Staying in Suffering

This morning, thinking about how another Lent was beginning, I couldn’t stop remembering one morning during my pilgrimage last year to the Holy Land.

One very early morning—alarms were set for 3:30—I and a few others crept out of the covenant we were staying in, and into the (fairly, appropriately) still and quiet streets of Jerusalem. We walked down wide boulevards, and then into the narrow, descending straits of the old city section, hemmed in tightly by old buildings with bright-colored doors. We went down and down, and took the odd turn, and suddenly we were in the courtyard before the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

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The streets of the Old City in Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was not something I had ever really thought about before coming to Jerusalem, but still, even devoid of preconceptions, I was immediately jarred by it. It was—and is—like no other church I have ever been in. The site of the crucifixion and the Resurrection, it is a hodgepodge collection of chapels and nooks and crannies. (If Joanna Gaines were to go international, she’d have a field day knocking down walls.) Daylight, even when it isn’t 4 a.m., seems to permeate almost nowhere, and as tight as the church appears in some ways—just a couple of hallways, ringed by chapels—it seems infinitely expansive in others, as if you were always only a moment away from stumbling upon yet another chapel. (For instance: After I returned to the U.S., I was told there was an Ethiopian chapel stashed in the attic that I had entirely missed.)

On this particular morning, my second day in the church, I drifted away from the others, and went down one staircase, past the Armenians’ sparkling white chapel, and down another flight into a small space where reportedly the Cross was found, in a pit plied with other crosses. There is a statue of St. Helen, but the overall mood of the room is spartan, with a large chunk of space being bordered by rocks jutting out of the earth, as if nature were slowly reconquering this church, beginning with this basement corner. At the time I think the rocks might be the base of Calvary—subsequent googling has called into question that assumption, but any rate, they were near Calvary.

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My view from the floor

I have the whole space to myself, and I comfortably settle on the floor, my back against one of the rocks, and look at the statue of St. Helen and think about the rock of Calvary behind me. I think about my friend who loves St. Helen, and I think about the crucifixion, and I think about how nice it would have been if I had gotten a cup of coffee on our way here. I think about this whole space being a mess of used crucifixes, and I think about being tired, and I think some more about the crucifixion.

I am not there so very long in the end—probably twenty or thirty minutes. A little while later, I creep up three flights to Calvary and sit on a bench there.

But I thought about it this morning because I was sad that Lent meant the beginning of a long streak of sorrowful mysteries in the rosary. During Lent, it’s customary to only do the sorrowful mysteries when praying the rosary, except for Sundays, which aren’t Lent exactly. In a nutshell, it means when meditating, I’ll be thinking of, in this order, Jesus’ agony in the Garden right before Judas betrayed Him; the scourging of Jesus at the pillar; the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head; the carrying of the Cross; and then Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s grim stuff.

I wasn’t happy to begin this season again. It’s not just the rosary; it’s knowing all the other gloom that comes in Lent. The pricking that comes with the odd sacrifice; the frustration when doing the extra prayers; the sadness of the Stations of the Cross; and the reminders throughout any mass, no Alleluias crossing anyone’s lips—Lent has a way of sneaking up around corners, and rustling just beneath one’s skin; it’s a tricky thing to dodge. Which sounds mad.  Trying to think how else to describe, I thought of one of those heavy blankets they sell to alleviate anxiety; well, imagine that, except just imagine the heaviness, not the consoling bit.

Which isn’t to say it’s terrible. But it’s a decidedly un-cozy time.

But as I was going to work, I was reflecting on my ongoing struggles with food, and thought about how often eating junk food is just a very efficient way to shut the door on suffering. If I’m irritated or frustrated or sad or any number of other irksome emotions, a sugar rush has a nice way of sanding off the edges, making everything seem OK.

Yet … I know there is something fundamentally immature in coping this way, all the health and other concerns aside.

And I see it in other areas of my life, too. I really struggle when a friend or loved one is having a hard time to stay out of solutions mode. Oh sure, I can at first, but if the problem persists, I can’t stop thinking of cures or work-arounds or ideas to make things more bearable. I have trouble staying still, and just accompanying them in their dark night. I don’t want to accept there is no quick fix, and perhaps, no fix at all.

(None of this is to say that it’s never appropriate to offer a loved one solutions—sometimes, someone is simply being a ridiculous Eeyore. But those aren’t the situations I’m talking about here.)

I don’t want to—because I don’t want to think of someone I love always being a little wounded, a little raw. (And I don’t mean raw in some “you go girl, be authentic” sense—I mean raw in the sense that you’re especially vulnerable because you’re already stinging from the lack of protection and even the slightest prick can now be excruciating, because there’s no mediation—it’s all there and all feel-able by you, right away and totally.) And I certainly don’t want to think of myself someday facing a situation with no fix.

Which might be one reason a 2016 essay I read the other day lingered with me, because it touched upon perhaps the greatest terror of our age: that not all griefs can be passed through, discarded, incorporated into one’s larger self—that sometimes they might always ravage, at least here.

From Jayson Greene, who lost his 2-year-old daughter Greta, in the New York Times:

My son will always have a dead sister; when I am 50, my heart will ache in this exact same way it does today. Children remain dead in ways adults do not, and on bad mornings, in the wrong light, everything from here on out feels like ashes. …

I talk to him about his sister, whom I think he met before arriving. “Your daddy will always be sad your sister’s not here,” I tell him. “But you fill Daddy’s heart up with joy and he loves you more than everything.” I also want to say, but do not: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’ll never be the same father I was before. I’m sorry that you will live with me, to some degree, in grief.

And so I thought today of that quiet, still morning, the rock’s undulating cold surface against my back, and how—even amid the scattershot thoughts of my friend and coffee and tiredness—I stayed, at least a little bit, just with the Crucifixion. I didn’t try to fix it. I didn’t rail against God for not coming up with a different way. I didn’t glaze over the very real pain of it.

I was just there with it.

A friend of mine who converted to Catholicism once made a comment about how huge a crucifix was in a certain church, and it made me realize that, having been in and out of Catholic churches my whole life, a huge crucifix is almost impossible for me to see. I don’t find it disturbing, but normal—as easily forgotten as a TV in a living room. It’s just there, with the stained glass and the pews and the whole kit and caboodle.

But I’m thinking Lent is about seeing that crucifix—and not looking away.

At least for a while.

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