Libby Byrne, a theologically minded artists and scholar in Australia, in her work in Tikkum Olam, offers what I believe to be an integrative model of the main pieces of this essay, that we all have within us a drive to wholeness but that we exist in a place of melancholy and suffering and the healing we seek is within and through our innate suffering.
Byrne examines the theme of remaining within the intersection of death and life as a witness in a similar way to Rambo, through the artist’s lens. In the age of cell phones and this newfound ability to photograph and videotape everything, we begin to wonder amidst the documentation of worldwide crimes and atrocities if “it is beyond our capacity to re-imagine the world as whole, unbroken – as it was in the beginning.” But despite the atrocities we see, the desire for wholeness remains within us as a part of the fabric of who we are. From the very outset of her work, Libby echoes the confessions of my own essay in stating, “there lies within us a deep desire for wholeness.” I will define wholeness, or healing, not as a final event or accomplishment that we reach, but a process that we continually expose and commit ourselves to. Byrne, writing as a theologically minded artist, posits that it is the job of the artist to live close to the wound and begin to find new form amidst the chaos and pain. It is in the vulnerability of continually exposing ourselves to the wound and finding new form and meaning that we are healed. This is an important point to pick up moving forward because it continually draws us closer to the humanity that we have, and yet distance ourselves from.
Byrne, focusing on the wider narrative of people and the human condition, states that humans live in a state of melancholy, a state of perpetual sadness. She echoes the view of Del Nevo in The Valley Way of Soul. Del Novo states, “To really live within the gift of our being is to live in a place of exile and melancholy.” Del Nevo continues this further in stating that this condition of exile and melancholy is necessary to cultivating the imagination and “creating the condition in which it is possible for our soul to be blessed.” It is from this place of soul that we are able to connect and grow. This state of melancholy is different from depression as it brings us into connection with other people.
Byrne states that we live in a place of vulnerability, where we are pushed to see the wound as something “more than loss; more than unwelcome damage in the midst of an otherwise perfect creation.” This is a much needed point as it moves us into creating something new out of our lives and orients humanity towards life rather than mere survival and status quo. It is the courageous act of admitting to our suffering that actually allows us room for something more in our life. This draws us close to our Theology of the Cross as it moves us into needing to work with the realization that there is suffering within our humanity. These invitations of vulnerability and admittance of our humanity are an opportunity to courageously create something new amidst the chaos and ashes of our life. Rollo May, in a memoir on his spiritual pilgrimage before entering his studies, which lead him to be one of the most prolific voices in the American school of Existential Psychology, states that “this capacity to create – which we all have, though in varying degrees – is essentially the ability to find form in chaos, to create where there is only formlessness. This is what leads to beauty, beauty is that form.”
Byrne states that the artist is one who draws close to the wound, or the Holy Void and Existential Holy Saturday, as Rollo May put it, in an act of vulnerability waiting for something new to be birthed, similar to what Rambo calls witnessing and listening within the gaps of traumatic experiences. To enter something from a place of vulnerability is to also relinquish control on what will become or happen. Byrne makes the point, which echoes the stories of St. John of the Cross and Teresa Avila, that it is within the darkness that the wound takes a new form as we loosen our hold on attachments, or ideas and ways of relating, that are no longer needed or serve us. Just like the case described earlier with the sexual transference. The wound, or that which causes us suffering, is an opportunity to begin to see the beauty of God within us and within the larger creation.
As Western Christians we find ourselves caught up in a triumphalistic narrative of life, which holds that we will win over evil in our lives and everything is going to be “fine.” Yet, if we listen deeply amidst the silence within us, we begin to hear the screams and mourning of the loss of primal oneness with the Father. We are a people who are caught in this tension of what is and what ought to be. It is this tension that creates man’s state of anxiousness within his being. We find ourselves trying to “return to the garden,” or the euphoric relationship with God for which we were created. It is the sensation of this euphoric relationship that we are constantly trying to get back to through psychic numbing, our cheap pop-psychologies, pharmacology, and denial. We have a false assumption that once the garbage or dross of our lives is cleared away, we will find this “return to the garden.”
Theologically we find ourselves in a kind of perpetual Holy Saturday, a place of mourning and loss of innocence, a theology that points us toward the cross and the message that our hope for redemption is not found solely in Christ’s resurrection but also within solidarity with his suffering on the cross. There is something about the place of darkness, between death and life, as Rambo says, a beauty that we are not able to see opening up to us. It is harrowing, yet the work is being done if we allow ourselves to remain. As Ann Belford Ulanov stated,
“We swap aliveness for restriction in order to feel safer, avoid pain, survive some blow that seems to us unbearable, that would destroy us. We fear we are empty inside so we cover it up with manufactured control, or made up excitement, or self-promotion. The emptiness can never change if we refuse to experience it, and in the company of another. We need another to depend on when we turn to face the deadness. Whatever we are afraid of, it requires our attention; we must go down into it, look around, not knowing if and how we will come out.”
The way forward is within the experience of darkness and ashes. This is not an easy path by any means. Life is a journey. We never arrive. It’s always a mystery. Life is full of beautiful vistas that utterly take your breath away. It is also filled with dark passages where we may not be able to see a way out, the essence of Holy Saturday. But if we remain, and continue to live close to the wound, imagine the continual unfurling that we would be bringing into existence in our life. It is a journey that never ends, an act of vulnerability to come face to face with one’s faults and weaknesses, let alone even begin the journey of self-exploration. As one of the noted professors of The Seattle School, O’Donnell Day, states, “The only path to peace is saying to yourself, many times, ‘this . . is . . me.’ Oh, and it hurts terribly.” Even in the deepest, darkest moments of our pain we get a glimmer of hope that nudges us forward in our process of redemption and healing.