Knowledge of Good and Evil

Suffering: Week 1

Knowledge of Good and Evil
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

During our recent CONSPIRE 2018 conference, we explored how the path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers. We looked at personal and societal suffering including slavery, the oppression of Native Americans and African Americans, apartheid, the Holocaust, police brutality, exclusion of those seeking asylum, and sexual abuse. It was a painful and—hopefully for many—transformative experience.

The first step toward healing is truthfully acknowledging evil, while trusting the inherent goodness of reality. Poet and pastor John Philip Newell writes about the journey through suffering:

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. We will not be well by denying the wrongs that we carry within us as nations and religions and communities. Nor will we be well by downplaying them or projecting them onto others. The path to wholeness will take us not around such awareness but through it, confronting the depths of our brokenness. . . . As Hildegard of Bingen [1098–1179] says, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.” [1] If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of unitary vision. . . .

In one of her . . . visions of Jesus, Julian [of Norwich (1342–1416)] realizes that he is [a] “handsome mixture.” . . . [2] His face speaks of a knowledge of life’s delight and a knowledge of life’s pain. It is not a face that is naïve to the world’s sufferings or to the personal experience of sorrow. Nor is it a face that is so overwhelmed by sorrow that it loses its openness and wonder. . . . It is a soul that has experienced the heights and the depths of human life. . . .

In July 1942, the same month that the Nazis began their first big street roundups of Jews in Amsterdam, Etty Hillesum wrote in her diary, “I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; . . . It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain. And it is certainly no small bargain these days.” [3] Etty was looking at suffering straight in the face. Her friends, her family, and she herself were under the sentence of extermination. It was now beginning to be carried out. And yet Etty held within herself the “handsome mixture” of pain at the plight of her people, and of what one people can do to another people, along with a continued delight in the gift of life and its ineffable wonder. “I have looked our destruction, our miserable end, which has already begun in so many small ways in our daily life, straight in the eye . . .” she writes, “and my love of life has not been diminished.” [4] To look life straight in the eye, to see its pain and to see its beauty—this is an essential part of glimpsing the way forward.

References:
[1] Hildegard of Bingen, Letter to Wibert of Gembloux. See Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (Bear & Company: 1987), 350.

[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Spearing (Penguin: 1998), 119.

[3] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 19411943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 152.

[4] Ibid., 155.

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 64-65, 67, 75.

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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