Let the dead bury the dead


I go to church most weeks and I’m not always sure why. Sometimes I go because I’ve been asked to do something specific like read a poem or help coordinate the evening. Other times I go because I want to see people and share a meal and resist the isolating effects of the city and my psyche. Often I go because my church is a beautiful community and I want to help that community thrive. But in all these reasons there is something deeper that calls me, and I’m rarely sure what that is. It’s by going that I find out.

I know why I went this week.

This week we read from the Gospel of Matthew and heard Jesus admonish those who would follow him to do so directly, and to let the dead bury the dead.

And then, during a time of reflection after the sermon, my pastor put the question to us, to me:

“What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

Not “Have you experienced the death of something?”

Not “What do you need to let go of, what do you need to let die?”

Not “What isn’t really a death, but a beginning for new life?”

Not “What death do you need to accept?”

Rather, “What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

It was the kind of question that struck me at an intuitive level before I knew how to articulate my response. What struck me first was that the question didn’t linger on whether there were dead things in my life. No time for hemming and hawing about what’s not dead yet. The question confronted me: “There are corpses in your life. We’re starting with that truth.”

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

There was no question that death had not shown mercy. It wasn’t up to me to let anything die. Death had done its work and now was the time for me to do mine.

We were given sheets of paper to write down our responses, and all the dead in my life came tumbling out onto the page. My sense of failing others when my marriage failed. My repeatedly crushed hopes for affirmation from my father. The ridiculous expectations I continue to burden myself with because I am a stereotypical first-born. My unkindness to myself for this ridiculousness. My unkindness to others because of my unkindness to myself. All the neatly stacked corpses.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

I’ve tried to bury the dead for years, but they keep rising from the grave. Dead sorrows can’t be drowned. At some point, I began dragging the dead around with me as if they were some sort of badge of honor, to show how “real” and “honest” and “deeply human” I was. I accepted these deaths boldly and wasn’t that kind of bad-ass of me? I was so hardcore.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

It seems to me now that I needed the dead to prove I was living. But as long as my focus was on the dead, I wasn’t actually taking the risks and exposing myself to the vulnerability of living, let alone the hazards of following the call I heard in Christ’s words. You can’t risk death until you’ve fully embraced life.

I didn’t need to deny the dead, I didn’t need to accept the dead. I didn’t need to get closure. Instead, I needed to let the dead remain unresolved, to let the dead bury the dead.

In his collection of essays titled “The Examined Life,” psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes against the notion of closure. Contra the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, he writes: “My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.”

Not closure, then, but openness. Following where Christ is leading me, even if I’m not sure where that is or exactly why I’m following. Trusting that in seeking, I’ll find what I need to keep going.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

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An Important Failure: Simone Weil, Suffering, and the Obscenity of Explanation

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Mark Tansey “Discarding the Frame”

Writing in the New Yorker a couple years ago, Aleksandar Hemon offered a harrowing account of the loss of his nine-month-old daughter, Isabel, to a vicious form of cancer. Hemon describes the  “unimaginable and incomprehensible” place of abandonment that he and his wife found themselves in, alienated from the rest of the world as if they were occupants of an aquarium – visible, yet “living and breathing in entirely different environments” than those around them. Compounding their pain was the “vacuous, hackneyed language,” and “that supreme platitude: God,” which others offered as ways of finding meaning. Hemon and his wife held to each other and rejected these efforts, while unable themselves to “construct a story that would help [them] comprehend what was happening.”

the despicable religious fallacy that suffering is ennobling

At first blush, the hard, almost stoic vision of God and redemptive suffering that Simone Weil offers would seem to be almost obscene in light of the suffering Hemon describes. After all, Hemon explicitly rejects as “despicable religious fallacy” the notion that “suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”

My reading of Weil suggests that by rejecting God and all accounts that try and bring meaning to the suffering Hemon endures and bears witness to, Hemon clears out all the imaginary constructions that would fill the void, as Weil calls it. The religious expressions Hemon is offered (including those that come in secular garb), are what Weil calls the “imaginary divinity,” which has been “given to man so that he may strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity.” For Weil, Hemon’s rejection of consolation is precisely the act that creates the space for true faith. The atheism he expresses rids his heart of an idolotrous divinty that exists to meet his desires: the survival of his child, or the availability of meaning in the face of her suffering and death.

when Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none

For Weil, “to pray is like a death,” and perhaps the reverse is also true for her: death is like prayer. Hemon puts to death all consolation for his pain. He puts to death that part of his own Self that would seek cure. He doesn’t reject a specific religious account, he rejects all accounts, categorically. In this, Hemon is like the God that Job encounters in the whirlwind. When Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none. God, the One we look to as we seek meaning in the world, refuses to play the role. God refuses to be an idol. Job responds to God’s refusal with silence, much as Hemon and his wife respond to their friends’ claims that “words fail” by keeping secret the fact that words in fact do not fail, that Hemon’s suffering can be described in excruciating detail.

Christ, too, encounters God’s silence, which Weil describes as God’s absence. Yet unlike Job and Hemon, who keep the secret, Christ on the cross cries out, naming God’s absence, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ’s atheism is in an existential register – God has abandoned him to die – and yet Christ addresses this God as God, as if God could hear his cry. Christ prays to God, and for him, as for Weil, “to pray is like a death.”

redemptive suffering produces the absence of God

What, then, of Weil’s notion of redemptive suffering? Is this the blasphemous notion that Hemon is rejecting? For Weil, “Redemptive suffering … produces the absence of God, … [it] is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.” It would seem that Hemon has seen only an abundance of evil, what he calls “a dark universe of pain.” And yet in that pain, he finds himself closer to his wife than he has ever been to anyone, and he is consumed by “Isabel’s present, torturous but still beautiful life.”

Hemon could reject the idea that Isabel’s broken body could sustain a beautiful life. He could allow his sorrow to make him as blind as fear has made his chattering friends. Yet it is perhaps because he has rejected consolation and faced God’s absence that he is able to encounter the life that struggles before him.

Weil claims that “He who has not God within himself cannot feel his absence,” and Hemon seems to feel God’s absence. After Isabel dies, Hemon feels her absence. For Weil, “the presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.” For Hemon, “her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

in that ventrical wilderness, he loves

Hemon’s rejection of comprehension leaves his heart stripped bare, and in that ventrical wilderness, he loves. He loves his wife, he loves his daughters, he loves those who fail in their efforts to comfort him. Hemon’s willingness to confront catastrophe is the same strength that allows him to affirm his three-year-old’s blossoming life.

It is not clear whether Hemon rejects every explanation because each fails in the face of reality, or if he rejects comprehension as such. To bear witness to suffering may entail rejecting adequate explanations, as they diminish the suffering. It is important, then to note the failures of our gods, but perhaps it is more important that our gods fail.