Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 18

A Meditation on 受難

O Taste and See

Robert Spiotta

Coloration depicts projected wave size.
9.0 Magnitude [MW] undersea mega thrust earthquake.
15,698 deaths; 5,717 injured; 4,666 people missing [est.]
Image courtesy of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Editor’s Note: Pain is deeply, necessarily particular. Often it is our own pain and suffering or the pain and suffering of someone we love that causes us to turn to God and ask an anguished, “WHY?” Recently, the tragic movement of earth, wind and water—what insurance companies reductively call “acts of God”—have devastated communities from Joplin, Missouri, USA, to Minamisanriku, of the Motoyoshi District, in Miyagi, Japan. These powerful events rock our core, both literally and spiritually. Questions of theodicy arise, and we struggle with God’s goodness.

01.  Introduction

As our editorial team considered an image for the cover and this O Taste & See feature, we wanted to honor the fact that each person’s pain—whether it is loss of heart, health, hope or home—matters. We didn’t want to put one particular image of one particular type of pain on the cover, because that would necessarily exclude those who haven’t experienced that type of pain. We considered using a piece of classic art or an explicitly Christocentric image—both good choices we believe, yet we wanted to create a contemplative space that actually allowed for the questions and the pain to be felt rather than moving too quickly to answers or theology.

When we discovered this image of the globe, constructed by the NOAA shortly after the tsunami first struck Japan, we were taken aback. While not a piece of “art” per se, it is a God’s-eye-view of our world, and the pain that seeps across it. We felt that our choice was further confirmed when we discovered the meaning of the Japanese word for “pain,” which is the kanji that appears in the title of this piece. 受難 (yu-nan) is actually two kanjis and one word. 受 (jyu) means “to receive” and 難 (nan) means “something very hard, or not easy.” When combined, the kanji literally means “the pain/ something hard, that person received.” The grace is that God goes further—the dictionary definition of this kanji is “the pain when the Christ was crucified on the cross,” “suffering; ordeals,” or “The Passion/the Crucifixion.” We pray that as you read Robert Spiotta’s excellent meditation on the image, and spend time with it yourself, God will speak into your particular pain, and that you will be drawn toward His cross.

02.  Meditation

If you are anything like me, the news of the earthquake and tsunami that recently devastated the nation of Japan crept into your awareness gradually. Even if you heard the news right away, it wasn’t until you started seeing the pictures, the video, the coverage that the enormity of this event truly hit you emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Images have an impact on our souls, communicating truth—and suffering—in ways that thousands of words cannot.

Especially powerful images come directly at the viewer with the raw and unavoidable hurling force of universal pain—like a stick in the eye. Take another look at the image of the globe on the first page of this article. In images like this satellite photograph of Earth after the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the visual and visceral lie dangerously close together, close as lovers, separated (if at all) by something as sheer and permeable as a cell membrane. I immediately recognize the empty black hole, tsunami Ground Zero, belching and oozing purple fall-out and irradiating most of the visible hemispheres with an appalling drape of hot burning orange; and the orange cape itself seems to fuel itself through what appears to be a bloody red arterial system, all signifying to me nothing short of universal pain, disaster, calamity, death. I feel dizzy, nauseated, utterly disoriented, alone—the familiar and unwelcome symptoms of extreme pain.

To someone like me, brought up in the sixties on constant television news coverage of the bloody Vietnam conflict, and surfeited on a lifetime smorgasbord of sophisticated electronic imagery, the searing lurid reds and the poisonous greens evoke other horrifying and very personal connotations: the in-vitro sonogram of the child we lost to miscarriage, my wife’s mammogram diagnosing breast cancer, tornado radar sightings on the television screen at night, sonar imagery searching for kids who drown in vacation lake accidents, live television coverage of 9/11. The French language has an intriguing term, coup de foudre, which they use to describe overwhelming and unexpected strikes of lightning, or blows of fate, thunder rolls from nowhere, that leaves victims completely devastated and out of control. Here in this image we see the Earth in the awful wake of a universal coup de foudre. Do you feel that? Like me, do you want to run away from it, avert your gaze?

As a self-protective gesture, the academic in me wants to gain some emotional distance by moving into my head for an exercise in what art historians might call “formalism.” Formalist analysis makes the image itself primary, pushing history, personal meanings, and indeed human life to the background—in this image, to the dark and unknown side of the Earth, as it were. With analysis the image becomes merely the semi-abstract arrangement of line and color: the perfect circle of vivid three-dimensionally shaded hues against a flat black background. Already I feel better, but from this “externalized” perspective, very little can be said in the way of meaning. Squeezed out emotionally, do you become bored with the image like I do? Do you even question its value for contemplation?

Will you join me in switching perspectives again and taking a commercial, perhaps even materialist, view of the photograph? From the angle of the consumer, the one who simply wants to use, I see something appealingly funky—perhaps a stylized peacock feather draped across a tie-dye red and orange ground; and I also recognize the popular image of the stylized Earth. Yes, that will sell! This universal avatar can be silk-screened on thousands of T-shirts and sold at Urban Outfitters. It’s a potential uniform for college students from Tokyo to Boston to Moscow to Beijing. To be completely au courant this photograph really deserves to be a disaster-relief fundraising icon for the iPad or Android, an image replicated and broadcast by Facebook and Twitter. Click on the Earth to donate $5 to tsunami relief. But that’s not entirely satisfactory, either. Do you feel the banality and absurdity of this hybrid commercial/altruistic approach? Do you feel the violation of the pain it represents?

Finally, I wonder if this image reminds you of anything deeply personal? I am recalling a particularly painful childhood incident. It wasn’t such a serious thing, really, and I hesitate to compare it with such cataclysmic suffering, but being out of control and in pain is always personally significant, and it taught me something that I want to connect to this universally painful event. My own “stick in the eye” was actually a football in the face.

My parents sent me to a rigorous athletic camp when I was five, which turned out to be a complete “bust.” I’m not sure what my family or the camp was thinking, because the lessons were too advanced and the physical expectations beyond my maturity, so I came away emotionally traumatized rather than athletically trained. (Isn’t that a lot like life, though? Most of the time it’s overwhelming!) When I was eight, they tried again by enrolling me in a gentler week-long camp offering mainly swimming, hiking, and crafts. It started out okay: we at least spent some time in the cool damp woods exploring, rather than running and vomiting on a 120 degree track, and I became proficient at some basic life-saving pool maneuvers. I especially enjoyed the crafts, and I spent the happiest period of each day carving, sanding, and finishing a small wooden mask to take home at the end of the week. Thursday I painted the mask bright lobster pink and left it to dry. All finished; life under control.

That same Thursday we had a free period after art, so I wandered into the multi-purpose room used for boxing and martial arts. Walls padded, sounds muffled, the airless chamber smelled of foam rubber, sweat, and fear. I remember seeing several boys and an older counselor goofing off and tossing balls around. Then out of nowhere, “Whizzz-KPOP,” a perfectly spun football drilled into the middle of my face with blinding force. A random teenager had successfully demonstrated his prodigious throwing power by taking down an eight-year-old. I felt the electric black nausea and dizzy disorientation of extreme pain. I tasted blood in my mouth. I wailed a lot, and the counselor gathered me up and wrapped my head in a wet towel and drove me home early, where he tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for what happened. But he couldn’t. There was no reasonable explanation.

By some miracle, my nose wasn’t broken and no teeth fell out, so after a night’s rest, everyone assumed I’d be fine. But I wasn’t. I’m not sure I’ve ever been “fine” since. I don’t think I went back for the last day of camp, or ever picked up my carefully crafted totem mask, because my own injured head was totem enough. This same summer, my older brothers’ friends began returning from fighting in Vietnam, and it was obvious to me that some of them came through intact to resume “regular life” while others displayed obvious physical and emotional losses; they would never be fine and okay. I was old enough to “put two and two together,” so after that summer I abandoned the notion that I was safe in this world and that things would always “turn out fine.” And even my small camp experience was traumatic and painful enough to make me skeptical of the related idea that pain and suffering should be welcomed as a “necessary” tonic for the soul. Uh-uh. That kind of reasoning, even to an adolescent, seemed like pure absurdity, a way of making people do or endure horrible things that they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate except for the fact that they had been trained to cut off their receptivity to their own inner life and to the world. The better lesson, and the one that I did take away from that experience, is that pain is unavoidable. But if pain is unavoidable, what do we do with it?

Here we are tempted to fall into a trap: trying to explain pain. I for one do not believe that an omniscient God owes us any explanations, and our attempts to figure out the mind of an infinite being end up in abstraction and despair. But I’m no theologian. To argue the point better I defer to the fine example of Walker Percy’s protagonist Will Barrett, from his novel The Second Coming, which wrestles more masterfully than I can with this great subject of theodicy. In the story Will Barrett lays an ingenious trap for God—an experiment to put God to the test and force Him to demonstrate His love and existence. Bored and alienated by his upper-middle-class, golf-stroking life, Will attempts to escape by hiding in a cave and taking barbiturates until God shows up, proving His love and existence, or Will dies, proving there is no God. (Notice the ironic name of the character “Will”!) But Will’s philosophical stunt is interrupted by a coup de foudre, the unexpected intrusion of— Knock knock; who’s there?—PAIN! A throbbing abscessed tooth wakes Will from his drug-induced coma prematurely, forcing him out of the cave and back into the world, where he must abandon his artificial experiment and self-referential explanations. What Will unexpectedly finds next is love. But I am getting ahead of myself.

So if we can’t avoid pain, and we can’t explain our way out of it, and we can’t successfully find enough distractions, what do we do? Here’s my humble suggestion: first, become present to your own pain and to your own body, without explaining, without escaping, without denying. Just dwell for a few moments in the pain of your particular circumstances and feel it. Yes, that may seem awful, because it is. It may lead to “grieving,” an even longer process of becoming present to your painful feelings and losses. Next, allow your heart to entertain the possibility that love and pain could be somehow related. This will probably not make rational sense, because it is not an activity for your mind, but a life-learned posture for your heart. Some people call this a “spiritual discipline.”

You know the reality of this pain-love connection already, because you’ve heard it your whole life in songs, literature, poetry, scripture. You may remember this description of Christ’s death from the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” by Isaac Watts:

See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did ‘ere [ever] such love and sorrow meet
Or wounds compose so rich a crown?Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” verse 3, 1707.

In whatever mysterious way, and from whatever theological perspective you interpret the crucifixion of Christ, his pain and suffering also speak of love and of Christ’s sharing in the pain of the world: love and pain mixed up together. Also, remember Jesus’ words to Thomas in the Gospel of John, when all the other disciples are gathered in a closed room, and he arrives late (John 20:24–29). Thomas the rationalist physically and metaphorically enters the scene from outside the gathering of those who have just experienced the risen Christ (experienced Life), and Jesus tenderly offers Thomas the opportunity to touch his wounded hands and side. Jesus allows Thomas, invites Thomas, to touch and be touched by the palpable evidence of Christ’s own pain. And it is touching the wounds of Christ that opens Thomas’s eyes to proclaim in recognition: “My Lord and my God!”

Could it be in this silent embrace of pain, in the silent embrace by pain, we can experience the loving embrace of Christ himself? Can we recognize Christ in our own pain and the world’s? Whatever we take away from painful and traumatic experiences like mine, or the infinitely more painful experience of this disaster in Japan, none of us can just “go back to camp” and pretend like everything is fine. Because it’s not. Incidents and images like this one jolt us mercilessly (or mercifully?) from our self-induced stupor of safety to remind us that the world is a dangerous place: none of us will get out of it alive, and none of us will get out of it without being hurt.

Which brings me to a final interpretation of this image I invite you to consider. Could the hideous black hole in the Earth really be the wounded body of Christ himself? (This is a poetic and mystical, not ontological, interpretation). By handling it, touching it, becoming present to this wound, becoming present to our own pain and the pain of the whole world, of the thousands upon thousands suffering in Japan, or those suffering in our own communities, can we also become present to Christ and him to us? Can we enter this locus of death to encounter the love of Christ, the familiar warm breath of the Holy Spirit, and our own re-integrated selves?

Interesting term, coup de foudre, because it incorporates several paradoxical things at once: a bolt of lightning, a thunderclap, something “out of the blue” that knocks you off your feet. And, it is also the French term for falling in love, experiencing love. Ironically, we all know that opening yourself to love is painful, too. So do you get it? These dreadful blows to the self and to the Earth can become an unexpected opening to the love of God—if our minds can get out of the way.


Robert Spiotta, graduate of Vanderbilt University (BA Communication) and the Parsons/New School program at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian National Museum of Design (MA, Design History), also completed additional post-graduate study at Emory University, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art (London). He consults nationally in art and interior design, and researches/ markets art and antiques. His design work and writing have appeared in Verandah, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, The Atlantan, Antiques Monthly, Southern Accents, Interior Design, and on HGTV. Robert also works professionally in planned giving for non-profit arts institutions through Heaton Smith Group. Robert performed professionally as a pianist, accompanist, and worship leader for fifteen years, and is an experienced speaker, retreat leader, and facilitator. Robert lives in Atlanta with his wife Yvonne and their two daughters.