What is suffering ? (Shantaram p. 293)

For one of the guests suffering is weakness, and must be overcome by strength.
For another it is the result of our sin and wrong doing.  By living by right (koranic) principles, we will banish suffering from our lives.

Then Khaderbai talks about pain and suffering being connected, but that pain can be experienced without suffering – and suffering without pain.  What we learn from pain is for oursevles alone, but what we learn from suffering unites us as one human people.

For Lin, the main character in the book suffering is understood differently as we grow older.  When we are young it is about bad things done to us. As we grow in understanding, we realise that suffering happens when something is taken from us.

Reading all of this made me think of the song ‘Talk about Suffering’ – see the next post.

It also reminds of this story, which I came across in ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ by Brennan Manning.

The Kiss

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face post-operative, her mouth twisted in palsy; clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily?

“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say, “it will be. It is because the nerve was cut.”

She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate her, to show her that their kiss still works.

Richard Selzer

Stories for the Heart compiled by Alice Gray (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1996), p. 53.

Which takes me to the cross on which Jesus is crucified.  It is as if, in his willing suffering, he is twisting his own life to the marks of suffering in the totality of all our lives.  The cross is a holy moment in which Christ kisses the world with love.

Which brings me to a difficult moment, when I wonder if we have got something really wrong ? 

Christian art has, in most of the Christian era, allowed the depiction of Christ on the cross.  From about the 10th century on, the image that came to be prominent was the crucifixion.

By contrast, some interpretations of Islam prohibit the depiction of living beings maybe partly to do with idolatry.  I now wonder if that might have been a better route ?

Might there be something profoundly dangerous in trying to convey this holy moment in paintings, sculptures, poems, theological reflection, hymn writing etc.

Perhaps we don’t go as far as disallowing it, but rather say that it must not be undertaken lightly, but reverently and with deep respect.



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