Tag Archives: pain

Vanitas

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Gysbrechts_Still_life_with_a_skull.jpg

Vanitas/Still Life with a Skull, one of several by Franciscus Gysbrechts, mid-to-late 1600’s.
Image from Wikimedia Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Gysbrechts_Still_life_with_a_skull.jpg

I haven’t many of my own words, right now, which is why I haven’t been posting. What few words I do have are being channeled into fiction and a few friends and loved ones who are facing trouble and pain.

Three friends of a close friend of mine, all from the same family, were killed in a wreck. Serious illness and death have touched several people I love. There is death, illness, strain, pain, separation, abuse, stress, and frustration close at hand, and horrible violence, famine, illness, war and death not far distant.

In other words, everything is normal for the world.


It is easy to think, in relatively peaceful and prosperous countries, that we are safe, and in many ways, we are. It’s also easy to feel ashamed of that peace and safety, knowing so many do not have it. I keep asking myself what that shame means. Is it helpful or harmful, a tool or an attack? It shouldn’t mean that I want what little peace and prosperity there is, in the world, to vanish (or should it?) but that I do not want such things to be so isolated, so rare. Perhaps, so long as it makes me want to use what I have to help, then it is good, but if it paralyzes me with shame, it is evil.

But there is something to be learned about both peace and prosperity, for those who are in it: It is, in the end, no real protection. Pain and death will find us. If we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise, or in distracting ourselves until we forget, then we are in for a shock.

Different faiths have different perspectives on how this reality should be faced. In my own, Christianity, there are many different angles from which it is approached. There is no single answer, though some folks pretend that there is. There are no pat sayings that cover all angles, though some people like to pretend there are. There is, instead, a mosaic, with space between the tesserae.


Be careful what you say to pain. I have to remind myself of this. It’s too easy to forget, we are so desperate to say something, to help somehow, that we do damage. Better to be silent. After all, in silence the Spirit may have a chance to speak without all of our clutter. My mind is very cluttered… and I am certainly not silent, here. But then, what is this blog if not a place for me to vent? Maybe venting, here, will keep me from saying stupid things to someone anon.


The painting, above, is a vanitas, a reminder of mortality and of the ephemeral nature of earthly wealth, power, pleasure and wisdom. In this particular painting, the skull is wreathed in dried grass, a symbol of the brevity of life, and the hope of resurrection, as the grass dies every year, but returns every Spring. It is the only thing in the painting that is treated so. I think C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory points out one reason why.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

Growing up, especially while studying history and biology, I got a very different impression of the world. What is the life of a human, so brief and fragile, to the life of a nation, or the world, or the universe?

This is no answer to the question of pain and death, or at least, it is not a complete answer. But it does shift the perspective. If I believe that human’s are, in essence, immortal, then how I treat them becomes much more serious. The responsibility is immense. When we turn our backs on human suffering, we are turning our backs on the suffering of an eternal someone. In Weight of Glory, Lewis catches at a possible risk. A turnabout.

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

How this post rambles! I’m not sure there is a point, or at least not a clear or singular one. I keep coming back to the vanitas. Almost all is vanity, born from dust and to dust returning, but if there is something eternal in that dust, which I believe, then the one thing that is not vanity is the immortal. The pain in my fellows, the suffering, may be finite, but I do not think it is trivial.

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Shout Out

Reader’s warning: angst follows, but at least it is neither purposeless nor self-focused angst.

As the title would suggest, this is a shout-out to my fellow Book-Meme contributors, David and the Multifaceted Muses.

There has been some discussion among us, lately, on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, surrounding the role sorrow, grief and tragedy play in the book and its various related stories. Tolkien, we know, was no stranger to grief, pain or even the horrors of World War I. As a writer, he does not shy from tragedy, and yet there is a powerful, indestructible hope that runs through his work, as it seems to have run through his life. He understood a truth that someone like me, who has suffered very little in comparison, has no right to speak of: that from sorrow, strife and pain can come a rich harvest. As Gandalf observes, “not all tears are evil.”

On a seemingly unrelated note, the muses of the Egotist’s Club have produced some very intriguing answers two the second 2012 Book Meme question. Perhaps reading their posts opened a previously unexplored avenue of thought in me, because I usually do not match music with books.

This morning a song came up on my mp3 player and, as I listened, its relation to the Silmarillion hit me. I have never thought, nor am likely to think again, of Tolkien and Emmylou Harris at the same time. However, here are the lyrics for Harris’s song, The Pearl, for Urania, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Calliope and David.

The Pearl, by Emmylou Harris

.

Oh the Dragons are gonna to fly tonight.

They’re circling low and in sight tonight.

It’s another round in the losing fight

Out along the great divide tonight.

.

We are aging soldiers in an ancient war

Seeking out some half-remembered shore.

We drink our fill and still we thirst for more,

Asking “if there’s no heaven what is this hunger for?”

.

Our path is worn our feet are poorly shod.

We lift up our prayer against the odds,

And fear the silence is the voice of God.

Of God, of God.

.

And we cry allelujah, allelujah,

We cry allelujah.

.

Sorrow is constant and the joys are brief.

The seasons come and bring no sweet relief.

Time is a brutal but a careless thief:

It takes our lot but leaves behind the grief.

.

It is the heart that kills us in the end,

Just one more old broken bone that cannot mend.

As it was, now, and ever shall be, amen.

Amen, amen.

.

And we cry allelujah, allelujah,

We cry allelujah.

.

So there’ll be no guiding light for you and me

We are not sailors lost out on the sea

We were always headed toward eternity

Hoping for a glimpse of Galilee.

.

Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled

Down through the long loneliness of the world

Until we, behold the pain, become the Pearl.

The Pearl. The Pearl.

.

Cryin´ allelujah allelujah
We cry allelujah!

And we cry allelujah allelujah
We cry allelujah!

We cry allelujah allelujah
We cry allelujah!


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