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Making Peace with Pathos: The Call of November

November 1, 2010

pathosIf 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 death.

      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.”  (42)

      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 peace.”  (43)

      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 gleand my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charactry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripend 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 Life”:

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,

rough drafts.

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.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.