I spent the better part of the morning with some friends from church as a part of a Lenten Bible study. We are focusing on the Beatitudes. As I was preparing to lead the group, I was struck by the fact that Matthew takes just four chapters to move from Jesus’ genealogy to his birth to his baptism to the temptations to calling the disciples and then spends the next three chapters on one sermon. I’ve been reading through a couple of commentaries that talk about understanding the blessings of the beatitudes as Big Picture: an eschatological perspective of the realm of God, which is both now and not yet. I thought about the commentator’s word when I sat down this afternoon with Stephen Dunn again and his essay on “Poets, Poetry, and Spirituality.”
The classic spiritual journey is from travail to understanding to acceptance. (168)
That classic journey is the one on which I was raised. As the old gospel song says,
farther along we’ll know more about it
farther along we’ll understand why
cheer up my brother live in the sunshine
we’ll understand it all by and by
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews proclaimed, “the evidence of things not seen.” Yes and I have come to see that life is more nuanced and more complicated that the stepping stones in the classic journey. Dunn offers another thought:
Spirituality in poetry. Here’s another attempt at a definition: A journey from travail toward an understanding that leads back to mystery.” (170)
Though Dunn is not writing from a Christian perspective, he informs mine because he asks good questions. I have found that I need the questions of those who are not insiders to my faith perspective to challenge me to see more than I can find on my own or within my community of insiders, particularly when it comes to dealing with pain and struggle. Take, for example, Tom Waits’ song, “Georgia Lee”:
cold was the night, hard was the ground
they found her in a small grove of trees
lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
she’s too young to be out on the street.
why wasn’t God watching?
why wasn’t God listening?
why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?
When I was in the deepest part of my depression and trying to figure out what was happening to me and how to begin to make meaning of it, most Christian writers were not much help because they had a hard time coming to terms with despair without offering how I let Jesus fix me. I didn’t need someone to fix me. I needed someone to listen, to resonate, to sit there in the dark with me and admit it was real and that I could survive. Dunn, again:
I know that despair often can be a ticket to an unchosen journey, and to survive it is to come back with glimpses of what was not available to us before. (160)
As Lent began this year, I observed – no, I celebrated two years that I have been off of my antidepressants. Life is lighter these last two years than the eight years before them and I am grateful. I worked hard to understand what depression was and how I could deal with the darkness and I don’t understand how or why it let up on me in many ways. I live now with the prospect that this is a season of relief, which may last a long time and which may not, and I must continue to let my faith and my life be informed by what I saw and felt and learned while riding the monster. I see what Dunn means by catching glimpses of “what was not available to us before,” just as I have a deeper appreciation for the prepositional phrases that complete each of the Beatitudes:
blessed are the poor in spirit FOR theirs is the kingdom of heaven
blessed are they that mourn FOR they shall be comforted
blessed are the meek FOR they shall inherit the earth
blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness FOR they shall be filled
blessed are the merciful FOR they shall receive mercy
blessed are the pure in heart FOR they shall see God
blessed are the peacemakers FOR they shall be called the children of God
blessed are those persecuted for righteousness FOR theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Jesus’ words feel like an invitation to the journey Dunn described: “from travail to toward an understanding that leads back to mystery.” To begin to grasp the blessing means to be first acquainted with grief, with loss, with suffering. To begin to understand the substance of things hoped for is to find resonance first with the pain that is the substance of human existence. Such is the paradox of blessing, the opening to the deeper mystery of God.
After eight years of depression, I know experientially more about emotional pain than I did before. I also know that love did not let go of me. I didn’t learn that because someone told me to trust Jesus or told me that love wouldn’t let go of me. I learned it because people who love me – Ginger being at the top of that list – didn’t let go. They didn’t try to fix me or correct me; what they did best was not leave. They incarnated love in a way that gave me room to trust that I would be comforted, that God was somewhere in the dark as well. As REM sings in one of my favorite hymns,
when your day is night alone
and you feel like letting go
when you think you’ve had too much of this life, well hang on
‘cause everybody hurts
take comfort in your friends
don’t throw up your hands
don’t throw up your hands
if you feel like you’re alone
no, no, no – you’re not alone
Despair is the seedbed of hope. Hope is more profound than explanation or reprieve. Love never lets go.
Someday we shall see face to face.