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Center for Action and Contemplation

Rupture of the Ordinary

Friday, October 19, 2018

Suffering: Week 1

Rupture of the Ordinary
Friday, October 19, 2018

Barbara Holmes paints a moving portrait of how suffering transformed kidnapped peoples from different African tribes and languages into a kind of contemplative community, beginning with their journey across the Atlantic.

Captured Africans were spooned together lying on their sides in ships that pitched with every wave. Together they wept and moaned in a forced community that cut across tribal and cultural lines. . . . In his book Terror and Triumph, Anthony Pinn discusses the Middle Passage as the horrific transition from personhood to property and nonidentity. The journey can be characterized as “rupture.” [1] . . .

Slavery does not represent ordinary suffering. It is one of many unique situations that far exceed the limits of human imagination and assessment. Holocausts against one group or another cannot be contained within the bounds of the individual human body. Instead, oppression of this magnitude forces a community beyond courage and individual survival skills into a state of unresolved shock and disassociation. Under these conditions, the interiority of the community becomes a living “flow” that sustains the afflicted. . . .

The hold of the slave ship becomes the stage upon which the human drama unfolds. . . . Although unity is the ultimate outcome of flow [or contemplation], angst and anguish are the fertile sites of its emergence. Strangers linked by destiny and chains focused their intentions on survival instead of the unrelenting pain, because pain that does not abate cannot be integrated into human reality structures. . . .

Ultimately, our objective tools for analyzing and interpreting pain will always fail us because there is an aspect of suffering that is not within our rational reach. Pain is a parallel universe that sends shock-waves breaking over our unconscious, daring us to succumb. The only hope of understanding it comes as we align ourselves with a groaning universe committed to cycles of birth, rebirth, and the longing for a just order. As Eric Cassell puts it, “suffering arises with the ‘loss of the ability to pursue purpose.’ Thus in suffering we face the loss of our own personal universe.” [2] . . .

The only sound that would carry Africans over the bitter waters was the moan. Moans flowed through each wracked body and drew each soul toward the center of contemplation. . . . Contemplation can . . . be a displacement of the ordinary, a paradigm shift that becomes a temporary refuge when human suffering reaches the extent of spiritual and psychic dissolution. It can be a state of extraordinary spiritual attenuation, a removal to a level of reality that allows distance from excruciating circumstances.

The portal to this reality can best be described as a break in the ordinary, exposing the complexity and chaos of a universe that sanctions both pleasure and pain.

[1] Anthony B. Pinn, Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (Fortress Press: 2003), 35.

[2] Eric J. Cassell, The Nature of Suffering (Oxford University Press: 1991), 24-25.

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 47, 48-49, 50. Above references as cited by Holmes.

Image credit: Tunnel, Anton Atanasov.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers. —Richard Rohr
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