The news has been full of sorrow recently; it is of course common for the news to give precedence to reports of suffering, adversity, trial and woe, as unfortunately this is what sells more papers and garners more ‘hits’ – people seem to be (or are at least assumed to be) more interested in the things going wrong in the world than the things going well. To a certain extent this is natural, as many of the bad news we read consists of acts of injustice or affronts to decency, and we are rightly made indignant by such things. However, I would wager that the number of people who convert their righteous indignation into some sort of action designed to remedy injustice is not as many as those who revel in the indignation for its own sake, and more still are those who take a perverse pleasure in the act of being affronted itself, particularly when it is in reaction to news of one with whom we disagree saying things that compound that disagreement.
Whilst this all speaks of the worst parts of ourselves (and we are all at times guilty of the above sins), it is also natural that ordinary acts of kindness and generosity seldom make front page news (unless they happen to meet some current need or fit in with an existing agenda of some kind), as we feel this sort of behaviour to express life as it should be – compared to the outrage we feel for bad reports, we feel little genuine surprise in response to such acts, but rather a feeling of simple delight; the heart warms as we hear of someone behaving in the way that, deep down, we know we all should behave anyway. However, regardless of the fact that our sense of the amount of evil in the world is perhaps exaggerated because of the imbalance in what is reported, it is no news at all that evil does exist, and that sorrow is a real lived experience for many.
In her poem The Bridge, Ruth Pitter considers this reality, and acknowledges just how overwhelming sorrow can be, but uses this acknowledgement as the very basis for the outlook of faith and hope that she goes on to express. In an older post, I discussed an argument that C. S. Lewis proposes to aid the transition from unbelief to faith – an argument wherein he suggests that the very sense of anger we might feel because of the suffering in the world, and use as an argument against the existence of God, itself confronts us with the fact that there must thereby be such a thing as Goodness, and that this ultimately leads us back to God Himself. Pitter (who was brought to faith in part by Lewis, and who became good friends with him) uses a similar argument here, but it is not rooted in an appeal to objectivity, but rather in the intuition we all have that amidst our misery, there still must be something of value – that there is something within is that knows life to be worth living, and that despite our sorrow, there is meaning, purpose…God.
Pitter’s conversion went along similar lines – she had been living a Bohemian lifestyle and it made her miserable, and it was precisely this feeling of misery, coupled with a sense that this life must mean something, that brought her face to face with the question of higher purpose and therefore of God. In The Bridge, she articulates such moments of decision that are brought about by great sorrow (and is an uneasy truth that it is often only by being brought to our knees like this that we can ask the sort of questions we need to ask in order to change in general, let alone to know God) by imagining our lives as vessels shaped by experience, vessels that are ‘waiting for wine’ (c.f. John 2:1-12) – waiting to be filled with something, anything, ‘dark wine or bright’, just so long as we are filled with some kind of meaning beyond this sorrow, because we (with the poet) are sure ‘that sorrow is not the truth.’
She imagines two kinds of vessels being made – on this side they are made by artists (presumably representing the human attempt to discern or even to create meaning for ourselves) but these vessels are frail, unable to stand up to the breadth of life’s experience. On the other side of the bridge are workers who make sturdy, robust vessels that can ‘endure the furnace’ – words which call to mind the counsel of Saint Peter in his first epistle (c.f.; 1 Peter 1:7, 4:12) as well as many other similar passages in the New Testament. Crossing this bridge, a bridge which, for those who have looked into the abyss of sorrow and still heard the dim echoes of hope ‘have no choice but to go over’ is an act of faith – we walk, in great part, into the unknown, but we know whatever we find there must be truth, must be more than ‘the known’ has been able to show us; and so, in that first act of faith and hope, we go to find that truth, over the bridge, over the river:
Where is the truth that will inform my sorrow?
I am sure myself that sorrow is not the truth.
These lovely shapes of sorrow are empty vessels
Waiting for wine: they wait to be informed.
Men make the vessels on either side of the river;
On this the hither side the artists make them,
And there over the water the workmen make them:
These frail, with a peacock glaze, and the others
Simple as doom, made to endure the furnace.
War shatters the peacock-jars: let us go over.
Indeed we have no choice but to go over.
There is always a way for those who must go over:
Always a bridge from the known to the unknown.
When from the known the mind revolts and despairs
There lies a way, and there must we go over.
O truth, is it death there over the river,
Or is it life, new life in a land of summer?
The mind is an empty vessel, a shape of sorrow,
Fill it with life or death, for it is hollow,
Dark wine or bright, fill it, let us go over.
Let me go find my truth, over the river.