What can you do in the face of powerlessness? What can you do in a situation where, it seems, anything you can say or do will only make things worse?

For instance, what can you do when you are standing in front of one of your own children, who no longer accepts your values or faith, and are powerless to say or do anything that will help? What can the church do when it stands before a society that no longer understands or accepts what it, the church, cherishes in terms of marriage and sexuality and it has no adequate words, convincing explanations, or ways of defending itself so that it isn’t seen as narrow and fundamentalist? What can anyone do when he or she is so wounded by an abuse of body, sexuality, or soul that, right now, he or she is paralysed and cannot move beyond that hurt?

What can we do in these situations? Nothing! Or, at least, so it seems. But perhaps nothing is enough! Let me explain:

All of us know the feeling of standing within a situation and being powerless, at least in that we are helpless to change anything practically. What can we do when faced with that? Nothing – except live with the powerlessness, carry the tension, try to transmute it into something else, and wait for a new day – a day of new opportunity for resolution of the pain (which is very much contingent upon a deeper love and compassion on our part). In terms of resolving the issue practically, we can do nothing. But nothing can be enough!

That might sound fatalistic, but is in fact the opposite of resignation. To stand powerless, in a biblical way, before a situation is to ponder. We see the prototype of this in Mary, Jesus’ mother, under the cross. Faced with the reality of the crucifixion, she “ponders”. What’s she doing exactly? On the surface, nothing; but, of course, we know that something very important is occurring underneath the surface. What precisely? That answer is not so immediately evident.

All scripture tells us is that Mary stood there. Standing, however, connoted strength. Thus, even in the face of the crucifixion, she was strong, not prostrate in helplessness (as artists sometimes depict her). And what’s she saying? Nothing. Mary said not a single word; not, I suspect, because she didn’t want to protest, but because there wasn’t anything that she could have said at that moment that would have made any difference. Under the cross, she was powerless both in that there was nothing she could do, not a single thing, to stop the crucifixion and in that she was just as helpless to protest her son’s innocence. Hence, she’s not standing under the cross protesting to the bystanders, trying to explain her view of things. She’s powerless. Silent. There’s no protest. All she can do is ponder, that is, hold the tension, stand silently amidst the misunderstanding, bigotry, and jealousy and, in that, try to gestate its opposite – understanding, compassion, and love.

This concept – of pondering, of silently carrying the tension so as to transform it – is both important and consoling. It’s important because, as we know, we often we find ourselves in situations not dissimilar to what Mary experienced under the cross. We are sometimes in situations within which all that is dearest to us is misunderstood and crucified and we are helpless to do anything about it. We are, in those moments, inadequate, powerless, mute. What can we say? What can we do? Nothing, except ponder. Like Mary under the cross, we can live without answers, without being able to justify ourselves, without being able to resolve things, bearing what seems unbearable. Can this be fruitful? Yes. When the unbearable is born, space is created for things to be resolved later, by a new circumstance and a new power. In the meantime, we agree to carry tension, not for its own sake, nor even because the fire of tension can forge a noble soul, though it can, but in order to transmute that tension into something else. Whatever pain we don’t transmute we will transmit. Mary didn’t make that mistake. Neither did Jesus. They pondered. Pondering, bearing the unbearable, is waiting inside of tension in order that own souls can grow so that we don’t give back hurt for hurt, bitterness for bitterness, hatred for hatred.

This can be consoling to know. We are too hard on ourselves because of our inadequacies. In many of the most intimate and painful situations of our lives we are precisely not able to fix things, be adequate, or redeem the situation. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done … but nothing can be enough, as it was for Mary, under the cross. Sometimes all we can do is to stand silently, in strength, bearing an bearable tension, waiting for our hearts do something our actions can’t, namely, transmute misunderstanding into understanding, confusion into insight, anger into blessing, and hatred into love.