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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Despair, resurrection, and religious liberalism.

This post from deep in the Philocrites archives was originally written December 12, 1996, for the UUs-L email list. I offer it as a reflection on the meaning Holy Week's stories might have for Unitarian Universalists.

In a message to the UUs-L email list, Michaele M. wrote:

A friend of mine is struggling with persistent depression and has been intermittently struggling with religious issues which he's not sure are related, after all.

LoAnn Behold, I ran across this really irritating poem by Christina Rossetti:

A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears.
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

Now, folks . . . is this a legitimate, comforting hope, a delusion (healing or hurtful), or just a damn nuisance? Even if you chop & channel the name of the deity to suit yourself?

I don't think the real question is whether the word "Jesus" in the final line of each stanza is a "legitimate, comforting hope, a delusion, or just a damn nuisance." What if the last lines of each stanza were left off? What if she refused to point to hope at all, and only described the despair? Would that be more legitimate? I think the poem's evocation of despair is extremely accurate. The real question is whether there is any legitimate reason to hope for anything beyond brokenness, frozenness, tedium, and inexpression. If someone feels that their life really has been broken, why not just give up? Why not end the first stanza, and the whole poem, with "This is the end of me."

Why, for instance, does a poet go to the bother of finely arranging a poem like this if she has no hope of regaining her "wit, words, and tears"? (Is it legitimate to write even if one feels that one has no words?) If despair creeps in and begins to tighten its hand around my heart, do I have any right at all to hope that somehow I might pull through? If I know the story of a man who had seemed to embody all the hopes of his friends, and who was crushed by the powerful tyrants of his day, and yet whose life seemed to continue even stronger after his death among the people who must have been devastated by his murder, can I not see in this story a powerful affirmation that the tyrants need not be granted their brutal victory? What if those destructive forces are in my own life? Can I not hope for the resurrection of my stronger self even when I feel crushed and destroyed? Where is the illegitimacy or false comfort in that?

If none of us had ever seen any evidence that people can emerge well and strong from depression, would we not simply dismiss this poem out of hand? Once someone slides into despair, we would all give up on them; and why not? Who can believe in resurrections, even small ones?

But the image of resurrection is not, I think, a meaningless image for religious liberals. I think the poet here does three very powerful things, and even abandoning the whole theological apparatus of Christianity, I think the lessons are profound for our understanding of renewed life. When the poet despairs, she calls for attention; she clings to examples of renewal; and she asks to be refashioned so that she can bear what seems unbearable now.

Her first stanza ends with a cry for help: she doesn't see any hope, can't feel it within her, can't see it coming from any side — so she does the only reasonable thing: she cries out. She demands attention. (This is a common theme in the Bible, and in the blues. Many of the Psalms are imaginative renderings of crying out in hopelessness; why do so many blues songs begin, "I got the blues"?)

In the next stanza, she embarks on a kind of argument, watching how nature works. The despair here is more subdued than in the first stanza, with the poet clinging to natural processes which seem to bring life to an end, and yet which also surge back into life in the spring. Here she asks to be restored in a similar manner — in the way of the world. She asks for a change of seasons in herself. She acknowledges that renewal is not impossible in the world. She clings to examples of renewed life.

In the last stanza, the poet compares her despair to a broken bowl: Her life, as an instrument or a vessel, no longer works. She can't bear it any more. Whatever shape her life has been given has turned out not to work for her. So she cries out that she might be reshaped, made serviceable in her own life once again, even though she can't see how to accomplish this. She asks that she be made useful once again to the source of hope. Perhaps she is asking to be reshaped so that her life can hold meaning once again. Maybe she just wants to be able to bear what she has been given.

She demands attention. She clings to examples of renewed life. She asks to be remade, reshaped, reimagined, so that she can bear her life. I believe these are entirely legitimate and honest responses to despair. I think these are useful terms for religious liberals thinking about hopelessness.

So what does Jesus have to do with this? I've been intrigued by Rossetti for a while, since one of my very favorite Christmas carols is Harold Darke's setting of one of her poems, "In the Bleak Mid-Winter." (Her first verse is in Singing the Living Tradition, in a familiar setting by Gustav Holst, but the rest of her poem has been jettisoned and replaced by more UU-friendly words.) The poet wasn't an idiot, and yet there she goes, imagining that Jesus was born "in the bleak mid-winter," when "snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow," a less-than-likely and even redundant description of a Palestinian birth which probably happened at another time of year anyway. Why is it that poets refuse to listen to the factually-minded? Why is she so egregiously inaccurate?

But of course the poet got it right: the only birth that really matters in the Christmas story is the one that happens every year, not just the one that happened "long ago." The "bleak mid-winter," when the "earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone," is not a meteorological description of an historical event two millenia ago. The phrases describe something much more immediately a part of human experience now: We're the ones who know that the heart can turn cold. We observe that the sun that seems to abandon us in the winter is also sometimes a light that goes out within us. And, most importantly, we witness the emergence of hope in unlikely places, when people who had every reason to give up — oppressed, beaten, abused, dismissed, despairing, abandoned, crushed people — refuse to be crushed; hope continues to emerge within them, in their midst. "In the bleak mid-winter, a stable place sufficed." If in a stable, why not everywhere else?

When someone in despair calls out and hopes against hope that Jesus represents help, two things are happening worth our closest attention: The person in despair is acknowledging that people have affirmed the regeneration of life against incredible odds. She is calling on the most powerful story of such regeneration that she knows, and applying it to herself. "Jesus, rise within me." She doesn't embark on a treatise about substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of the Trinity, or salvation by grace alone — nor does she explain why such ideas are false. What good would that do? She calls out for help. The most pressing religious questions are the ones that rise straight out of the gut, not out of the encyclopedia. And, second, if someone cries out for help and we witness it, the thing to do is not sit back to see if Jesus shows up to help, but to help the person ourselves.

The power of a regenerative story is that it regenerates us. If God could operate through the life of a Mediterranean peasant, why can't God — Love — operate through our lives? And if it's not so impossible to see people whose lives are being regenerated all around us now, why is it so impossible to imagine that people witnessed this happening all around Jesus once upon a time? If we're dying or feel ourselves to have died, why can the stone not roll away from our hearts as well? Do we not have hands to help each other push?

My response to Michaele's question is: The legitimate hope of a poem like Rossetti's is the fact that something sometimes brings life when life seems impossible. I have felt that my life was impossibly stalled before, and somehow, I was given a new start. Write the story of your own despair and the regeneration of your life. If you have ever been in despair and called out, why did you not simply give up? If you have ever given up, as I once felt myself doing, why are you still here at all? I think the power of a "resurrection" poem like this one is that the poet cries out against hopelessness: She finds a voice for the inexpressible, and insists that hope can't be in vain.

I would ask, is there any reason at all to believe that things can change for the better? If they can change for the better — as I think they can and sometimes do — then "resurrection" stories and poems (Christian or not) embody a witness to that possibility of regeneration. If things cannot change for the better, how is it that anything fragile and worthwhile ever survived the first night?

I am finding, by the way, that the Christmas and Easter stories speak to me more powerfully now as a Unitarian Universalist than they did when I was a devout Mormon. I think they become truly radical stories when they begin to be about us and our lives, rather than being mistaken for historical evidences of doctrinal Truths.

Hopelessness is all around us. The good news is, hope is all around us, too. Maybe this is one of those "let whosoever hath ears to hear, hear" kinds of things: The stirrings of regeneration are quietly going on, but we don't pay much attention to modest alleluias when a mad chorus is shouting, "Doom, doom." I prefer the alleluias.

(Originally posted to UUs-L, 12.12.96)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 3 April 2007 at 9:28 PM

Previous: Captain John Smith's journal entry about baseball.
Next: Hymn: The rising sun.





April 4, 2007 04:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

That reminds me of a favorite song line: "and i know I'll be all right, but I don't know why." sometimes he sings it "and I know I'll be all right but I don't know when."
when I was at my most depressed, what got me through and kept me alive was listening to songs about other people's problems. It sort of puts things in perspective.
I think different things work for different people. One person's sad is another person's hopeful, and vice versa.


April 4, 2007 04:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

The entry reminds me of a poem I often recite to myself in my time of hopelessness.

Mother to Son
by Langston Hughes

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the flooró
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall nowó
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair


April 5, 2007 05:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for posting's helpful to remember why to nurture hope when things seem hopeless.

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