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About two years ago, give or take a month, I had an interview for a summer intensive program. It was for my clinical pastoral education, which is mandatory for Unitarian Universalist ministers and wonderfully counted towards six credits of my Master’s degree. I was interviewed by a Rabbi, an experienced chaplain. We went over my application and he asked me the most powerful question that I had been asked as of that time. He said Julio, what is your theology of suffering? I said, it’s not something I had ever worked on, he said give it a shot. I then proceeded to BS something on balance and I was grateful when a month later they said I had been accepted. At the end of my chaplaincy training we all evaluated each other and gave various learning goals and growing edges. To further my theology of suffering, I pledged a few things- one of them was to be my whole self.
With regards to my chaplain internship interview, I chose balance because balance had a sacred meaning to me since I was a child. Dearly beloved today I am conveying to you my deep belief in holistic balance. That holistic balance, in my experience, requires a thorough integration of all your being. To do that we must step away from dualism myths, then follow through, and learn from Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow “that each of us have a dark side”- with IRONY as it’s inherently a dualistic concept, and start the process both thinking and feeling towards a theology of suffering. Integrating our shadow won’t be as Peter Pan’s use of needle and thread. No, that process starts with integrating your whole being- I’m talking your life experiences, your relationships of the past, present and what you hope in the future. I’m talking your emotions, your logic, your hopes, your dreams, and your multifaceted excellence. I’m talking about that shadow side that we wish nobody but ourselves could see and would just go away. I’m talking about your views on ultimate reality, nature, the beginning, the end, or maybe the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, or maybe the big bang. For me balance is the metaphysical concept at the core of my spirituality. It is a building block to my justice work in belief in equality for all, it is my belief that guides how to live my life on a daily basis, it is my belief in how to deal with the totality of my being when I suffer. Admittedly I am a libra, forever driven to the symbol of the yin-yang. I like long walks on the beach, pina coladas, and the scales are tipped toward my love of balance.
What I am saying today, that holistic balance requires living in tension with every fabric of our being, that any form of dualism, must be nuanced. Balance is more than a fulcrum or the “scales” of justice. It is something more complex and delicate. Every light has a shadow, but in the end it’s all light, just some hasn’t been reflected quite as well in a particular space between the source of light and where the shadow falls. Some say the universe is full of shadow, however, maybe it’s full of light that just hasn’t been reflected back. However I digress.
Yet in considering balance, the immediate go to is dualism, dichotomies, and either or thinking. As much as I disdain dualisms, at the very minimum they do well to frame a discussion and give a continuum of sorts. Balance is traditionally seen as scales, however, it is more like a wheel or sphere. One example of philosophical dualism is from Rene Descartes who created the theory of Cartesian dualism which in many ways goes along the lines of Aristotle body and spirit dichotomy/ either or mentality. Cartesian dualism puts forth that the mind and body were of two different substances. I feel most dualities are myths. I think of our 7th UU principle. It talks about the interconnected web of existence not the dualistic web of existence. Our tradition as Unitarians talked about the oneness of the divine, and existence. So when people try to divide you remember we are Unitarian Universalists not dichotemerian dualistics.
If Descartes had known like we know now that everything is stardust, maybe he could’ve saved time, and maybe took an extra vacation, hung out at the beach, partied like a French pop star. Rene another glass of wine? No I want a pina colada like you Julio and he vanishes into the sunrise. I jest of course, as I know, he was a philosopher, a medical doctor and a mathematician; he was no fool.
Philosophers did not deal with emotions in their supposed objective world, in my opinion emotions require a nuanced integration. I personally learned, in seminary and in the chaplaincy, first-hand how one can never run away from one’s emotions. To do so risks high blood pressure, PTSD like symptoms, and you may even go a little insane. For example there is a story about Carl (Youuuu-ng) Jung where he spent years confronting his unconscious. I heard about this from a seminary professor and found out recently that in 2009 the New York Times did an article on this history.
According to a New York Times article written by Sara Corbett,- “For about six years, Jung worked to prevent his conscious mind from blocking out what his unconscious mind wanted to show him. Between appointments with patients, after dinner with his wife and children, whenever there was a spare hour or two, Jung sat in a book-lined office on the second floor of his home and actually induced hallucinations — what he called “active imaginations.” She quotes Jung who wrote later in his book “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,, he said “In order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me ‘underground,’ “I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them.” She then says how “he found himself in a liminal place, as full of creative abundance as it was of potential ruin, believing it to be the same borderlands traveled by both lunatics and great artists”. He recorded these experiences, horrible dreams, and hallucinations. They were published fifty years after his death, its called The Red Book: Liber Novus– latin for new book (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/magazine/20jung-t.html).
At that hospital I encountered my unconscious, not so dramatically. As an intern chaplain I learned to accept my shadow as part of my being, it is still a work in progress. Dearly beloved, I hope that you have the transformation I had. In that regard I ask you what is your theology of suffering? Why do bad things happen to people? Why shouldn’t bad things happen? Everything from heart break, misfortune, systemic issues, cancer, old age. Why? Why do we have pain, why do we need pain? What does existence requires of us? What, where and/or whom do we have to turn to in our moments of crisis? It may be a broken heart over a failed relationship, it could be cancer, it could be an accident happened to a loved one, or any number painful events.
Developing a Theology of Suffering helps with grieving. It helps with coping. It is a work in progress. How do you lament, how do you acknowledge your own failings? How do you deal with the failings of others? The majority of us have explored our humanist spirituality, and dearly beloved, do you feel people care about your suffering? How do you cope when you feel betrayed, abandoned or thoroughly let down? I feel that a theology of suffering begins for us with those questions, and its connection to our personal support systems. Especially, of this faith community. I know I feel that when all else fails, that I have family and friends I can count on. But I know also that this faith community I can count on, that I have formed family and friends here as well. People can disappoint, and that is everyone and anyone even here. However, I know that I never felt abandoned or alone in this faith. Even when I felt the sting of racism in another church. Thankfully, I was able to reconcile, supported by their staff. It wasn’t perfect, but it was resolved as well as it could be. That is balance as well. Yet I was able to lament, in the spirit of lamentation psalms in Jewish scriptures. Those psalms heavily portray feelings of abandonment and loneliness, in the pit of despair.
One of the reasons we do communal candles each worship service is to express public lamentations. It is an age old concept and ritual. Our theology of suffering, were we to live in balance, must have some engagement with public lamenting, even if it is to a small group. It helped to restore my balance in connections to community and a living faith tradition. IN the original tale of the great Maelstrom it was two brothers and one drowned to their death in that abyss, but when I adapted the story, I wanted to drive home the leadership of women, the wisdom of people going through things together, first in small groups/ pairings and then in community. Especially as, this faith community helped me in dealing with my shadow side, it was a space that I am forever grateful for in holding that tension. It has been a space where I encountered bravely against my age old nemesis, myself, Julio Torres. How do you encounter your shadow?
I personally felt the truth of this as I found dealing with the ole arch nemesis is an absolute pain. How do we explain pain? Issues like pain and shame, are major in a theology of suffering. In acknowledging the inherent worth and dignity of every person I say there’s no shame in feeling shame. We are not perfect beings, we suffer, but we must not forget our inherent worth. I worry about lots of suffering especially in a culture of individualism. Our faith as Unitarian Universalists has issues with individualism in developing a holistic Theology of Suffering. That individualism, driven by a past of transcendentalism, sometimes gives way to the mindset that I alone can overcome and defeat my shadow. Dearly beloved we must empathize with our shadows. And we can’t do this work alone.
In past sermons, I spoke about liberation theology, I bring it up because it teaches a powerful lesson towards a theology of suffering. Sure its power is in social justice grassroots activism, connection to sacred tradition, particularly in black churches, that God understands suffering by virtue of suffering with you, thereby God wants to liberate us from suffering by creating the beloved community. In thinking about our shadows, do we “suffer” with our shadows and be present with them, or do we shun them. If each of us possesses the divine, that shadow, in some way needs to be embraced. To be clear- Do we love our whole selves, or just a few pieces of ourselves? Do we take some time to bring all parts of ourselves into conversation and hear what the inner us has to say? Sure we need to keep our dangerous parts of ourselves in check. But do we at least do it the service of liberation via acceptance, reconciliation and suffering with it, or do we merely shun it off like it doesn’t belong and try to amputate it. In my learning about liberation theology, Rev. Dr. Fred Muir says how the beloved community maybe utopian but will not be free from suffering, it will instead be a place where multiple tensions can be held. In other words it would not eliminate Dr Jekyl or Mr Hyde, or our werewolves, or our incredible hulks, but acknowledge that they exist and find a way for both to co-exist in peace without privilege or power dynamics. Or shall we say simply, the beloved community will allow people to live in harmony and balance including our suffering. In dealing with my own personal curious case of Jekyll and Hyde in my life, I have had the tyranny of “the should”. I should do better, I can do better, I can transcend my failures. I “should” all over myself. Dearly beloved, if we are to embrace the humanist teachings of Carl Jung, we need to recognize that we must accept ourselves, to include our shadows, as multifaceted humans for the rest of our lives.
When contemplating a Theology of Suffering, with your emotions and logic, consider the role of pain, and emotions in situations from basic stress to, changing life conditions, and even death. It has to include coping with broken hearts and trips to the hospital. My theology of suffering is a work in progress, but core to it is Holistic Balance guided by our Unitarian Universalist seven principles and six sources of faith. I believe a major step towards such a theology is to reconcile with our own shadows, embracing it holistically, and living pluralistically. Then, dearly beloved, we will be able to become the beloved community our 6th principle aspires us to become, it says to build a global community of peace, liberty and justice for all. After all if we cannot self-co-exist with our shadows and multifaceted being, in peace, liberty and with justice for all our parts, we cannot bring it to the world, and universe after that. We must reconcile our multifaceted existence as creatures who have no inner dichotomies other than the symmetry of left and right to travel the earth. When we embrace this we truly become the beloved community we aspire to be. At the end of my chaplaincy training I vowed to further my theology of suffering, to be my whole self. After all the devil, that our Christian cousins talk about maybe that shadow we have been unable to deal with. Dearly beloved, be your whole self, holistically balanced, and build the beloved community. We are suffering together, the best answer to suffering there is. (Two thumbs up and smile).