Holding the cup of sorrow & joy

Henri Nouwen has a beautiful little book titled, Can You Drink the Cup? that gets to the core of human experience in a tender and true way.  His driving sentiment, that we all must aspire to hold, lift, and drink the cup of salvation that is our lives, is one that speaks so directly to the individual reader that there is nowhere left to hide upon completing the book.

At no point does he disguise the anguish of the world, and he offers no tools or tricks for working around difficulty. His words hold great promise, though: drink every last drop from your cup, and you will certainly find joy along with your sorrow. When this is done, your cup can be shared with others and can transform relationships and communities.

I have often reflected on how complicated it is to understand sorrow and emptiness at one point and sheer joy and wonder the next. But this is the way of life, and selecting an experience that skims across emotions out of fear or apathy will deprive us of a full life. I’ve had plenty of moments in which I felt sorry for myself (the most useless of emotions); why is my mother so weak? Why has she given up being a mother? How can I carry the pain of my sisters, my friends, and why do they have to bear this type of pain?  But if my cup of sorrow is, in part, to hold fragments of a family rather than a whole piece, then that is my cup. What are the joys that this cup of sorrow will bring? There are many, and more to come.

A few months ago, I visited the parents of a dear friend. We enjoyed an afternoon and evening together at their home, where they’ve raised 7 wonderful children. We shared great conversation, a delicious meal, and they generously let me stay the night. The following morning, after breakfast, the three of us walked outside to our respective cars to start the day. I was nearly to my car when I turned around to see my friend’s mom running through knee-deep snow towards me. She wanted to make sure to give me a hug before I left. I recall the image of her making her way towards me through the snow, one sleeve of her jacket not quite all the way on, kindness overflowing from her being. Somehow, in that image of her wading through snow towards me, all of her goodness is captured — her unmistakable maternal love, her strong faith, her care for others… and I continue to pull this small memory out of its box again and again.

This, to me, is part of the joy that accompanies my cup of sorrow: there are serious familial gaps that I would rather not experience, but these gaps have become spaces that have prodded and pushed me to reach my hand out to others in a deeper way. In my wavering and stumbling, God has found me more intimately through the maternal love of others. The reward has been great, and my sorrows are now intrinsically tied to joy forever. This paradox is one that can be extended to others — where I’ve been shown great love from people outside of my family, I now know the value of an outstretched hand — even if it is towards a stranger or acquaintance.

The Great Secret of the Christian

The stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears… yet, He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the temple and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet, He restrained something. I say it with reverence: there was, in that shattering personality, a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when he went up the mountain to pray. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth. And I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

This is the wardrobe into Narnia. This is the door out of our agonized world of spiritual darkness where ignorant armies clash by night. This is the joy the New Testament speaks of in the strangest way anyone has ever spoken of joy. It is the joy of Christ. That came in the most unlikely time and place in all of history: Calvary. It is the secret of Him who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross. Despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of God. This is the joy that conquered Hell on the cross. The joy that was the door Christ saw behind the cross; the cross-shaped door whose other side is a crown. The death-shaped mask worn by the Lord of Life.

The only adequate answer to our century of genocide, the triumph of the principalities and powers of wickedness in heavenly places, and the threat of a Brave New World and the abolition of Man… is the secret that frees us into this gesture of relaxation. That is the culmination of the great dance. The smile on the face of God.

In conclusion: optimism or pessimism about our future? About the third millennium? Will we reach the joyful cosmology, or will we not? I have no crystal ball anymore than you do, but we have clues. So my bottom line is optimism. Because, apocalyptically decadent ages elicit Saints. Suffering elicits courage, compassion, heroism, martyrdom. Evil elicits Good in response. Bad times make Good people…as mountainous pressures make diamonds or as fire tempers steel. I think we should have great hopes for our society. For if she emerges from her present crisis, she will be stronger than ever before.

In merely American terms, look at the wars we have fought and the war we are now fighting. Defeating British economic tyranny in the Revolutionary War only gave us political independence. Defeating slavery in the Civil War gave us only personal freedom for all. Defeating fascist totalitarianism in World War II gave us only a free world. But defeating moral decadence and confusion and the joyless cosmology and reductionism would give us joy and moral strength and clarity and perhaps even holiness.

For the more dangerous the enemy, the more precious the victory.

Either we will build Gothic cathedrals again from a restored faith, or we will build the Tower of Babel again from a restored apostasy. And Lewis, like all prophets, gives us the roadmap and the clear choice between the two roads of Life or Death, Joy or Misery …and the mosaic simplicity of the challenge. Choose Life. Please do. Please help save the world. Please be a Saint.”

This excerpt comes from a powerful lecture titled “The Cosmic Dance,” prepared by Peter Kreeft.