Holding onto Faith

Last night, a discussion of Mary Magdelene reminded me of a poem about her by Jane Kenyon. You can find the text of “Woman, Why Are You Weeping?” here, but be warned: if this is a cheery day for you and you’d like to keep it that way, read no further.


The poem opens with a familiar scene: Mary Magdelene weeping at the grave of Jesus. That which she loved is gone, forcibly taken from her, and Mary is left, weeping and alone.


And so is our author Jane after a trip to India.


The absurdity of all religious forms
breaks over me, as the absurdity of language
made me feel faint the day I heard friends
giving commands to their neighbor’s dog
in Spanish…. At first I laughed,
but then I became frightened.


Part of this feeling is foreignness, the all-encompassing unfamiliarity of traveling abroad. The ancient break at Babel revealed itself and frightened her with a Spanish-speaking dog, an animal guided into its understanding purely by the surroundings in which it happened to be born. The disorientation extends to God, who now seems to be little more than the subjectivity of Jane’s surroundings and upbringing. And yet, I want to ask her if the dog sits – not in the English sense, but in the true sense, where it drops its trembling haunches onto the ground and beams up in pride with a barely-contained ecstasy for the reward that once in a great while follows obedience. Does it sit, despite the fact that we do not understand?


Looking at them I lose my place.
I don’t know why I was born, or why
I live in a house in New England, or why I am
a visitor with heavy luggage giving lectures
for the State Department. Why am I not
tap-tapping with my fingernail
on the rolled-up window of a white government car,
a baby in my arms, drugged to look feverish?


But in Jane’s loss, there is more at work than unfamiliarity. It is the unanswered, undisguised suffering that shocks Jane. My God, it shocks me, too. The world should rip itself apart at the sight of an infant floating by the side of my boat, and yet it does not. The universe should tip over with the weight of injustice of a man who has only a raffia mat while I have a different pair of shoes for every day of the week, but it does not. Everyone, clothed in sackcloth and ashes, should wail at the long, unbroken chain of human loss; the suffering of Jane Kenyon with her barely whispered illness should stop everything. And somehow we remain calm.


It is an awful truth that the distance between God and humanity shrinks in times of great grief and loss. I am not sure whether it is the blinding power of the unapproachable God that touches our lives in new and often painful ways during these times, or whether we have been shocked out of our ordered lives, left floundering for substance and so surrender to the great waters of the waiting mystery. It could be both. The chasms of death, of poverty, of separation, remind us that all is not right in the world. The houses of cards we have constructed to reconcile our comfortable American lives with the calling of a poor Jewish prophet collapse with just one puff of that terrible Breath.


CS Lewis tackled the problem of pain in a book aptly titled The Problem of Pain, but it was purely head-work. Theodicies are as relevant as geometry proofs when the phone rings on those evenings. Later, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed from his own grief, his own heart, and said, “Images of the Holy easily become holy images – sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. All reality is iconoclast.” A God that is our luggage on the train, a perfume that enhances our lives, our own possession, cannot last. My image of God that I hold in my own sun-soaked pew is not divine. God “is not this, is not that.”


“What shall we do about this?” Jane asks her God. Her only answer is scorching wind, lapping of water, pull of the black oarsmen on the oars, before trailing off into uncertainty. Dostoevsky never gave Ivan an answer either in the scene from the Grand Inquisitor. There can be no answer to the suffering of one single innocent.


I looked her up, this Jane Kenyon, wondering if she was able to hold on to the faith. A red-faced Google hemmed and hawed before ashamedly admitting that it didn’t really know. Maybe Jane didn’t really know. But I was asking the wrong question: what should be asked is what sort of faith is being held onto. For me, I am frightened that I trust in my able body and mind, my warm bed, a well-lit home. I am frightened to learn of what I am actually holding on to, and more frightened to experience the shattering that He does Himself. For her part, Jane said she still believed in the deep truths. There are the miracles of goodness, of mercy, of the fact that there is everything, anything, rather than nothing. The Spanish-speaking dog, in fact, still sits.


The poem begins with the words of John, with Mary Magdelene, with the two figures in white who come to the mourning woman and who know very well why she is weeping. All has been lost. Jane and you and me know how the story will end for Mary Magdelene: her Lord will come again. But this will not be a recovery, not for Mary, not for Jane – for if He comes, He will be changed. He will be unrecognizable.

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