The Right Side of Pain
We shuffled back and forth between the states that sat like metaphors between our divorced parents—a summer, a spring break, a Christmas far from one of them. The pain of the one we were leaving was always palpable, but we always had to leave.
It's strange the things you interpret as a child with the limited perceptions you have. I was very small when I determined that pain had sides—like a terrible river that could be crossed. I silently vowed I would not allow anyone to keep me stranded on the wrong side of people in pain. As a result, I spent a lifetime collecting strays, searching for the oppressed, feeling the pain of others, and desperately attempting to bind broken hearts, usually without much (or any) success. I realized one day that every community I have ever been involved with has been one somehow marked by suffering. At times, I was even somewhat frantic about expanding my circle of care. The world of souls is a sad and broken place. I was most certain of this because I was one of them, and I vowed that they would not be alone—or perhaps, at times, more accurately, that I would not be alone.
On occasion, I could be honest about unhealthy patterns to my ever-expanding circles of care. With each oppressed group, I would come among them with the best of intentions. I would give everything I could and some things I could not—love, time, money, tears, depression—until I collapsed, no longer able to give anything at all. I always thought I was retreating out of necessity because taking in pain was understandably exhausting. I figured that the metaphorical house I tried to keep filled, at times, simply needed to be emptied from over-crowding. I was opening up my house until people were hanging from the rafters and lamps started getting broken, and I was falling apart. Little did I realize, the house was falling apart before any of them entered in the first place. I was inviting them into the wrong house.
It is an uncomfortable mystery in the house of faith that sometimes God in his mercy must tear down even walls built with good intention. The psalmist knew it well: "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain... In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—but God grants sleep to those he loves."(1) In my house, the broken and the oppressed necessarily found care with limits, hospitality with conditions. The psalmist points instead to a world re-formed and revived within the walls of the house of God. We are like olive trees, he says, who flourish in those great corridors, creatures remade by the care of Home, tears collected and life resuscitated in God's unfailing love for ever and ever.(2)
Describing the disparity between the hospitality of mortals and the hospitality of God, Abraham Heschel writes, "The [human] conscience builds its confines, is subject to fatigue, longs for comfort, lulling, soothing. Yet those who are hurt, and [the God] Who inhabits eternity, neither slumber nor sleep."(1) In other words, what if God never sleeps or slumbers in part because those who are hurting never sleep or slumber? Try as I may as a caretaker I cannot pull that off. No one can be as God to the hurting. We can stay awake with a dying loved one in his pain and suffering. We can care for neighbors who have no roofs to protect their heads at night. But the house in which the suffering find unfailing love will be God's. Like the friends of the paralytic who carried him all the way to Christ, this is the house to which we must bring them. His is the house in which we all will live.
I think I will always move toward broken communities and I will struggle with the weight of the things I see. I struggle equally with the apathy that makes me want to flee from it all and clear away the troubled crowd. But I am convinced that the right side of pain can only be accessed through the house of God, a house built not by mortal hands, but held up by the beams of the Cross: A house filled with the loving exchange of a divine communion and the vicariously human touch of the Incarnate of Son. I know of no other refuge with great doors so open and a host who suffers but does not sleep, with rooms prepared and a table set with places even for enemies, where hospitality is not a conditional sharing of personal pains, or a self-centered preoccupation with suffering, but an extension of the very real invitation: Come to me, all who are weary and I will give you rest.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Psalm 127:1-2.
(2) Psalm 52:8.
(3) Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Perennial, 2001), 11.