26 September 2010

Patience and Suffering

During this morning's quiet time, I turned to a book of icons ("Behold the Beauty of the Lord - Praying with Icons", Henri J. M. Nouwen).  I find icons to be a wonderful aide to centering on those days - which are plenty - when I find it difficult to simply enter into a meditative state.  Nouwen was Catholic, so much of what he says about the icon (for example, focusing on the virginity of Mary) does not interest me, but still his words and the way he writes help to bring me to peaceful stillness whether or not I share his doctrinal beliefs. 

The icon that attracted me this morning was The Virgin of Vladimir.  My focus went to Mary's eyes, in which I saw suffering and peace.  It is here - in the understanding of Mary as a poor woman of a disenfranchised minority and who, in her lifetime, suffered much physical and emotional pain - that my attention settled.  The artist painted her eyes directed outward yet obviously and beautifully in deep contemplation.  There is a patient quality to her expression that speaks of the deep love and centeredness in God that can arise from allowing oneself to be lovingly present to suffering.

I think one of the reasons this meant so much to me this morning is that I was unable to be in that place yesterday when a migraine began to build.  I'd been to see my neurologist on Wednesday and had a new treatment - an injection called an occipital nerve block - that had the potential of stopping the pain of the migraines, and about which I was very hopeful.  Thus, when on Saturday morning I felt the familiar symptoms of the migraine's beginning, I became depressed.  I'd been so hopeful.

I spent the hours of the migraine struggling, not very successfully, against frustration and discouragement.  I know that such emotions only make the pain worse.  I have written about living in the moment as it is, knowing that nothing is permanent and so railing against reality is not only futile but counter-productive.  I probably should have gone back and read some of my old posts.  But I was stuck until some dear friends (thank you, Juliana, Meredith, and Sonya) popped in for a surprise visit.  The joy, laughter and sharing of those hours raised my spirits immeasurably.  So it was with a different perspective that I went to my quiet time this morning.

The combination of suffering and peace on the face of Mary sent me to the text to find out what Nouwen said about her.  He says (page 36) that the word "patience" comes from the Latin "pati" - to suffer.  (Which also means that the word "patient" comes from the same root, which is fascinating.  In my work at Miriam's House, I often wondered about the similarity between these two words.)
"She knows what it means to poor, oppressed, a refugee, to be uncertain and confused about the future, to be kept at a distance, to stand under the cross and to be the bearer of thoughts and feelings that cannot be shared with anyone."
Yesterday, uncertain and confused about the future, having thoughts and feelings I could not share with anyone else, I was unable to be patient with the suffering of that migraine.  I do not say this to castigate myself, but just to state the reality of my being on one particular day as a way to learn from it and - prayerfully - change.

 In my last post (21 September), I quoted Paul's words about suffering, endurance, character and hope, and I cited Buddhism's Four Noble Truths.  And today I find Henri Nouwen speaking about suffering in a similar way.

* Paul says that suffering produces endurance, then character, then hope;
* Buddhism suggests we accept suffering without grabbing for alternatives, as it is simply the reality of the moment which will pass;
* Nouwen shows that the Latin root of "patience" means "to suffer".

What I see on Sunday, having fought with the suffering of Saturday, is the possibility - even the opportunity - of patient suffering.  That will be the subject of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

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