In her book, Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean describes her feelings as she watches her first execution. Everything inside her is sick and confused. She knows that what is about to happen, the taking of this man’s life, whatever his crime, is wrong and yet she can appreciate the feelings of those who are about to take that life. She understands the complex web of history and emotion that has led up to this moment and to the belief that we somehow serve justice through capital punishment. She doesn’t agree with the conclusion of course, but she knows that her protest of this is not the same as protesting Hitler; she can’t just throw her body in front of the executioners in an attempt to save this man, as you might do if you see a child attacked on the street. Thus, part of her frustration is not just that she is powerless to stop this killing, it also has to do with being helpless to even protest it effectively. So she is reduced to silence, to interior dissent, to prayer, to helplessness. In essence, what she does as she watches this execution is “to ponder” in the biblical sense.
As we know, in the Hebrew conception of things, the mindset out of which the Gospels were written, pondering meant something quite other than what it did to the Greek philosophers (Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato) and St. Augustine whose conception of things helped constellate what we call common sense in the Western world. The Gospel writers conceived of things very differently and so when they describe Mary as “pondering” they are not depicting her as cerebrally entertaining the kind of abstract, reflective thoughts that Socrates asked for when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What they are describing rather is that painful wrenching of heart, of soul, that you feel when you stand helpless in the face of suffering, sickness, death, misguided sincerity, or anything else that is so overwhelming so as to let you know that you are no longer in control. To ponder is to stand begging for God’s insight and strength when things overwhelm you.
Thus, pondering is what Helen Prejean did as she watched that execution, it is what Mary did when she stood under the cross and watched Jesus die, it is what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsamane when he sweated blood, it is what we do whenever we stand helplessly by the bedside of a loved one who is dying of cancer or AIDS, it is what we do when we are unable to offer words of consolation to someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, it is what we do when we see one of our own children misuse his or her freedom in destructive ways, and it is what we should do at all those times when we are inadequate to the task of love and forgiveness.
Pondering, in the biblical sense, is not so much active as it is passive (in the sense of the Latin verb, PASSIO). When we speak of “the passion of Jesus Christ” we are not talking so much about anything that Jesus actively did, but rather about what was done to him, what he endured, what he submitted to and what he carried in silence during his last hours on earth.
But what is the value of such “passivity”? How does silent suffering that does not actively intervene and alter a situation change anything? Why do we value so much Jesus’ passion when it was precisely the time in his life and ministry – and a very short time it was in fact – when he was not preaching, teaching, feeding, healing, and actively helping others? How can one help anyone by standing helplessly by as injustice unfolds? What is the value of these things: Sweating blood in a garden? Silent tears? Prayers that aren’t publicly manifest? Interior dissent that is powerless to change the actual situation on the outside?
Jesus answered this with another question: “Wasn’t it necessary?” Doesn’t defeat sometimes mean victory? Aren’t silent suffering, interior protest, and helpless empathy sometimes the real weapons for change? Isn’t the sweating of blood the key to sustaining all of our commitments? Isn’t the carrying of tension the key to love and family life? Isn’t it only when we admit our helplessness that God finally enters?
“Why is this necessary”? The answer to that questions lies at the heart of all wisdom, all Christian revelation, all depth, all maturity. But it is an answer that we will not find in books, nor in Socratic reflection. We will find it precisely when we ponder in the biblical sense, namely, when we stand helpless, muted, and frustrated, but listening, before a pain, an illness, or an injustice that so overwhelms us that we are unable to rely on any power save that of God. What is taught us there holds the key to everything.