In a book on preaching, entitled, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner challenges all preachers and spiritual writers to speak with “awful honesty” about the human struggle, even inside the context of faith. Don’t put an easy sugar-coating on things, he warns:
“Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depth of this absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and in such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job … and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it the catch of the breath, the beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”
Reading this, I was reminded of some of the preaching in my own parish when I was a young boy. I grew up in a small, sheltered, farming, immigrant community in the heart of the Canadian prairies. Our parish priests, wonderfully sincere men, tended however to preach to us as if we were a group of idyllic families in the TV series, Little House on the Prairies. They would share with us how pleased they were to be ministering to us, simple farm-folk, living uncomplicated lives, far from the problems of those who were living in the big cities.
Even as a young boy, living a sheltered life, this didn’t always digest well. First of all, I didn’t feel very uncomplicated and simple. I harbored a deep restlessness and had more than my own share of heartaches. I felt already then, just as I feel now, that both human life and the human heart have a depth that’s always partially beyond our grasp. Also, wonderful as our community was, it too had its share of breakdowns, suicides, and interpersonal tensions. On the outside, we sometimes looked like little houses on the prairies, but underneath deeper things were always brewing. No one is spared both the wondrous mystery and the confusing pathos of life’s complexity.
Good art is good precisely because it takes that complexity seriously and shines a light into it in a way that doesn’t resolve the tension in too-easy a way. Poor art is invariably sentimental precisely because it does not take that complexity seriously, either by refusing to acknowledge it or by resolving it too easily.
The same holds true for good theology and spirituality. It needs to take seriously the complexity of the human heart. Thomas Aquinas once posed the question: What is the adequate object of the human intellect and will? In contemporary terms, that would be: What would completely satisfy our every aching and longing? His answer: All being, everything, all that is. We would have to know and be somehow affectively connected to everything that is for our restless minds and hearts to come to full peace. Given the impossibility of this in this life, we shouldn’t be naïve as to how habitually restless and complex our lives are going to be.
The great gift of Henri Nouwen’s writings is that they introduce us to the complexity of our own lives and then give us permission to understand that as normal. We aren’t necessarily over-greedy, over-sexed, or over-restless. We are just normal human beings, walking around inside of human skin. That’s what real life feels like! That is also a clear truth inside scripture and the gospels. The scriptures are filled with stories of persons finding God and helping bring about God’s kingdom, even as their own lives are often fraught with mess, confusion, frustration, betrayal, infidelity, and sin. There are no simple human beings, immune to the spiritual, psychological, sexual, and relational complexities that beset us all.
And in the end, that’s a good thing: Among other things it keeps us forever aware, often against our own fear and sloth, that the mystery of life is infinitely bigger than that with which were are most times comfortable. Our pathological complexity presses us ever towards greater light.
Importantly too an awareness and acceptance of the pathological complexity of our own lives can be the place where we finally find the threads of empathy and forgiveness: Life is difficult for everybody. Everyone is hurting. We don’t need to blame someone. We are all beset with the same issues. Understanding and accepting that can help us to forgive each other – and then forgive ourselves.