How do we respond to all the pain in the world?


My Divine Feminine book group met Sunday night to discuss Left to Tell, the story of Imaculee Ilibagiza, a 22-year-old Catholic Rwandan woman who was home from college when the slaughter of 3 million Tutsis broke out. She survived the holocaust hiding in a bathroom with 7 women for 91 days. She went in weighing 115 pounds. She came out weighing 65.
As the title says, she was “left to tell.” Her beloved family was hacked to death by neighbors and friends. Why, you’re probably asking, did we read this book? Because it’s an astonishing story of a profound spiritual life. In that bathroom, Imaculee prayed–I mean prayed. And in 91 days of continuous prayer, she found deep communion with God and even the miracle of forgiveness.

As we talked about the unimaginable story in Left to Tell, the conversation drifted to Japan. We struggled with how to even talk about Japan. The pain was just too great. We stared numbly at one another. Then one of us said, “Oh God, and now we’re bombing Libya!” No one knew what to say to that. The pain was just too great. A woman began to talk about her son’s life with the Marines in Afghanistan–what he saw and how often he was shot at. Our eyes got wider and wider. We tried to talk about what’s happening in the Middle East and remember the people in New Zealand, but it was all just too much. 

We sat there, picking at our pot luck feast. How do we respond to all the pain in the world, we asked each other. To feel the full impact is unbearable. To ignore it, inhuman. The usual American response to send a donation seems so paltry. 

We are a spiritual group, so the conversation rolled around to Jesus. He said, “be in the world, but not of the world” one woman reminded us. We nodded. Yes, but how do you do that?

In the end, we didn’t have any big solutions. I did offer that I haven’t had a TV since last May and that helps, but I admitted I still feel assaulted when I read the morning paper and I am not ready to give up the paper. I’ve loved it too long. I also talked about how the angels told me to use light to protect myself when I go out. The group seemed to think that was helpful, but we still didn’t know how to respond to massive tangible pain.

As I fell asleep, I whispered into the dark, “Thank you in advance for the information we need to help us live surrounded by so much pain. Help us. We need to know.”

If you’ve been hanging out with me in these newsletters, my book, and my classes, you know that I trust my divine guidance to respond. But even I was a bit floored by the power and speed of the response. Monday morning, I opened an email and found this quote from Mary Oliver, the exquisite poet of nature: 

You have to be in the world to understand what the spiritual is about, and you have to be in the spiritual in order to truly be able to accept what the world is about.” Mary Oliver

I chewed over that for a bit and decided it’s the best explanation I’ve heard for the paradox “in the world but not of the world.” I whispered, “Thank You,” but Spirit had more in store for me.

The next email was from a friend wrestling with personal, overwhelming physical pain. She said this quote really speaks to her. It’s from Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races – the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once with beauty and courage. 

Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you’ve ever seen, if an anxiety like light and cloud shadows moves over your hands and everything that you do. You must realize that something has happened to you; that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.” Rainer Maria Rilke

I’m awestruck by this definition of pain: something helpless that wants our love. I can feel the truth of that in my bones. When my son is in pain, when I am in pain, when a friend is in pain, when a people is in pain, a country, a gulf, a sea…when the whole earth is in pain, it is something helpless that wants our love, our prayers, our belief in the possibility of goodness, peace, and wholeness.

Something “has happened to us” watching news of Japan, New Zealand, Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen…. But the sweet truth is “life has not forgotten us;” it holds us–all of us–in its hands and will not let us fall. When Imaculee was praying in that bathroom, Spirit was holding her, holding her tight, and did not let her fall.

I wrote this article Monday and stopped for dinner. I opened A Grateful Heart at a random page as I do every night, asking for the perfect blessing for the day. Listen to what I got:

“Resurrection. The reversal of what was thought to be absolute. The turning of midnight into dawn, hatred into love, dying into living anew.

If we look more closely into life, we will find that resurrection is more than hope, it is our experience. The return to life from death is something we understand at our innermost depths, something we feel on the surface of our tender skin. We have come back to life, not only when we start to shake off a shroud of sorrow that has boundus, but when we begin to believe in all that is still, endlessly possible.

We give thanks for all those times we have arisen from the depths or simply taken a tiny step toward something new. May we be empowered by extraordinary second chances. And as we enter the world anew, let us turn the tides of despair into endless waves of hope.” Molly Fumia

All I can say is “Thank You” for the divine guidance that brought me these precious quotes. Through them, I am renewed, restored, heartened, and ready to embrace life again, even, or especially, the helpless parts.