Beyond Joy and Sorrow

As nearly all of us have experienced, Christmas has a dark side.  Lurking around the edges of the joy, the family reunions, the good food and the beautiful church services are loss, grief, loneliness, and addiction–and sometimes those things even come front and center, and become for some the dominant and defining characteristics of the season.  Few people know this better than pastors, people who spend much of the season visiting nursing home residents, the hospitalized, the sick and the dying.  Ask any pastor, and she will have a story–probably several stories–of funerals conducted right in the middle of the Christmas season:  my husband has two this year, one on Saturday, and one on Monday.  This isn’t unusual.

I don’t know why, exactly, people die right around Christmas–people die all the time, I suppose, so why should Christmas be any different; yet, it seems to me that there is something about the looming holiday that hastens the move from life into death into life.  Not everything about death has a physiological explanation.
Anyway, all this was in my mind yesterday as my goddaughter Milena and I spent the day in Washington DC.  We started at one of my favorite museums, The National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art.  As we were wandering through the halls, I came across this sculpture, which I remember from a previous visit a few years ago.  It’s the Adams Memorial, created in the late 19th century.  Here’s the description:

“‘Clover’ Adams, wife of writer Henry Adams, committed suicide in 1885 by drinking chemicals used to develop photographs.  Adams, who steadfastly refused to discuss his wife’s death, commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a memorial that would express the Buddhist idea of nirvana, a state of being beyond joy and sorrow.  In Adams’s circle of artists and writers, the old Christian certainties seemed inadequate after the violence of the Civil War, the industrialization of America, and Darwin’s theories of evolution.
Saint-Gaudens’s ambiguous figure reflects the search for new insights into the mysteries of life and death.  The shrouded being is neither male nor female, neither triumphant nor downcast.  Its message is inscrutable.”

I find several things about this fascinating:  first and foremost, of course, is the idea that in the late 19th century, Buddhism in general–and Buddhist descriptions of the human condition in particular–was seen as a viable and even compelling alternative to what were viewed as impotent and meager understandings of life and death found in Christianity.  Of course, the idea of “nirvana” has been grossly misinterpreted by Christians in a staggeringly wide variety of ways, but what I find interesting here is that what seems to be so desirable about it is that it offers some measure of “peace” beyond any feeling at all.  It’s not the joy of heaven [and of course, not the suffering of hell], but the quiet solitude of tranquility, repose and equanimity.  It’s “emptiness” in a way [I wonder if Adams’ circle knew that term], but certainly not “nothingness” or a void–as a Christian, I’d describe it as “the peace that passes understanding.”

Adams’ interpretation notwithstanding, I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that it would be wrong to represent Buddhism as a religion of avoidance and escape.  Buddhism emphasizes the practice of wisdom and compassion within the world, not beyond it.  I can imagine why, in the circumstances, Adams found comfort in interpreting it that way, but I wonder if that comfort held up in the long run.  The description of the sculpture concludes by saying that “Adams resisted all attempts to sentimentalize the memorial as a symbol of grief”–even as it became a tourist attraction–but he did “recognize the power” of the sculpture.  I can’t argue with that:  I experienced that power yesterday.

Getting back to Christmas, looking at this sculpture, I guess I see a longing for an escape from all the strong emotions this holiday brings:  Christmas is really a time of extremes, isn’t it?  We laugh loudly, we stay up late, we eat and drink with abandon, and we spend lots of time with lots of people–and in the end, it can all feel hollow and exhausting, even in the midst of exhilaration and euphoria.  “Peace” of any sort can be hard to come by.

I don’t really have a great answer to all of this; and, frankly, I’m not sure I would want it any other way–Christmas is my favorite season in many ways because all of its excesses, not necessarily even in spite of them.  But at the same time, this sculpture and its description reminds me of the complexity of the Christmas season [and it was complex from its inception–tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those slaughtered by Herod because of Jesus’ birth, not in spite of it], the complexity of human relationships, and the complexity of life itself.  I understand why people want to avoid it.  Yet, I can’t help but remember that it was into this complexity that Christ was born and God chose [and continues to choose] to dwell in love.  So, even given the alternative, I choose to dwell in love here too, turning my back on the possibility of escape.  I would not sacrifice joy, nor even sorrow, if that is the price of peace.  I choose the messiness of the world, the messiness of Christmas, the messiness of life–every time.

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