When Words Fail

A sermon by Jennifer W. Davidson

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Throughout the summer, our church has been moving its way through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith—each Sunday devoted to a chapter in this book in which Barbara Brown Taylor introduces us to various everyday experiences and suggests how we might engage them as spiritual practices that draw us closer to an experience of the Holy in the midst of the Everyday.

This week’s theme is an odd one, in some ways. Barbara Brown Taylor calls it “The Practice of Feeling Pain.” She shares with us some of her own experiences of physical pain—and reflects on the Book of Job.

But the idea of feeling pain as spiritual practice is a strange one for many of us. Many of the practices Taylor writes about have some element of choice to them—we can choose to encounter others in a way that helps to cultivate community; we can choose to incorporate more Sabbath moments into our lives. But pain is something that happens to us. And, whenever possible, most of us would rather choose not to experience pain. Pain is, for the most part, an unwelcome experience. More, pain can be tremendously isolating, disorienting, and frightening. Pain can be something over which we have no control. Worse, pain can be something inflicted upon us by someone else—by someone we don’t know, or by someone we love. Sometimes intentionally. Sometimes ruthlessly. Nonetheless, pain is something everyone experiences in one way or another.

Pain is one of those topics where in order to say anything about it, it seems we have to say many things about it—and to say them all at once; because to say any one thing about pain at one time is to seem like you are lying about the other aspects of pain. In other words, it’s hard to say one thing about pain without saying it wrong. And a lot of what feels like the truth about pain depends on one thing: are you currently in pain? Pain in retrospect is something entirely different from the experience of pain in the moment.

So because this is summer, and we can do things just a little differently. And because pain is such a multilayered, multifaceted topic—I want to do something just a little differently in this morning’s sermon. I’m offering this sermon in three movements. Each movement says something about pain, but none says all that could be said. I’m also not going to try to resolve the movements, or to tidy them up in a way that gives us all one solid thing to hold onto at the end.

My hope is, in offering a sermon in this form, that we end up saying some true things about pain. And, more, some true things that carry us ever into a more intimate, more sustaining relationship with the Eternal, Loving One.

Movement I: Anguish

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, eleven years ago, my friend’s daughter was driving to a church potluck, her brother sitting beside her, when a drunk driver plowed into their car and killed her instantly. Heather was an honors student in her senior year in college. She’d just come home two days earlier for winter break. She was engaged to be married, the date set for shortly after graduation that May.

That same morning, Heather had stood with the rest of her family at the front of the church, lighting the Advent candle. My friend, her father, was the choir director there. He had been my piano teacher, but also a mentor, and a confidante.

At Heather’s funeral, three days before Christmas, I watched as the family recessed after the service. Heather’s brother, just out of the hospital himself, with long months of surgeries and recovery stretched before him, walked slowly beside his mother. My friend Tom walked alone behind them. Anguish.

The book of Lamentations from which we read this morning’s scripture is a slim volume, only five chapters long. It is a book of poetry—passionate, evocative, powerful.

As laments do, the poems hold God by the collar and call God to account for the reality of death, destruction, violence, sickness, hunger, torture, and abuse. The overall tone is one of communal mourning—the City Jerusalem speaking for the whole of its people.

But the third chapter marks a significant break as it moves from the communal lament to the personal. It’s opening line—“I am the man who has seen affliction”—alerts us immediately to this shift. It is no longer Jerusalem speaking, but one man speaking for himself, recounting what he has seen with his own eyes. We are in a new vein, the intimate realm of the heart.

Several months after the funeral, I sat across from Tom in a diner. He told me that for days, he kept trying to physically shake the words of the police officer out of his head. He felt like he was going insane with it, just trying to get away from the words that had informed him of his daughter’s death. Then he looked me in the eye and said, in a voice held barely in check, “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore, but if God exists, I hope we never meet face-to-face.”

“God has made my teeth grind on gravel and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from God” (3:16-18).

That day, Tom told me he’d been reading Shakespeare lately. “I find a lot more in Shakespeare than I do in scripture.” He said. This is what happens when scripture is sanitized and expurgated of anything visceral as it is in so many congregations—when we do not read together the texts of Lamentations and Job. In Tom’s experience, he was the first one to levy accusations against the divine. So he carried the even greater weight of particularity on his shoulders: the first and only one to rage at God.

Yet Tom wasn’t the first and only one to do this at all. The book of Lamentations, and Job, and many of the Psalms, provide us with models of just such behavior. What kind of God would allow such accusations to remain a part of that God’s Holy Scriptures?

For me, the answer is clear: a God who remains with us unflinchingly when we rage in despair; a God who absorbs in love all the blows we can muster; a God who desires and longs for us when we no longer know what we are capable of doing; a God whose ‘steadfast love never ceases, whose mercies never end, but are renewed every morning” (3:22-23).

All of this is true. But equally true was the rage and despair expressed by Tom and the poet of Lamentations 3. God’s love does not solve our anguish. Nor does our anguish unravel that love. Hope begins in the juxtaposition of the two, in the very collision of human anguish and God’s love. The swirling confusion, indeed the grace, is that neither one is diminished in the presence of the other.

A couple weeks ago I saw Tom again for the first time in ten years. As we sat together, talking about all that has happened over the years, it became quickly evident that Heather’s death—and his experience of grief—has been woven into the warp and woof of his everyday life. It is not that the pain is diminished so much as it is always a part of everything he does.

The chord remains unresolved in Tom’s life, and always will be. Tom pointed out to me the photograph that hangs over the sofa in their living room. It’s a brilliant, vivid photograph of a tall tree, its branches sweeping down, a weeping willow. Tom tells me that their son John gave it to them at his wedding only a few months before. “I didn’t know what it was,” Tom said, “Until he told me. It is the tree they planted in Heather’s memory at her high school.” We gazed at the photograph for a while in silence. What is striking about it is not only how beautiful it is, but how tall the tree is.

Loss and grief—and anguish—and the passing of time. [1]

Movement 2: Isolation

When words fail. And they do fail. Harvard professor Elaine Scarry wrote a remarkable book called The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, in which she highlights for us the utter inexpressibility and incommunicability of pain. Pain defies description and therefore defies language; and in some cases erases language—reducing the sufferer to moans, groans, screams or whimpers. We don’t know how to tell others about our pain—words come up short. Even the doctor who asks us to measure our pain from 1 to 10 knows that everyone’s 1 and everyone’s 10 is different. And a number says next to nothing about how it actually feels.

It is in this sense that pain is unshareable. Virginia Woolf writes, “The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor, and language at once runs dry.” Elaine Scarry goes on to add, “True of the headache, Woolf’s account is of course more radically true of the severe and prolonged pain that may accompany cancer or burns or phantom limb or stroke…Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.” [2]

One of the (many) unfortunate consequences of the inexpressibility of pain is that the one who is feeling pain, knows it is there. But the one who is not feeling the pain, can’t quite be sure.

Many, many times as a mother, I have wished that my son and I each came with dataports where I could plug a usb cord into his dataport and then plug it into my own and then feel exactly what he is feeling. I thought of it a lot when he was only an infant, and couldn’t tell me why he was crying or where he hurt. But it is really no less true today if he comes home with a sore shoulder after pitching—just how does it hurt? I want to know. Is it a dull ache? or a sharp one? Is it sustained? In the front of the shoulder? Inside the shoulder? He will try to tell me, but the truth is, I can never know.

“To have pain is to have certainty,” writes Elaine Scarry. “To hear about pain is to have doubt.”

Pain isolates because words fail. This is such an important thing to remember for those in our midst who are in the long, lonely wilderness of pain—whether it is the pain of a diagnosis, the pain of sustained illness, the chronic pain that some of us live with, or the pain of mental illness or addiction.

But there are also those who exploit the extent to which pain isolates—on the personal level—by those who abuse others. And on a communal/political level, by those who perpetrate torture. Pain in these contexts is deployed in order to separate people from one another. In order to break down relationship and connection. To isolate.

This is the pain experienced by Jesus who faced the torture perpetrated by the Empire of Rome. On the night before he was tortured to death, Jesus knew very well that the community that had formed around him was about to be torn apart. He was aware already that one of his disciples had been so gripped by anxiety that he had betrayed Jesus to those who would soon torture him. But more than that, Jesus knew that the dis-integration of his whole community was about to take place: his followers were about to abandon him and one another.

The effects of torture in the first century were the same as they are in the twenty-first century. The Center for Victims of Torture puts it succinctly: “Torture is the deliberate and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity. Torture’s purpose is to destroy a sense of community, eliminate leaders, and create a climate of fear.” [3]

It was precisely these forces that Jesus was confronting as he entered the week of his suffering. Jesus warned his disciples that they would all desert him because of what he was about to go through. He urged them to recognize that when the leader, the shepherd is eliminated, then the community, the flock, will be destroyed. Jesus knew that the torture he would face was intended to dismantle his identity and his humanity.

So he did the most remarkable thing. Before his humanity and his identity could be stripped away from him at the hands of the Empire, he gave himself away.

“This is my body,” he told his disciples—and they ate. “This is my blood,” he declared to them. And they drank. And in eating and drinking, they became—and we continue to become—the body of Christ. No longer an isolated individual, Jesus gave his identity away to his community of followers in such a way that—though they may disperse for a time—the Empire could not ultimately break that community apart.

As followers of Christ, we participate in the pain of one another—even in the midst of the isolation it perpetuates. Whether illness, abuse, or torture, to be the Body of Christ is to be present to one another, to refuse to give in to allowing another to be cast off and isolated. To be truth-tellers even when it is unpopular or even unsafe to do so. To provide places of safety, and places for story-telling, even unspeakable stories.

Movement 3: Power and Presence

It was in the experience of giving birth that I came to know, vividly and unforgettably, the power that resides in pain. In the weeks leading up to my due date, the midwife coached my birthing class to understand that everything in Western culture teaches us to resist pain. We are taught to fight pain, to defeat pain, to defy pain. But labor pains are different, she said.

You should not resist labor pains, but enter into them. To fight pain, we tense up our muscles. But to work with pain, we must relax into it. One way to know if you are fighting pain, she advised us, is to notice if you are clenching your teeth or not. If your teeth are clenched, you are fighting the pain. You must instead relax your jaws, keep your teeth apart. Though your lips may be closed, your jaw should be slack.

You can also tell by the way you are vocalizing during labor. There is possibly no more resonant a sound than that of a woman groaning in labor pains. These groans arise from deep inside the laboring woman’s body, and accompany each wave of every contraction. As the contraction’s power rises and falls, so also do the groans—rising and falling in volume, but not, when most productively sounded, in pitch.

Groaning in labor pains, as my midwife coached, is part of what powers forth the birthing moment. Unlike the high pitched screams often heard in popularized, Hollywood depictions of labor, the groaning of labor pains are at their most powerful when the woman’s jaw is relaxed, and her pitch is low, deep, and rich. If the pitch rises, this a cue to the midwife that the laboring woman is tensing up, resisting the pain, and fighting the contraction rather than working with it.

The pain of labor, in my experience, creates its own space and its own time. But it is a space and time that is also utterly aware of this space and time. The contractions, as they grow in force and power, become absolute. They are all. Everything. There is nothing else but the contraction, the sound of the labor groans, the entering, the heart, the easing, and the absence.

The pain of labor is different from other pain because it is meaningful from the start—the woman in labor knows why she is in pain. It is a hopeful pain, though by no means danger-free—the hoped-for outcome is life, though many of us have known deeply painful other endings of labor.

But the force embodied in that pain is nothing less than the force of life. The pain of all of life is distilled in those contractions. The birthing woman must find a way to work with that power, not resist it, indeed become pain and power itself to bring forth life.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22).

The early Christian mystic Paul wrote this to the Christian believers in Rome. All of creation groans with the resonant groans of labor. We are all caught up in those labor pains, those contractions of a cosmos longing to birth forth loving relationship and reconciliation.

The groans ride on the power of the birthing cosmos. It is a pain that is absolute. It is everything. And like every pain, it defies language. In fact, at times, our prayers themselves come to a place of utter wordlessness, and it is at these times that the Spirit prays on our behalf. Paul goes on to say, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Creation groaning, the absolute power and pain of labor, the failure of words, the threat of annihilation, and the Spirit who prays on our behalf, with sighs, not words.

“Ah,” says Pat as she lays on her deathbed, holding the polished stone with a hole through its center: “Now I see. This is the way through.” [See Barbara Brown Taylor’s “The Practice of Feeling Pain” in Altars in the World, pages 107-108 for this story.]

The Spirit, praying with sighs too deep for words, carries us through–not away from, not around, but through–the pain, with hands that press down on both our shoulders so we can feel how heavy love can be. [Taylor, pages 107-108].

When we midwife one another through the painful moments, we know something more of God’s faithful presence and promise. When we rage, when we feel alone, when we ride into the heart of pain, when words fail, the Spirit sighs—and in all of these: God.

[1] Much of the above story comes from an article I have published previously under a pseudonym.

[2] See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, introduction. In this astounding book, Scarry investigates the intersections between the inexpressibility of pain and the political implications of this inexpressibility. William T. Cavanaugh drew powerfully on Scarry’s work in his own remarkable book Torture and Eucharist.

[3] “Effects of Psychological Torture,” The Center for Victims of Torture,http://www.cvt.org/page/36, accessed August 21, 2011. For more information about psychological effects of torture, see the 135-page report Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by U.S. Forces from Physicians for Human Rights, available in pdf from http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/reports/us-torture-break-them-down-2005.html, accessed August 21, 2011.

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