Jesus, remember

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Detail from “Crucifixion with Two Thieves,” by Beato Angelico
Photograph by Asaf Braverman
Ark in Time via photopin cc

The Bible shows us so many ways of praying, so many circumstances under which we might pray. My father used to say, “The most honest prayer in the Bible is when Job told God, ‘God, come down here – I’m angry with you!” (It was years before I learned that God answered that prayer, and not with an apology, either.) But the Bible doesn’t deal in superlatives when it comes to prayer – as in so many other areas, the Biblical witness about prayer is varied. Anger is not absolutely more honest than any other emotion we can express to God – it was the most honest note that my father could sound, and he generalized from his own experience. The Bible can be like a Rorschach that way – we are revealed especially in the details that we notice.

About 10 years ago now, I was doing a unit of CPE, which is to say I was interning as a chaplain, at a state psychiatric hospital. I would pray as I walked between buildings, singing whatever rose up in me. Near the end of my summer there, I noticed that I kept coming back to the Taize chant based on Luke 23:42 – “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

Why that one? Because it is plaintive sounding, and repetitive, which is comforting when everything seems strange and wrong? Because it is something to ask when I don’t know what to ask – notice me, see me, remember me? No, that didn’t really get at it.

I haven’t been writing lately. I have been ill. What we thought might be pneumonia turned out to be medication withdrawal – which has a much more uncertain course. I have gone six years without feeling so depressed for so long. Many days, it is hard work to simply convince myself that life is not pointless. I am reminded of the terminal nature of this illness.

This morning is a good morning. Better than the new normal, anyway. I was in the shower, and I began to sing – first a song without words that I was composing as I went along, and then, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And as I sang it the fourth and fifth and sixth time, my mind was taken back to the cross, and I remembered the one who first prayed this prayer, hanging beside Jesus. A terminal case, wracked with pain and guilt (“we are getting what we deserve”), a man without hope, who reached out to Jesus at a time when faith in him was most absurd, when Jesus seemed least likely to be who he said he was.

This morning, it is the truest note I can sound: I am in pain, and God seems unlikely. That Jesus has not yet come into his kingdom seems self-evident. But I give thanks that I can pray into the not yet, “Jesus, remember me…”

A Blast from the Past

Last month, to celebrate her wedding anniversary, my mom looked through her wedding album. As my own 15th wedding anniversary approaches, I was reminded that my wedding photos are still in a cardboard box in the attic. I can’t remember when I last looked through them. My seven year old daughter has never seen them.

When I was a child, looking at old photos was an exciting event – whether looking through the two photo albums that spanned my preschool years, or munching on popcorn while looking at the many slides that my father took – especially of my parents’ cross country honeymoon roadtrip! Each photo was sorted into its proper place in its albums or carousel, and together they formed a comfortingly familiar narrative.

And so, on a mission to create this narrative for my daughter, I braved the wilds of the attic. Unfortunately, I did not remember that I had long ago put the wedding photos in their own box within a box, helpfully labelled “wedding photos.” So I sorted through envelope after random envelope of photos. And along the way, I found plenty of photos that were decidedly not from the era I was looking for.

I have deactivated my Facebook account, but nonetheless, I set aside a few photos that might be fun for “Throwback Thursday” – some friends at a college Christmas party, my sister preparing stuffed tomatoes in the sweltering railroad kitchen of one of my many not!air-conditioned college apartments, a friend in the prom dress she had made herself… and I stuffed a few photos back in the box, sorry I had seen them: an ex-boyfriend playing guitar while my kitten batted at the guitar strings, myself looking longingly over the edge of a cliff as my first husband smiled widely at the camera on our wedding day, my father looking angrily away from my thoughtfully teary eyed mother sitting beside him at my grandmother’s dining room table… Why did I keep those?

I used to feel like I had the obligation to keep every photo – that the mere fact of me having documented an event bestowed historical significance, and I had the archivist’s duty to maintain this tangible imprint of memory. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe “Throwback Thursday” is a Facebook holiday for people who don’t have an entire decade of their life that was chewed up by mental illness and bad decision making. Maybe us folks who have been tormented by demons of depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or addiction etc etc should be allowed, on reflection, to toss away those old photographs without guilt feelings.

Naturally I want to toss every photo of me holding a cigarette before my daughter finds them. But mostly I am wanting to get rid of photos for myself. The people in the photos might look happy or hopeful, but each one carries a narrative that only I (and a handful of others) know – not just of my own failed first marriage, but the failed marriages of friends, of abuse and betrayal, of desperate self-deception, of fear and poverty, of broken confidences, of unrequited romantic obsession… all hidden behind those hopeful smiles. These photos lie to everyone but me – and perhaps to me as well.  And then there are the other photos that seem to speak the truth all too clearly, in the emotional dissonance between people made plain on their faces or in their postures. This hindsight is painful – what is plain to me now was not plain enough to me then to save myself and others from participating in their own emotional dismembering.

Re-membering – I don’t simply want to stitch together old memories haphazardly, leaving me with rotting bits reanimated – I do not want to let my fear of death (or forgetting) motivate me as it did Shelley’s Frankenstein. I crave resurrection – a new body, redeemed from sin for new life in Christ. Only God can re-member me correctly. Only God knows who I was and who I am, and only God knows the hearts of those I traveled with.

Even as my chronic anxiety has drawn my focus to a future of worst case scenarios, my depression has trapped me in a false past – a past of exaggerated wrongs and slights and failures, relived like a bad dream that I cannot wake from. Now, after fifteen years of increasing mental health and increasingly happy marriage, these old photos seem like demonic messengers, “assisting” me in returning to my mindset at the time I snapped each photograph. Next time I go into those old photo boxes, I am taking a trash bin with me – and a good friend.

Empathy, fatigue, and evil

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I was listening yesterday to “The State of Things” on WUNC radio. The program was on scientific and historical understandings of empathy. One of the presenters suggested that empathy was actually problematic, because we tend to give more weight to the problems of people we know (because that is who we tend to empathize with), and so bigger problems – like starvation, for instance – are too little addressed because we do not have faces and names to put with the problem.

This seemed to me like a problem of empathic imagination – and a theological problem. Can we truly forget when we hear of war in Syria, for instance, that the thousands of people killed already have families who know them by name, who feel their loss keenly – as keenly as we would feel the loss of a family member?  I suppose most of us can, or this and countless other atrocities would not continue.

As I listened to the program, I began to work out a hypothesis that I have been slowly developing about empathy existing on a spectrum. My idea is that some varieties of depression and anxiety may be rooted in a genius for empathy: if hearing of *any* suffering leads to feeling the pain of the one who suffers, then in a world full of suffering, the deeply empathic individual quickly becomes overwhelmed. Over time, this constant barrage of suffering can lead to classic depression symptoms of withdrawal (what I have sometimes called “retreating to my blanket cave”). In order to survive and function, a person with an overwhelming capacity for empathy must find a way to protect herself – perhaps through selectively ignoring certain information, or through finding safe modes of retreat and escape, or through constructing armor to shield her softest places.

When I was 27, I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time, as a chaperone to a group of middle schoolers preparing for confirmation. I was armed and ready. I had shed tears for almost two decades over the horror of the concentration camps: I had been reading about the Holocaust since I was ten, even having taken a class in college entitled The Politics of Genocide. I had celebrated Passover with the son of a Holocaust survivor – he wept through the entire meal. I had cried myself dry over the years.

I was there to support the younger people as they encountered wave after wave of new and distressing information. As for me, I was weary and jaded. The systematic elimination of gays and lesbians, gypsies, and the mentally ill was not new. The torture in the name of scientific experimentation was known and could not be more horrible than it had been before. Standing in a train car and imagining myself packed in with a hundred others, unable to see where we were going, on our way to our deaths, whether immediate or drawn out over years – I had imagined it before. It was the stuff of my dreams. The U.S. complicity in the Holocaust did not surprise me. The pile of shoes only told me what I had already known – that the sheer volume of the loss in no way belied the particularity of the loss of each individual. I began to feel afraid of my capacity for self-protection. Had I become so hard that nothing could touch me? Among a busload full of teenagers and chaperones, I alone had not cried.

And then, in the hallway leading into the vestibule that marked the end of our journey, there was a quote from a survivor. I cannot remember the exact words, but what he said was that for him, God had died in the concentration camp. God was dead. Like a vacuum, the emptiness left behind by God’s exit sucked the air out of my lungs and the marrow out of my bones – I felt hollowed out, an empty suit of armor. I wept. Wept for a loss that was greater than any other loss can be – the loss, for one who believed, of the ground of all his being. The loss of his belief in a love that would not let him go. The loss of his belief in a power greater than death and terror and insanity.

Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And evil is a relentless nothing that stops at nothing to separate us from the love of God. But evil is a lie. And I remain convinced that love wins.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging.  If Love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?

If Love is Lord…

In these days when we still wait for Love without suffering and Light with no shadows, I sing every chance I get, I hide in my blanket cave when I must, and when I am strong enough I weep, weep in the loneliest caverns of another’s heart.