Skip to content

In Extremis

To be a pastor is to regularly find oneself in extremis. Pastors are expected to bring consolation and hope into extreme situations: contexts of depression, addiction, suicidal ideation, crushing poverty, relational breakdown, violence, existential despair, intellectual doubt, debilitating illness, and ultimately, of course, death. Or, more precisely, to point to the One who promises these things in (and beyond) the fractured and chaotic world of human experience. But what happens to the possibility of consolation when you don’t believe in this One anymore?

This is the subject that Canadian professor, writer, and former politician Michael Ignatieff attempts to tackle in a recent article called “The Art of Consolation.” Ignatieff acknowledges that we find ourselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to the possibility of consolation. Once upon a time we consoled ourselves with illusions of an afterlife to heal the wounds of this world but now we (and by “we” he seems to mean educated wealthy people like him) know better. He’s a bit less reductionistic in how he puts it in the article, but not by much.

And yet we still stubbornly seem to need a more expansive hope than the options secularism makes available to us. Ignatieff acknowledges this honestly and poignantly (the piece begins with him attempting to console a friend who had lost their spouse). He also acknowledges that consolation was easier in the past and that some of what we attempt to replace what we have lost doesn’t really work:

Consolation has… lost its institutional setting. The churches, synagogues, and mosques, where we once consoled each other in collective rituals of grief and mourning, have been emptying out. If we seek help in times of misery, we seek it alone, from each other, and from therapeutic professionals. They treat our suffering as an illness from which we need to recover.

Yet when suffering becomes understood as an illness with a cure, something is lost.

Well, yes. This is one of the many domains in modern life where transferring some of the weightier existential burdens of human existence into the realm of “health” and “wellness” just doesn’t seem to work. We are more than machines that require a bit of fiddling with the inputs. Much, much more.

Ignatieff attempts to recover this “more” by laying a kind of secular claim to religious texts of consolation:

We might suppose that religious texts—Job, the Psalms, Paul’s Epistles, Dante’s “Paradiso”—are closed to us if we don’t happen to share the faith that inspired them. But why should we be required to pass a test of belief before we can derive consolation from religious texts? The promise of salvation and redemption might be closed to us, but not the consolation that comes from the understanding that religious texts can offer for our moments of despair. The Psalms are among the most eloquent documents in any language of what it is to feel bereft, alone and lost. They contain unforgettable descriptions of despair as well as exalted visions of hope. We can still respond to their promise of hope because the Psalms recognize what we need hope for.

And yet, do these texts offer real consolation absent the metaphysical and eschatological horizons that animate and underwrite them? Is the eloquent language of lament in the Psalms meaningful without the God to whom they are directed? Does Job’s (justified) rage against his suffering retain its poignancy and pathos without the chastening final few chapters where God speaks out of the whirlwind? And what of Paul’s epistles? Well, it’s hard to say it better than Paul says it himself: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Leaving aside his confusion about how religious texts actually work, Ignatieff than makes a familiar move when it comes to trying to find consolation in a secular age:

This is how the language of consolation endures—human beings in extremity drawing inspiration from each other across a millennium. Consolation is an act of solidarity in space—keeping company with the bereaved, helping a friend through a difficult moment; but it is also an act of solidarity in time—reaching back to the dead and drawing meaning from the words they left behind.

Give voice to your pain. Live your life to the full. Remember you’re not alone. This seems to be what we’re left with, for Ignatieff.

I am back to spending Mondays at the jail. Unsurprisingly, the jail is full of stories in extremis. The jail, in my experience, is also a place where simple and convenient narratives about suffering and salvation and hope and, yes, consolation go to die. I’ve written about this before. In the jail, things are pretty stark. People are hanging on, often just by a thread. Hope and deliverance and consolation are not intellectual abstractions but lifelines clung to in pure desperation.

I have a number of faces and stories from the jail in mind as I consider Ignatieff’s words about consolation. I am trying to imagine how they would hear things like, “consolation is human beings in extremity drawing inspiration from each other.” Or, “to be consoled, simply, is to hold on to one’s love of life as it is, here and now.” I can imagine them saying, “Well, thank you very much sir, but I don’t love my life here and now very much and I don’t want to hold on to it.” Or, “Sounds nice. But I don’t draw a whole lot of inspiration from my companions in extremity.” What I can imagine them saying—what I have heard them say—are things like, “Jesus rescued me in a dark, dark place.” Or, “I’m a f***-up, but I know God loves me and forgives me.” Or, “I know that Jesus is looking out for my kids and my girl and this gives me peace.” Or, “I can’t wait for a world that is better than this one because this one just seems so hard.”

Are these just pleasant illusions? Pre-enlightened fantasies entertained by dull and credulous minds? Perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, these human beings in extremis see our need for ultimate consolation more clearly and truly than those who try to keep it at arm’s length until circumstance (bewilderingly) requires it. Perhaps those who cry out to God in sorrow and rage and fear and desperate hope believing that there actually is a story and an Author who can and does “situate individual suffering within a wider frame” are closer to the heart of reality than those who claim to know better might think.

Image source.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: