By the time my grandmother died, she was nothing more than a curled-up reminder of a person, lying in a hospital bed. She was shaped like a question mark as she lay on her side, waiting to be flipped over gently from time to time by a rotation of nurses in an effort to avoid bedsores. Curled up in the bed, she was roughly the size of a 10-year-old. My grandma was 80 going on 11. Or maybe 80 going on zero, if her mental acuity was taken into account along with her size.

Her descent into this final state was long and slow, like taking a staircase one step at a time, a staircase that spiraled down and down, one that could only be navigated in the dark. At several points during the descent, everyone involved — my grandpa, parents, aunts and uncles and cousins — stopped to catch our collective breath, and during these pauses, while we were taking stock of the situation, sometimes it almost seemed funny.

Like that time I was at a family picnic, sitting beside Grandma and across from my 18-month-old nephew. They were both fascinated by the same teaspoon as it lay on the table between them, carelessly left there by someone who had forgotten that babies are like magpies, attracted to any shiny thing, and who didn’t realize that Alzheimer’s sufferers are just the same. The silver surface of the spoon caught glints of sunlight and was, in every respect, highly desirable to the old lady and the baby, who both snatched at it. They pulled it back and forth and back and forth, each one intermittently weeping when deprived of its gleam.

One of these people was on the way down the staircase and one was on the way up, and for a moment my grandma and my nephew, her great-grandson, passed each other and stopped, considering one another with suspicion, in competition for teaspoons and attention. And how could that not be funny? It was funny and it was sad, but the one thing it was not in any way was beautiful.

Nothing about my grandma’s descent into darkness was beautiful. Not the loss of dignity, not her intense bewilderment, which often devolved into terror, not the loneliness she experienced as she became trapped in a place where her mind knew no one. First there was generalized confusion, then specific confusion, then just sensation — a reprieve discovered in the simple, repetitive act of brushing her hair. And then, after the pleasures of sensation dwindled, all signals were lost and she was gone. Her mind was out there, somewhere, while her body remained among us: a decrepit house with no lights. Which was the worst insult of all, to care for her body for years and years while she herself failed to make an appearance. It was like tending a grave for someone who is not actually dead. And again, none of it was beautiful.

Beauty in Suffering

When tragedy enters our lives, we are forced to enter into it. We want to make sense of it. The misery of unexpected death, the finality of loss found in brain damage or paralysis or some other permanent malady — we need to find a method to this madness. We examine the turn of events for clues about why things happen the way they happen. This is especially true of Christians, who view the world in all its machinations as part of a plan, God’s grand scheme of things, and who are fond of saying that everything happens for a reason. No matter how bad things are, we tell each other reassuringly, beauty can be found, real beauty, in suffering.

I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sick, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.  — Ann Voskamp

The trouble is, we all want to see beauty in suffering, so we look for it, peering at our own pain or the pain of someone we love, wielding Bibles and stacks of recent bestsellers on the topic as our guides. But our efforts are futile. Beauty is, by its very nature, incompatible with chaos, with the multitude of disfigurements that alter the course of our lives as humans. And because these disfigurements exist in the material realm, considering them demands that beauty be considered in the same context. Which is to say that we’re not talking in moral abstractions here, or beauty in a metaphorical sense — we’re talking about the wounds that occur, the kind that mar the body and leave physical scars — the gashes of disrupted skin that send a message: something went very wrong at this location — mapping terrain that no one wants to cover.

Material beauty is primarily a sensory experience, grounded in aesthetic appreciation, and while its terms can be subjective, what is not subjective about beauty is the fact that it cannot also be not-beautiful.And the descent of a human being into madness and an intellectual void, for example, is not beautiful. Not by any measure.

Hope in Suffering

In aesthetic terms, a terrible, unexpected circumstance in our lives can resemble a Jackson Pollock painting — rage and randomness splattered across a canvas. But close attention to Pollock’s work reveals something else altogether: a faint rhythm and the remaining echo of pattern, a sense of order behind the disorder. Beauty may be nowhere to be found, but there is a sense that more than meets the eye is going on, that something in the work points to something greater.

Which is, in its way, a kind of optimism. The belief that a pattern exists where, at least superficially, one can only see chaos, offers hope. A very specific sort of hope, the kind that points toward restoration, toward a future when the pattern really will be clear by design, when beauty will not just show up in fits and starts, but will always be with us, the place where we live.

But in the meantime, the suffering. Human suffering: incalculable in its magnitude, inexhaustible in its ugliness. “…The whole creation groans and suffers…”,Paul says in Romans. Amen and amen. So what do we do with our suffering? We examine it, but not in search of beauty. We examine our suffering in search of hope, the hope of the beauty that is to come. When contemplating suffering, hope is really all we have. Hope that something exists beyond the chaos, hope that our suffering will someday be taken from us, hope of heaven, where all will be made perfect — beauty made manifest.

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.  — I Peter 2:19

Our suffering echoes the suffering of Christ. We remember his body broken for us in his death — a very particular chaos, an unjust interruption in a life if there ever was one. We take the sacrament, drink the wine, eat the bread, so that we do not forget.This do in remembrance of me.

And we remember: Christ’s suffering was not beautiful. For Mary Magdalene and the other women, the ones who loved him — watching Christ die on the cross was objectively grotesque and subjectively horrifying. Yet, through all of this, his misery was, strangely, hopeful. Christ’s death on the cross splintered the darkness, and tore the veil, and since he suffered, those of us who believe are able to glimpse another reality, one that transcends the decay and pain and brokenness of a fallen world.

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to give you a future and a hope. — Jeremiah 29:11

And it turns out that those Christians, the ones offering platitudes to those suffering about there being a reason for everything, even the worst sort of misery, are right. There is a reason for everything. It’s just that usually this reason can’t be understood, or even seen, obscured as it is by shadows. The deepest sort of shadows that engulf the mind of someone you love, a mind reduced to wandering through empty, dark corridors alone for years and years while the body lives on, someone like my grandmother.

For those of us bearing witness to the suffering, there is no beauty in the beholding. But there is hope. Sometimes it comes only fleetingly, but still, hope emerges. We find it in those moments when we remember Christ, and his suffering, and his scars. His scars that are just like our own, scars that map the terrain of misery. Something went very wrong at this location.

We remember the end of the story, the part that comes after the scarring, the terrible death. We remember: Christ rose from the dead. His resurrection is the ultimate demonstration of hope, the belief that death itself can be overcome. Christ transcended every chaos, he conquered death, and he lives on. As will we, trading our suffering for joy, our ashes for perfect beauty. We can only hope.

Image: “Saying farewell to Nana after 88th birthday cookies” by  Tim & Selena Middleton CCBY2.0


6 Comments

  1. So beautiful. I read a bit ab out “Post-traumatic Growth” last year and hope was definitely the big common denominator. I had been reading Leymah Gbowee’s memoir – a woman who went through so many trials and ended up literally bringing peace to a war-torn country. How does that happen? How does that kind of beauty come from those kinds of ashes? I’m a naturally optimistic person who seeks out the beauty – but that story just made me want to know a pattern, a reason. Hope – turns out it’s a big deal. I wish there was a way to bottle it for those who seem to not have it.

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