DURING my days at university I worked night shift at a geology laboratory, in order to keep myself in the semi-impoverished manner to which I had become accustomed.
I would spend the early hours of the morning grinding coal samples and loading them into submersible metal canisters, which were then pumped with various elements from the periodic table at differing pressures to see how much gas was adsorbed over the course of the night.
It was around the time I was engaged with this endlessly fascinating task that I learnt William Faulkner – nobel prize winner for literature – once held a similar position.
He had worked in a boiler room.
The difference between the lauded laureate and myself being that, during the six weeks he worked under comparable conditions, he wrote ‘As I Lay Dying’ and it was so exquisitely perfect that he never changed a word of the initial draft.
My own efforts in this regard compared rather unfavourably; I had composed not a single piece of classic literature during my time working in a similar situation.
I also learnt at around the same time that Miles Franklin – writer of the Australian classic ‘My Brilliant Career’ – finished the work that was to be a source of torment for school children in generations to come when she herself was only sixteen years old.
This additional factum, unearthed while I was still beavering away with coal and studying in my early twenties, cast an additional unfavourable light upon my own efforts.
But, upon reflection, I ought not to have been so downcast by these things, for it is ultimately not the ability to trip the light fantastic and achieve popular renown that ought to be our goal.
As visitors passed in and out of Jerusalem several thousand years ago, they saw a Jewish carpenter from an obscure town nailed to a tree.
Almost no one saw the Saviour of the world, bearing the weight of our iniquities upon His scourged limbs.
Yet in accepting death in this most horrific of ways, Jesus enabled us to endure our lives by uniting our sufferings with His.
He lent even our darkest moments and most tormented nights meaning.
In joining our inevitable sadness and pain in this life with that of Christ Crucified, we are given the strength to take the next step along our own path to Calvary.
A recent popular film – Jo Jo Rabbit – depicted in a rather satirical way the reality of much human suffering.
Yet despite its somewhat humorous tone it nevertheless concluded with a black screen and the simple, moving words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
‘Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going: no feeling is final.’
But those words had been excerpted from their explicitly Christian context within the poem; the very thing that lends them their power – the very thing that lends us hope.
For the poem begins by speaking of God creating each of us and walking with us out of the night.
And it concludes with a further extra verse that was not included on the film screen:
‘Just keep going: no
feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its earnestness.
Give me your hand.’
In grasping the hand of the Crucified, in clinging to Him, our pain is made meaningful and bearable.
The many ills we suffer, especially those we alone know about, are subsumed in our hope of resurrection.
If we do not lose sight of Christ, He will also lead us into that country called life – eternal life.
Our lives here on earth may not merit national fame or prize-worthy recognition; but the intensity with which we live our lives and the degree to which we are able to keep clinging to that divine outstretched hand, holding us above the waves, together bear witness to the true poems and stories we write – seared as they are on our hearts.
As Emily Dickinson once noted, ‘“Seven weeks” is a long life if it is all lived.’
It is the knowledge of this truth that enables us to reject the despairing claim of the narrator in the Harold Pinter play The Unnameable – ‘Life is a punishment for having been born.’
Life is a gift, however hard and painful and it may at times be.
Christ in His divinity came to awaken our realisation of this truth; He stooped from on high and bent so far He touched the grave.
He climbed the tree for our sake.
He plumbed the depths of our humanity so that we would know we are not alone and God has not abandoned us, no matter how things might otherwise appear.
There is no doubt that suffering is part of life; to deny this truth is to truly plunge people into despair, because it means that their pain is not only their fault, but is irredeemably so.
A society that declares everything achievable as long as we want it enough and try hard enough tends to dig a well of grief within us, because it implies that any problem we encounter is the result of our own miscalculation.
It is an attitude that causes suffering by denying the necessity of suffering in every life; not as a choice, but as an inevitability.
Allen Afterman once memorably wrote, ‘I leave it to you to say why it is that every moment we are awake we do not weep.’
I think the only possible answer to that question is this: because we cling fast to the outstretched hand of our Redeemer – and that this lends meaning to the suffering.
When speaking of Jesus Christ as ‘Saviour’ I am occasionally confronted by an interlocutor who responds, ‘So, from what are we being saved?’
Our otherwise pointless suffering.
We are saved by Christ through the new meaning He has lent to our lives, and the hope we now have of resurrection and all that it will bring.
Good Friday necessarily precedes Easter Morning because no human life has joy without sorrow.
The brilliant poem that is each of our lives is known fully to God alone, but as long as we ‘go to the limits of our longing’ – as Rilke would have it – as long as we grasp the outstretched hand that lends us life and meaning, our lives are an epic.
Because they are united to the Greatest Story Ever Told.