"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

“Betsy’s Pain-Blanched Face”

with 3 comments

That line (from the book The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Book) describes an encounter she had with one of the former guards from Ravensbruck after World War II. I’ve preached on that powerful message of God’s grace empowering forgiveness even in seemingly impossible situations.

The phrase keeps coming back to me in relation to my own struggles with chronic pain. Most of the time, my back and left leg pain (and neurological symptoms like burning and numbness) are a dull roar that I can blank out, much like a worker in a noisy office can tune out the background noise and so focus on their work. One of the skills that helps me to do that is my military training, and in particular the four years I spent in the military college system. That program teaches you how to distil tasks down to the bare minimum, how to squeeze every second of work out of each minute, and that you’re always able to do more than you think you can. I learned so clearly that every time I thought I had reached my absolute limit, there was still more that I could do. That’s really to primary focus of all training of soldiers – and the focus that allows some soldiers to do what most people would consider amazing heroic acts.

But, from time to time the pain moves beyond a dull roar, and I have little choice but to fall back on prescription pain killers and to spend some time flat on my back. Today was such a day. Even my cat, who seeks out any warm lap possible, has to be pushed off to one side as I can’t tolerate her feather-like 10 pound weight on my left leg.

That’s when the phrase ‘pain-blanched face’ becomes really personal…usually helped along by co-workers who say, ‘gee you look really pale today – how are you feeling?’ I’m never sure how to answer that, as I can’t think of any context in which to place constant, severe pain (on those bad days) that is understandable for someone on the outside. I’ve never had cancer, but my mom and I found many points of common discussion as she wrestled with chronic pain from her cancer surgery (and put me in the somewhat weird position of making medication suggestions to her for her GP based on my own reading on pain control).

It is challenging to be part of the ‘hidden disabled’, with no apparent outward sign of what’s going on inside.  In a recent visit with a friend I had not seen in decades, as we were catching up, she asked me three times – so you have pain all the time?  And then shook her head, as she could not understand how someone could live like that, a question I sometimes ask myself.

Part of the blessing of my day job is the chance to hear the stories of people who are (often) in a far worse situation than I am – it’s a good reminder to not become so inward focused that I forget that suffering is a part of the human condition.  What distingushes us is not whether or not we suffer, but rather the timing and degree of the suffering we bear.  As ISIS rampages through the Middle East, this too is a reminder that things are not as bad as my humanity sometimes wants to make them out.  At least I can go home and lie flat on my back with good medication.

One of the things that has helped me through the last two seasons of intractable serious pain is the music of The Mountain Goats. This was a band my daughter introduced me to, and has quickly become my favourite music. John Darnielle, the Mountain Goat’s lead man, plays very stripped-down music (his first albums were recorded on a portable stereo system).  Darnielle’s lyrics are some of the most profound I’ve ever heard. Each time I think I have a grasp on what he is meaning I realize there is another layer of metaphor playing out. He is particularly fond of using biblical (and Old Testament) images as a foil against the story of his life. This narrative approach is very powerful, and shows a degree of understanding of suffering that I’ve not often run across in theologians, and even less so in musicians.

These examples are only off the album, Life of the World to Come, where every song is named after a bible verse. The Mountain Goat’s music is shot through with theology and biblical imagery, so this one album is by no means the full scope of their use of theology.

A prime example is the song, Philippians 3:20-21, which refers to the bible verse, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (NRSV) The verses tell the story of Jesus’ task to open the way of death, by walking a path that no one could every walk again (where I am going you may not follow):

the path to the awful room
that no one will sleep in again
was lit for one man only
gone where none can follow him

try to look down
the way he’d gone
back of a closet
whose steps go on and on and on

nice people said he was with god then
safe in his arms

Darnielle mentioned in an interview (on pitchfork) that the chorus in this song had to do with the trite Christian response to suffering and death, that ‘he was with God now’ and how limited an answer that was to the question of why the person had to suffer and die. This reflects a type of realism that makes me think of Eugene Peterson’s spiritual theology – that theology that meets people within their ‘gritty’ lives and helps them live in a troubled and suffering world. Not the theology that spouts the easy nonsense of, ‘he is with God now’.

Where the song becomes particularly meaningful for me comes in the following verses:

well the path to the palace of wisdom
that the mystics walked
is lined with neuroleptics
and electric shock

hope daily for healing
try not to go insane
dance in a circle with bells on
try to make it rain

The mystical way of life is often only open to those who have access to an alternate form of existence…one that involves being set apart from the world. One set apart by a chronic health condition often seems to be in the mode of hoping for healing…while praying equally that the condition does not drive them off the edge. The best we can come up with is the human solution of either chemistry (drugs) or new-age (dancing in circles with bells on).

Just being able to listen to the song during my drive to work, or while I’m at my desk, is a comfort. While it doesn’t relieve the pain, knowing that someone understands where I so often find myself is a great relief in of itself.

Now, I am well aware that there is also a degree of satire in Mountain Goat’s music, and also a powerful critique. As ‘the nice people say he was with God now’, the not-so-nice people (that is most of us) scream out in grief, ‘why?’ Nevertheless, the acknowledgement that life is much more depth than is often acknowledged by the banal platitudes often offered by Christian churches is so refreshing.  Darnielle says this clearly in that pitchfork interview.  He has just said the song is about a particular person who he would not identify (so the interviewer asks if it’s about Michael Jackson):

No. [laughs] No, I would have to have been pretty fast to have written a Michael Jackson song, gotten into the studio, gotten it mastered into the sequence and ready for the album. The song is about the conflict between what people say happens after we die and the sort of lives we live. It’s kind of an angry-at-God sort of song. Because you hear of people who suffered their entire life that, once they die, now their won’t have bad days, because they’re with God. People say that.

And you think, well, maybe God could have been more merciful and let them off the hook earlier. Brought them into this place of no suffering and eternal bliss and presence of the most high a lot earlier and saved this person a lot of unnecessary pain, instead of having them suffer their entire lives. And in the case of people who are so damaged they wind up taking their own lives, well, you’d think an all-powerful God could have prevented that. It’s in the nature of being all-powerful, right? I had a specific person in mind. The song is about the sorts of hard questions that come up when somebody kills himself.

In Isaiah 45:23, “I solemnly make this oath–what I say is true and reliable: ‘Surely every knee will bow to me, every tongue will solemnly affirm.'” a similar thought comes through the lyrics:

If my prayer be not humble make it so
In these last hours if the Spirit waits in check help me let it go
And should my suffering double let me never love you less
Let every knee be bent, and every tongue confess

And I won’t get better, but someday I’ll be free
‘Cause I am not this body that imprisons me

I read the magazines somebody brought
Hold them to my failing eyes until my hands get hot
And when the nurse comes in to change my sheets and clothes
The pain begins to travel, dancing as it goes

And I won’t get better, but someday I’ll be free
‘Cause I am not this body that imprisons me

If my prayer goes unanswered that’s alright
If my path fills with darkness and there is no sign of light
Let me praise You for the good times, let me hold Your banner high
Until the hills are flattened and the rivers all run dry

And I won’t get better, but someday I’ll be free
‘Cause I am not this body that imprisons me

The acknowledgement that for some health conditions there is no ‘getting better’, but either a long enduring journey, or a slow slide into death. The refrain in the song is a powerful reminder that the present suffering does not have the last word – that my reality is more than the present physical pain. The song also reflects the suffering Christian’s frequent prayer – I know my prayers and offerings are inadequate, but the constant request is for God to please perfect the best I can offer.

The song also reflects the reality of some of the comfort that is offered – magazines people bring, that I can’t read because the pain dims my eyes.

I have the intent of setting out some reflections on a number of Mountain Goats songs that engage biblical imagery, but that will have to wait for a better day.

As a final, late edit, I loved this comment (from the same pitchfork interview) about the relationship between music and faith (JD says religion, but I think he means that word in the cultural sense and is really talking about faith).  One of the reasons I love music, listening and making it, is because it brings such a direct connection with faith.  I wonder how his atheist fans respond to this comment:

Which is the other thing. If you’re into music, you’re into religion, somehow or another. Religion, that’s the bloodline of music. The whole reason, I’m pretty sure, we have music on notation is to preserve chant– to transcribe what was going on, which we’re singing in order to describe the experience the divine. So there is that connection, which is part of the big appeal, to me, of churches– that there’s always something musical going on in there. That is making what to me is a pretty obvious connection between whatever we want to call divine and music, which seems permanently and inextricably bound.

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Written by sameo416

August 25, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this, Matt. I am always aware that you have this thorn in your side and don’t take it lightly when I say, “how are you?” Now I will also be aware of the true meaning of the place Jesus went where no one could follow. I will also check out the Mountain Goats. One thing though, you were going to reference the interview with Danielle. I am assuming it will be in a post to come?

    Mark Peppler

    August 25, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    • Thanks Mark. I have some extended meditations on Darnielle’s music that I have to set down, including referencing several interviews I’ve read and heard. I’m not really focused enough to draw the formal references in just right now, but it will come eventually.

      As a follow on note, I didn’t understand his song Genesis 3:23 until I heard an interview where he described returning to the house where he had grown up with an abusive step father. The song is figuratively about Adam breaking back into the Garden of Eden to see how the new people are living; but it’s literally about Darnielle’s return to his childhood home. That sort of duality is always at work as he uses the music to work through his life. I also think he has an understanding of the true depth of God’s grace that I’ve found instructive (Darnielle is a Catholic who knows his Bible).

      Thanks for reading. I know tomorrow will be another day.

      sameo416

      August 25, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    • Hi again Mark, I added the interview link and included a couple of quotations from the text. That’s the same interview where he speaks of his return to his childhood home I mentioned in my other comment.

      And I do know that people who know me ask the “how are you?” question sincerely – this is more a reflect of my internal struggles and some past experiences.

      sameo416

      August 26, 2014 at 10:07 am


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