This post isn’t about art or Christianity. It’s about suffering.
I have an acquaintance who is in many ways a superior person, but who feels unworthy. The technical term for his condition is depression, but that’s just a word. It doesn’t convey the horror inside him. It cloaks the daily anguish, the unceasing pain.
Suffering defines the human race. We who live in the age of health and comfort tend to look away from this distressing fact, but it’s there nonetheless, staring us back in the eye. For every joy there must be a sorrow. We love and cherish our parents then we watch them age and die. We raise and protect our children but they must fly off into the night.
Every man has his deep abiding misery, and every woman too. For some it’s a moment of shame or weakness which stains an entire life. For others it’s a secret hunger beyond decency or the law, gnawing at the heart. Nor, despite the pink ribbons and medical miracles, have we escaped real pain: suffering of the body, as we dodder towards death, or of the spirit, like my troubled acquaintance’s.
The world is an irrational place. It doesn’t take a tsunami or an earthquake to prove it. It can be a car crash, a sudden illness, an angry zealot with a bomb. All of us become intimate with loss. Many endure it unseasonably early – a dead sweetheart or spouse, or sibling, or friend.
By day we go about our business, socialize with friends, run chores with our families. By night, in the dark hour, we are seized by the horror of living inside our skins.
Each life is a tragic performance, each family and community a triumph over individual pain. We Americans, relentlessly engaged in the pursuit of happiness, seem to lack even a shred of the tragic sense of life – this makes us at once the most tragic people on earth and most astonishing triumph of all.
Suffering is loneliness. Regardless of the platitudes, it can’t be shared. That is the worst. The sufferer is set apart, away from the light, tortured and crucified, alone, over a dark and silent Golgotha of the soul.
For many years this has been my image of human suffering: each person containing a crucified aspect of himself in a solitary corner of his own soul.
That’s my excuse for bringing up the crucified Christ of Velazquez, in my opinion the most profound depiction of an often-pictured scene. The painting, slightly larger than life size, can be found at the Prado in Madrid. It isn’t the most vivid portrayal of suffering – for that, one must go to Grunewald.
Velazquez shows Christ after the passion. He is beyond pain, already dead. His face is veiled by shadow and shadowy strings of hair. This is a faceless dead man – part of the mystery of the work, and of the empathy one feels toward the figure.
The canvas is dense with loneliness. I have stood nearby at the Prado and felt it. The crucified dead man hangs over a vast gloomy abyss, utterly alone, uncared for, unmourned, unnoticed. The isolation of past suffering has been absorbed into the present stillness: and neither can be shared. That is what makes this a moving and terrifying image.
Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish philosopher and writer, composed a long poetic meditation on the painting, in which he implored the silent Christ to hear “our sobs… our complaints, our groans from this vale of tears.” Unamuno had once been a progressive, but the birth of a mentally impaired son shocked him into becoming a sort of willful reactionary. His desperate desire to believe in a Catholic God was born of a father’s pain.
Can we be redeemed by suffering? That was the gist of Unamuno’s prayer: to be redeemed by the suffering of the faceless dead man floating above the void. In “Preludes,” T. S. Eliot gave voice to a similar hope:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I believe the good of the earth relieve the pain of others. I also believe evil adds to the vast sum of human suffering. At times there seems to be more of the latter than the former. It may be that those who suffer redress the balance of our species, and redeem those who inflict misery.
Our ordeal is finite, in any case. Pain ends with death. Until then, we struggle. My acquaintance who feels unworthy is now in a hospital. That’s a wretched thing, but fitting. Our condition is inescapable, but it is up to each of us whether to yield to it or struggle toward dignity – that’s the hope of redemption, for this life at least.