Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma

At the end of his 1986 book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press), Jesuit priest and scholar Walter J. Ong addresses the sort of Christian faith to which the life and work of 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bears witness. Like Ong, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. He was also an exact contemporary of Nietzsche. Both were born in 1844 and both entered into darkness in 1889—the darkness of the grave for Hopkins, that of the madness in which he spent the last eleven years of his life for Nietzsche.

Ong finds in the poems, prose, and letters of Hopkins a “forthright” view of Jesus’ crucifixion, one in which there is no weakening of the suffering and failure involved. That includes any weakening of that suffering and that failure through any consoling idea that what Jesus was working for would somehow still finally be accomplished even after his own death on the cross. That is, there was nothing such as, a century after Hopkins was born, allowed orthodox Marxists to find consolation, even in the face of imprisonment and death in Auschwitz, in the sustained conviction that the eventual victory of communism remained inevitable. In the view of Jesus on the cross that Ong finds in Hopkins, there is no such reality-weakening faith in play. Rather, by the “forthright” view Ong attributes to Hopkins, “[t]he truth was that what Jesus was working for, what he had planned, turned out a total and spectacular failure.” In confirmation of that interpretation, Ong quotes from a letter Hopkins once wrote to his friend Dixon:

His [Jesus’] career was cut short and, whereas he would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure, prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues, and he was the most prudent of men—nevertheless he was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone. However much he understood all this he found it an intolerable grief to submit to it. He left the example: it is very strengthening, but except in that sense it is not consoling.

Ong expands upon that passage by remarking that, in Christian teaching as Hopkins understood it, “God the Father had let Jesus’ ‘career’ work out as a failure not to cancel out the failure later but because he had plans about the consequences of the failure. The failure was never cancelled out and never will be,” regardless of whatever subsequent history—or the supposed end of it—might bring.

A faith purified by trauma, which is to say a faith that no longer avoids or numbs itself in the face of trauma but instead opens to it, can only be the sort of clear-eyed faith that Ong sees in Hopkins. It is not anything like a faith in “pie in the sky by and by,” as one popular put-down of reality-weakening religious faith puts it—no sort of defensive certainty that everything will prove to have been for the best in the end, when the whole story finally gets told, and the mysterious ways of God are at last made clear. Central to Hopkins’ sort of “forthright” Christian faith, a faith that faces trauma, rather than denying it, is the insistence that the wounds will always remain open, even in Christ’s resurrected body.

A faith that has been purified by trauma need not prove itself in dramatic acts that command attention. Instead, such faith is one that carries itself out in the fidelity (which is what faith is all about, after all) demonstrated by the daily living out of a life fully open to traumatic reality. In an important sense, there is nothing complex about such faith. It is a very simple and straightforward. Despite that, it remains demanding and difficult.

The real difficulty lies precisely in the fidelity—what St. Paul in his letters calls the “perseverance”—required for keeping such faith. The hard part is remaining faithful day after day in a life fully lived, and therefore lived in full exposure to the suffering that all true life entails. Yet however difficult the ongoing keeping of it may be, manifestations of such faith are really not all that rare. One does not have to have any special gifts, such as Hopkins’ for poetry, to keep such faith. It can be, and often is, kept faithfully in the daily life of the most ordinary people—a point I will continue to explore in my next post.

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