For youas yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me; and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I couldn't help but remember the opening lines to Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV as I wrapped up Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych for a class on death and grieving here at the seminary. Back in college, we had an all-school seminar on this work of short fiction, and though I enjoyed it then, the intervening years have only enriched my experience of it. It is the ultimate drama: the inner dialogue of a dying man confronted with the possibility that his entire life was lived in the pursuit of vanity, and nothing less than eternity is at stake. Every other story derives its dramatic power from this possibility of salvation (or its loss). One moment stands out. Ivan lies in pain, waiting for death, yet unable to let go of life; as the truth of his situation slowly dawns upon him, all those who peopled his life and participated in the game of bourgeois society along with him are stripped of their charm. Only the duplicity and superficiality remain, and they are loathsome to him.
He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical suffering tenfold. He groaned and tossed about, and pulled at his clothing which choked and stifled him. And he hated them on that account.
Consider the agony of this moment: the possibility that what by all accounts was a decorous, gentlemanly, and entirely correct life might have been spent "plowing the sand and sowing the ocean" is real; I have reason to believe that my life has been spent this way, and every relationship I examine in the light of this possibility, even the most intimate, reinforces my conclusion that it is so. Now, at the end, I am forced to discard all my labors and sacrifices as so much smoke and wind. Had this knowledge come when I was in a position to do something about it, it might have served some purpose. All that is left to me now is to die in despair, rueing the day I ever asked the question "what was it all for?"
Anger is understandable in this situation. Augustine remarked in passing about this in his Confessions:
Why is it that 'truth engenders hatred'? Why does your man who preaches what is true become to them an enemy (Gal 4.16) when they love the happy life, which is simply joy grounded on truth? The answer must be this: their love for truth takes the form that they love something else and want this object of their love to be the truth; and because they do not wish to be deceived, they do not wish to be persuaded that they are mistaken. And so they hate the truth for the sake of the object which they love instead of the truth. They love truth for the light it sheds, but hate it when it shows them up as being wrong. Because they do not wish to be deceived but wish to deceive, they love truth when it shows itself to them but hate it when its evidence goes against them.
Yes: it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. For we provoke Him to wrath with our misdeeds; yet His wrath is nothing more than His steadfast resistance to the encroachment of the forces of sin and death upon His creatures. God's wrath is good news, as it's been said. It is the wrath of a protective Father. The discovery of an awful truth about oneself is a gift, never to be refused in order to return to manufactured illusions. In His mercy, a moment of clarity is offered. For those with eyes to see, it is presented through the ordinary things of life, standing behind them, knocking, breathing, shining, healing. Yet for those whose sight fails them, who render themselves incapable of apprehending reality as it is, other more forceful means are available to the physician. And it is here that we find ourselves confronting the reality of suffering.
What strikes me as wholly inadequate in most attempts at theodicy (the justification of God's ways to humanity, the presence of evil and suffering in the world, etc.) is that they are always directed outward. They are meant to explain the suffering of another to the audience that observes it, and one that observes it from a distance, no matter how compassionately. Ivan Karamazov is not plagued with his own suffering, but that of the innocent five-year-old girl pounding her chest with her little fist and crying out to "dear God" to protect her from her cruel and hateful parents, or the infants skewered on the bayonets of pillaging soldiers. Yet it is precisely the meaning of her suffering that is inaccessible to him. What would lead us to believe that we have access to what transpires in the hidden and silent recesses of the person when the full weight of pain is laid upon him? It is incommunicable, for it is inexhaustible, unable to be labeled with neat classifications and placed in a scheme that somehow takes Everything into account. It is always more.
What these fail to take into account is the meaning of suffering for the one who suffers. This is not to glibly dismiss it in the way the genuinely compassionate find so repulsive; it is to ground it in the infinite dignity of each person in the sight of God.
Our own pain speaks plain words, though we may not have ears to hear them. What it has to say, it says to us and to us alone. To me. I alone am responsible for discerning its truth and learning its lessons. I cannot interpret the suffering of another, and so I cannot justify it or explain it away. Only I can discover the secret resistance to the love that draws me to itself, and so the messenger of that love—be it ever so kind or savage—is meant to overcome that resistance without force or compulsion.
If we truly understood what was at stake, the poet's prayer would ever be on our lips. The possibility of refusal is very real. We must cultivate a readiness to be o'erthrown:
That we might rise and stand.