Thursday, August 11, 2016

Safely Tucked in the Middle? Contrasting and Comparing Camus and Christy
Catherine Marshall authored Christy, the historical fiction novel which was based on her mother's experiences in a remote mountain community in Tennessee. In the picture shown here, I included a rendition of her book which features Kellie Martin who played the protagonist in the CBS TV drama that was developed from the novel a number of years ago. (I figured that her work might be more recognizable that way.) 

Catherine was a Christian who was married to Peter Marshall, the famed, early 20th Century, Scottish-born, Presbyterian minister in Washington, DC who served as the Chaplain for the US Senate. She was a prolific writer and editor, but she's best known for Christy novel A Man Called Peter which was also adapted into an award-winning film, her biographical tribute to her husband who died at quite a young age.
Of interest to me today is her essay about what she calls a Prayer of Relinquishment and the contrast in the way that she copes with the same dilemma of that Camus discusses in The Myth of Sisyphus. Much the way that I feel about Camus' writing, there are elements that I like about what she's written and elements that I don't like much at all. I don't know that she finds what Paul aimed for in Corinthians about being content despite hardship I don't know that I do either as I discussed in a recent post. I've always liked her writing, and I like her honesty in this essay, even though I cannot make the leaps that she does. I find myself somewhere in the grey of the middle ground between her conclusions and Camus' plight.

Wrestling with Pain

I can't remember where I first encountered this essay by Marshall, but I'd already wrestled with and through the Christian moralists and existentialist writings. My daily life was emotionally and physically painful at the time, so I found myself struggling where I could set my sights of expectation. What I'd done for many years didn't seem to avail much good. I spent more time surviving than I did living my life. 

Marshall writes that she was also physically ill with a lung infection for months that didn't respond to any treatment after seeing many specialists. I found it compelling that at the time that she had her realization about relinquishment, she would have been my same age when she begins an experiment with prayer in a quest to find her own answers.

Abject Acceptance

Caravaggio's Paul on the Way to Damascus
Marshall arrives at the epiphany that the Apostle Paul perhaps knows better than any Christian: that one cannot overcome the proverbial goad of reality

God painfuly reveals Himself to Saul Paulus as Jesus – the very one whom the Pharisee persecuted so zealously. (Saul Paulus is the Jewish name for the Apostle Paul which he claimed before God reveals Himself – and before he adopts the Greek element of his name to carry the message of salvation to the Gentiles.)  God meets Saul while journeying to Damascus, knocking him off of his horse and nearly blinding him for a time, dramatically getting his attention and changing his life.

In the essay, Marshall describes what she calls an “abject acceptance” of her own situation and realizes that there is absolutely nothing that she has done or can do to change her fate.  She gives in to accepting that she may remain ill for the rest of her life, and she abandons her prayers of pleading and bargaining with God about her expectation of getting well.  Prayer changes from an exercise aimed at changing God into one of radical trust in God's goodness wherein she asks for God's help. She notes that there was no feeling of faith as she'd thought of it and felt it in the past. It was not an emotion but rather a dispassionate act of her will.

Woven in mystery, Marshall realizes that God respects her willfulness to seek a pleasurable outcome.  Her choice to trust becomes something that I might call the flip side of the problem of evil.  She argues that her decision to relinquish her will opens up a conduit that allows God's power to flow through her in a flood of change.  God waited for her trustMarshall realizes that her willful prayer constitutes “utter foolishness” that first sought to “manipulate the God of the universe.”

Acquainted with Grief and Self-Will

Marshall goes on to contemplate Jesus' experience in Gethsemane and all of the options that were open to Him if He had chosen to avoid the Cross. His prayer which asks God to come up with another path goes unanswered as He faces His own human frustration.  After expressing His heartache and desire to live, Jesus makes His own choice to follow the path of pain before Him in an act of sacrifice, radical trust, and faith in the power that He knows will sustain Him.

Marshall points out the missing element that we tend to forget and the primary element that Camus rejects as absurd, even as he relies on the example of Sisyphus which also draws on the idea of a higher power. The Christian surrenders to the idea that God is trustworthy, loving, and present in the face of powerlessness. Jesus reminds Himself of all of the power that He set aside to be human like us, and that gives Him that hope to follow through with act His sacrifice. In His humanness, He accepts what is needful and sacrifices His will. In that sense, perhaps the hardest part of what He faced really came while He prayed in Gethsemane.

Acceptance versus Resignation

I'm sure that Camus would dismiss this understanding as meaningless. Faith in something greater abandons reason in favor of the universal fudge factor of God to correct the absurdity. Would he see his own version of acceptance as similar to what Marshall sees as the hopelessness of resignation? I doubt it.

Though I could argue against it in some ways, and though I don't now that it helps me narrow down how to be more balanced in my expectations within relationships that are also often a mystery, I love how she paints her perspective.

There is a crucial difference here between acceptance and resignation. There is no resignation in the prayer of relinquishment. Resignation says, “This is my situation, and I resign myself and settle down to it.” Resignation lies down in the dust of a godless universe and steels itself for the worst.

Acceptance says, “True, this is my situation at the moment. I’ll look unblinkingly at the reality of it. But, I’ll also open up my hands to accept willingly whatever a loving Father sends.”

Thus acceptance never slams the door on hope. Yet, even while it hopes, our relinquishment must be the real thing – and this giving up of self will is the hardest thing we human beings are ever called to do.

Acceptance holds on to hope, while resignation smothers and buries hope in the denial of frustration.  Perhaps Marshall finds that place of peace that Paul describes by reaffirming her faith in God's identity -- as she thinks on that which is good and turns her suffering into an act of praise.  

After I read this essay of hers, I began to pray that God would turn my pain into its own prayer and travail beyond words, even if I could find no other comfort as Paul describes in his epistle to the Church of Rome.  If he chose the analogy of the birth pangs of a woman in labor as the consequence of the pain we feel when we are unable to help ourselves in our imperfect world, perhaps the only thing that I could do might be to dedicate the many expressions of my own pain to HimI would hang on to the hope of whatever God could birth in me, despite my inability to see past my own pain -- especially when I felt consumed by it.

Not a Panacea

Marshall states early in this essay that she finds since her epiphany that this prayer has always resulted “consistently in a glorious answer” which always releases “power beyond human reckoning.”  While I'm glad that I kept on reading and don't doubt at all that God met me and sustained me resulting in positive change, I don't describe my own growth as anything like she does.  The catalyst that inspires Marshall comes through a pamphlet that a woman missionary wrote about her own illness.  Unlike me, the two of them experience physical healing within weeks of accepting that they might remain ill and permanently handicapped by their conditions.
I'm sure that if I'd seen a rapid cure that delivered me entirely from my state of health and my broken defeat, I might see the prayer as a panacea as well.  But instead, I saw the change in myself as more like Camus' Sisyphus who carries on in his struggle, but I see hope as the only source of a satisfying contentment.  In reading Marshall, I realized that I don't think that Camus really understood Sisyphus at all.  Sisyphus saw himself as his own god and believed his own bad press -- something that I believe that Camus missed when he chose him as an example of man and as his talking point. 

The Trap of Empty Promises

Both bring me back to the idea of what it is like to exit a high demand belief system  Paul said that he learned how to be content with any state, be it pleasant or unpleasant despite his circumstances.  High demand ideologies promise to create a place where everything has the appearance and some etherial feeling of bliss.  It's the carrot dangling on the stick before the horse that the horse never gets to eat.  There is nothing between destruction and success except shame in a cultic or spiritually abusive group, but this is not anything like what Paul describes in contentment.  The passage was never some Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card that would magically transport me to a blissful place of comfort.  

For further reading until the next post: