It’s no secret that life is difficult. Yet most of us expend a great deal of time and energy attempting to avoid a direct confrontation with this reality. The problem however is that our attempt to avoid the inherent difficulties of life does not mean that we are free from suffering but rather that we are most oppressed by it.
By filling our lives with any number of activities we avoid that most frightening of things. What I am referring to is not the act of becoming silent, but rather the realisation that silence is all but impossible for us.
When we stop what we are doing and attempt to become still we discover that there are fears and anxieties within us that clutter up our world. Thus we must be careful of the popular wisdom that we must become still in order to work things through. For it would be better to say that the ability to be truly still is a sign that you have done the work.
The truth that we suffer is one that we can avoid most of the time. While it always seeps out in other ways (through frenetic activity, health problems, self-hatred, hatred of others, etc.) we can generally maintain our inner facebook profile (the idealised image we have of ourselves).
However there are times whenever this is difficult and we must work hard to keep the image intact, times whenever we go through a particularly traumatic event.
One of the ways that many of us avoid our inner pain is through the use of drugs. Imagine that you have just lost someone who was very close to you. Let us imagine that the pain of their passing is so intense that you find an escape through drink and other drugs. Initially this proves to be a powerful way of avoiding your suffering, especially when combined with social activity.
Such acts are not in themselves a problem but rather the solution to a problem: the pain. Yet the limitation of this basic solution is exposed the next day when we experience the return of everything we had repressed through the drugs and partying. The pain is not worked through but simply avoided. As a result we are tempted to repeat the cycle.
This is a vicious circle that most of us know is problematic, however it would seem preferable to a direct confrontation with our pain. For that would likely be too much for us to cope with.
However there is a different way to handle such a traumatic event, one that neither seeks to repress the pain, nor confront it directly. This other way involves participation in symbolic activity. For example, you might go to hear a poet who puts into music the suffering of loss; an individual who is able to speak the type of anger/frustration/pain you feel in lyrical form. In such a poet we encounter an individual who has demonstrated profound courage, for in being able to sing her suffering she shows that she is not overwrought by it; that while it is real she has robbed it of its sting.
As we listen to the music we are invited to participate in a form of communion. A call is being issued asking us to touch the dark core of the music so as to encounter our own dark core. Yet the artistic form is such that this encounter with the darkness is bearable. We encounter our pain and anger in a way that we can cope with and we begin the work of mourning.
Like the professional mourners at funerals we might not cry, but we are paying someone else to cry on our behalf. Not so that we might avoid our suffering, but so that we may be able to access it in a way that is not crushing.
My concern is that most of the actually existing church acts as a type of drug den with the leaders being like the nicest, most sincere, drug dealers. What we pay for are songs, sermons and prayers that help us avoid our suffering. These drugs are very appealing because of the quick fix and powerful high they offer, hence the success of such communities. However they do not help us face up to, speak out and work through our pain.
In contrast we need collectives that are more like the professional mourners who cry for us, the stand-up comedians who talk about the pain of being human or the poets singing about life at local pubs.
In other words, what if the church could be a place where we found a liturgical structure that would not treat God as a product that would make us whole but as the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties. A place where we are invited to confront the reality of our humanity, not so that we will despair, but so that we will be free of the despair that already lurks within us, the despair that enslaves us, the despair that we refuse to acknowledge.
The following video offers one concrete example of the type of liturgical experience I am writing about (the singer is Pádraig Ó Tuama).
For the lyrics of this song and a more in depth reflection on these themes get Insurrection