Winter Light. Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 film tells the story of Tomas Ericsson, a pastor in the throes of a faith crisis. Grieving his wife’s death, he confronts his brokenness. His sermons are sterile. His pastoral counsel, pitiable. His congregation hungers for help in the quest for life’s meaning, but he despondently confesses the death of his faith in God and in himself. Bergman uses winter’s unrelenting cold and the paradoxical dimness of its light to symbolize a frigid, forlorn spirituality.
At dusk on this Friday following Thanksgiving Day, I peer east through my office window, across rows of Capitol Hill townhouse rooftops, into a firmament illumined by winter’s light. Though perhaps not as gloomy as more snowbound areas of the country, the subdued luminescence evokes in me a solemnity; one deepened as I contemplate a number of recent conversations I’ve had with folk. All wrestling with personal concerns and striving to see, straining to find God’s face in the circumstances of their lives. All with marginal success, their vision shadowed by what one called “serial shades of impenetrable grayness.”
I replay these conversations, really, moments of intense listening. For somewhat like Ericsson, when the light, what light there is, is as Bergman’s darkness and giving thanks is hard to do, I can offer no ready counsel of resolution.
As I reflect, I hear my namesake Paul: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not despairing. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4.8-9). Though Paul speaks of his experience as an apostle, I think his message can apply to any of us.
Life is the existential condition that makes us subject, susceptible to affliction, perplexity, persecution, being struck down. And when (not if) such conditions befall no amount of “happy talk”, religious or otherwise (“look on the bright side”, “recall more pleasant times”, “it’ll get better, by and by”) can assuage. As such, I wish I knew, always and unerringly, how to advise others, yea, verily, myself how not to be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, destroyed.
What I do (think I) know I have learned from my friendship with Janis Hoffman, a 90-something member of St. Mark’s Church. She, with her vibrant spirit, incisive mind, and quick wit is one of my resident lay-theologians, one of my Top-10 “go-to” people for a wise word. It is Janis who, recognizing life as the necessary locus for the experience of joys and sorrows, and acknowledging the latter, oft says, “Once you’re born, you’re done for!” In this, her clear-eyed awareness, Janis, like Paul, rejects the conceit of the Stoic’s philosophical conviction that via reason we can liberate ourselves from irrational (feeling) reactions to adversity, thereby discounting hardship as unimportant and achieving a state of detached tranquility. No. When Janis suffers, she expresses her pain. And in this, sensing and sharing her hurts, she bears witness to something I believe to be true: the presence and power of community to help one bear up under the burdens of life.
Community, whether of another person or a group of people, the essential character is compassion. Compassion that allows listening to happen. The kind of listening (indeed, kind listening) that accepts the reality of the speaker – particularly when revealing loss or lack, guilt or shame – without question or correction (or even certain solution, which, in the most difficult circumstances, may be desired, but also impossible to attain). The kind of listening that inherently is kindred, answering with silent assurance, to paraphrase the words of the spiritual, that someone other than or, verily, like Jesus, knows (experiences, endures) the troubles one has seen.
When that happens, when proof is given that one is not, is never alone in this life, then Paul’s confidence is affirmed – that though, yes, we always carry in our bodies the death of Jesus (we suffer), so, too, the life of Jesus (the power of God’s abiding presence) appears.