The Face of Jesus

The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb,_and_a_detail,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by the German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger between 1520–22.

A friend recently shared this passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, along with the painting it describes. Like the character in the novel, one is struck by the meaninglessness that the artist chose to depict, seemingly forever frozen on Jesus’s face.

When any of us look at death, this is what we see. We see meaninglessness, and it threatens to engulf us. We wince at the absurdity. It appears there is no hope against such a force. Our only relief is to look away.

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The Myth of Autonomy

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Most of us are familiar with the famous phrase no man is an island. What many might not know is that it was penned during a time of extreme illness and suffering. Staring at his own possible death, John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island,” that all mankind are connected in God, bound to each other like a continent. The death of one person then, like a bit of land swept out to sea, affects us all. Bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender would agree with Donne, writing that “the lives of fellow citizens may be bound together in such a way that all are aggrieved by the death of one.”[1] He goes on to note that such sentiments might seem strange to moderns, coming across like quaint relics from a time when religion was more than merely a set of opinions to be held in private. To think that what one does in private, especially if one dies, somehow has an effect on everyone? This seems to fly in the face of our experience today. This is because we live in an age that is preoccupied with autonomy.

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Dostoevsky’s “Rebellion” and the Problem of Evil

Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky (2002) by Manuel Sandoval

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18

C.S. Lewis wrote that we often say of some instance of human suffering that “no future bliss can make up for it,” but this is only because we cannot see “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”[1] But what if there are some evils that are so blatantly egregious, so unrestrained in their dehumanizing cruelty that their very existence calls into question the reality of this future glory? In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers the reader this powerful formulation of the problem of evil. In a chapter titled “Rebellion,” Ivan Karamazov recounts in excruciating detail incidents where young children were mercilessly tortured for fun. He challenges the idea that God could ever merge such evil with goodness into some sort of glorious, eternal harmony. Ivan even questions the morality of such an arrangement. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last,” he asks his brother, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”[2] Ivan will not abide the sufferings of innocent children for, in his estimation, no future glory can make up for them.

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Modernity and Rest

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Fountains Abbey

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

To seek times of silent reflection in order to listen to the essence of things is to assume that things have an essence to be heard. According to Josef Pieper, in his seminal essay, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the great thinkers of the past, from the Greeks to the medievals, “held that not only physical, sensuous perception, but equally man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, included an element of pure, receptive contemplation.”[1] This entails another assumption, namely that there is something to receive, that there is something given, that there is a Giver that gives. Pieper contends that these assumptions together form the basis of true rest, and that rest necessarily culminates in a kind of worshipful celebration of God. This is true leisure. It is something given gratuitously and received with joy. Most of all, it is deeply affirming. I have come to see that to enter into a time of silence with these two assumptions makes a world of difference.

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Faith, Hope, Charity

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“Hope” by G.F. Watts

Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors. The desperate modern talk about dark days and reeling altars, and the end of Gods and angels, is the oldest talk in the world: lamentations over the growth of agnosticism can be found in the monkish sermons of the dark ages; horror at youthful impiety can be found in the Iliad. This is the thing that never deserts men and yet always, with daring diplomacy, threatens to desert them.”

G.K. Chesterton on G.F. Watts’ Hope

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“God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins

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“God Knows”

by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

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The Burden of Doubt: A Cross to Bear

Loneliness

“The Sea of Faith /Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore /Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. /But now I only hear /Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, /Retreating…” from “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

A wise man once said: “In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.”

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