Making Peace with Pathos: The Call of November
November 1, 2010
through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the
world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.
~ Oswald Chambers
This week marks the beginning of November.
If, as T. S. Eliot asserts, “April is the cruelest month,”
then surely November must be the saddest. For those of us who
inhabit the northern hemisphere, November marks the loss of the
promise of spring and the fullness and then harvest of summer and
early autumn. The splendid
colors and unique sunlight of October give way to the starkness and
encroaching darkness that come in the early days of November.
To look out over the residue of a once flourishing garden and
the “bare ruined choirs” of the recently resplendent maples, elms,
and oaks is to experience the reality of loss and the certainty of
It is thus appropriate that the first days
of November begin with the Church’s call to mindfulness of our
progenitors, physical and spiritual.
We are invited to remember and to pray with gratitude and
forgiveness that we might recognize our communion with them, our
sharing in life and death with them.
November, as increasing age in an individual life, is a call
to recognize and truly appropriate the pathos at the heart of human
experience, to experience the breaking of our hearts by the reality
of finitude and contingency.
Discussing pathos at length in his book
Heaven in Ordinarie, Noel
Dermot O’Donoghue contends that “the person who has never felt
pathos is not fully human and . . . the depth of our humanness is
measured by the depth of our experience of pathos.”
He explains: “The basis for this is that it is through pathos
that the human person appropriates his or her own being as
evanescent and that (s)he
opens toward the universally human as evanescent.”
In O’Donoghue’s view “we mostly live in a
situation of unrecognized pathos.”
(Ibid) In November
the entire world about us seems to blur the distinction between the
living and the dead, between our human ambitions and desire to make
ourselves truly at home in the world (to “cultivate our gardens”)
and the truth that “the home light we carry within is but a tiny
candle-flame in the immense surrounding darkness.”
(39) The invitation
we are offered is, as Oswald Chambers suggests, to recognize the
pathos of life and to receive as gift the broken heart through which
peace is offered.
“Objectively pathos is in the situation, subjectively it is in the
people who suffer the situation, and only those who accept it have
John Keats at the age of 23 expressed the fear and loneliness
that the realization of our mortality evokes in us.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
. . .
— then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
We live with the desire and aspiration to express our unique life,
to know and to express love, and to make our contribution to the
world by completing our life task. At the same time, especially as
we age, we are haunted by the reality of our own limits and the
inevitability of our death before our desires and aspirations are
fulfilled. As the poet Adam Zagajewski writes in his poem “Ordinary
Ordinary life, ordinary days and cares,
a concert, a conversation, strolls on the town’s outskirts,
good news, bad –
but objects and thoughts
were unfinished somehow,
For us, the thoughts and objects of our making are always unfinished
“rough drafts.” All of the
ways that we try to make a life and world that has solidity show
themselves in time to be evanescent, to be always unfinished and
indeterminate. Yet, this is
not a reason for not working and striving.
In fact, as O’Donoghue suggests, it may actually be the
reason for greater working and striving.
“Pathos itself is not pathetic,” he says, because “perhaps
the true value comes through pathos rather than through the
achievement itself.” (Ibid.)
The value that comes through pathos
is the self-emptying that prepares a place for the birth of the Word
in our soul. In Luke 5:10
Jesus summarizes a brief teaching on faith with the striking words:
“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do,
should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
Our work, as important as it is, is not what creates our
worth. Our work is our duty,
and we are, of course, called to do our duty.
However, the harder we work, the greater our achievements,
the deeper the experience of pathos.
When we have done all we can, when we have dutifully
cultivated our garden and reaped its harvest, we still must watch as
the plants wither and die and the ground turns cold and hard.
The pathos we feel as every image of desire and aspiration
fades away is the awareness of our own soul.
Meister Eckhart teaches that the soul comes to know the world
through the incorporation of images of what is outside of it, but
that the soul cannot know itself because it is imageless.
The deepest experiences of pathos come from the fading of the
images of those things that we most long for and value, and the
effect of this heartbreak is a greater space for God.
In Sermon 45 Eckhart declares:
“The human person can indeed offer God nothing
more precious than rest.”
God does not heed or require fasting, prayer or any
self-mortification nearly so much as rest.
God wants nothing of the human person but a peaceful heart;
then God performs within the soul such secret divine works as no
creature can earn or see.
Rest is a precious and rare phenomenon for
us. It may be that one way
to the deep rest of which Eckhart speaks is through the sadness of
November, the pathos that arises from deep in our souls as we awaken
to our true place in the universe, as we discover the peace awaiting
us on the other side of a broken heart.