(by Scott Cairns)
More than a hundred years ago, a chronically afflicted Emily Dickinson observed something of pain’s curious effects and aftermath. “After great pain,” she wrote, ” a formal feeling comes.” Her poem continues:
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The still Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
In Dickinson’s poem, the human person’s experience of great pain is decidedly taken for granted; it is presented as a given, a patent and unavoidable circumstance. Also, it is figured—assuming that one survives it—as having passed.
The poem’s attention focuses on what we—and the “Freezing persons” of the simile—are in the midst of this “chill” obliged to accept “the letting go.”
One might well think to ask, “The letting go of what?”
Very good question! And while I expect that we will make our way back to that very good question, for the moment, let’s assume that the implication is apt—that we are all of us clinging to something.
Let’s also assume that it might be to our common advantage to discover what that something is; let’s also say that we might want to know if this habitual clinging of ours is helping our situation or hurting it.
Meantime, there are a great many ways to speak of pain’s effects, lots of ways to appreciate its—what? Its purpose?
Let’s say yes.
One such way is offered up by Saint Isaac of Syria, a seventh-century saint who begins his observation by speaking of one particularly desirable outcome, and then—in a teacherly manner—proceeds to deduce for us how we are likely to find our way to it.
“The love of God,” he writes, “proceeds from our conversing with him; this conversation of prayer comes about through stillness, and stillness arrives with the stripping away of self.”
It would be good to notice the actual efficacious process that is in this way—albeit in reverse chronological order—presented: first occurs the stripping away of self, which produces a species of stillness, which avails actual prayer, which occasions the love of God.
If that particular phrasing, “the stripping away of self,” strikes the contemporary ear as being a little painful, I am thinking that is probably because it most often is. The “stripping away of self” may also help to answer our very good question above, identifying what it is that we must be obliged to let go.
To be sure, I have stumbled upon a good bit of this business the hard way; but I am now supposing that this is the stubborn truth that has been nibbling my mind from the start—that the hard way is pretty much the only way most of us ever manage to learn anything.
Affliction, suffering, and pain are—even if they are nothing else—remarkably effective.