SUFFERING is inevitable, it is part of the HUMAN CONDITION
Palm Sunday invites us to consider the call to take up our cross and follow in the path of Jesus through Holy Week and the journey to the cross that leads to resurrection. But what does this really mean for us within today’s world? Suffering is inevitable, it is part of the human condition and yet by learning to be still and come face to face with our pain and disappointments we have the opportunity to transform rather than transmit our hurt to those around us.
Perhaps the greatest of life’s suffering is when death visits us. In Julian Stair’s life size, red clay vessels, on display at Manchester Cathedral throughout Lent and Easter we are offered an alternative and tactile way of engaging with the universal ritual of death and bereavement, and a personal journey through Holy Week towards the cross. Drawing upon the symbolic language of the simplicity of earthy clay transformed into monumental presence through the chemical changes induced by the intense heat from the firing process, these monumental clay vessels provide for us a means of quiet reflection on our own earthly bodies and the words and actions of our funerary rituals, ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. These figurative vessels are made to house ourselves. Carefully measured to specific individuals, as unique as our own bodies, they act as containers for our souls, only to be returned to the ground that first formed them, thereby continuing a narrative that has been acted out universally for millennia.
Julian Stair’s body of work ‘Quietus Revisited: the vessel, death and the human body’ is a creative outpouring of a very personal seeking to make sense of a very painful time in the artist’s life. Having experienced the tragic and debilitating heartache of losing a child and latterly a sibling, he has spent the last decade and more on the slow process of working through the unanswered questions and mystery of loss and grief, gradually, piece by piece, in the creative act of forming haptic vessels for the body after death. Made from the earthy clay of the ground with the intimacy of his constant gentle touch Julian has found a material way to allow his darkest memories be transformed into objects of beauty. Through his creative generosity we, too, are invited to allow our painful losses to surface in the safety of this silent and sacred ancient space. These tall, impressive hand coiled and thrown pots tower over us, imposing upon our physical space like the darkness of our memories casting long shadows that can sometimes consume us. Stair works slowly, rhythmically, each movement carefully planned and rehearsed in the mind before his hands manipulate the wet, cold clay. It takes hours and hours of patient crafting, skills honed over many years to make these vast, shaped and intimate vessels.
What do you see? What do you feel?
The invisible presence of a loved one who has passed away is perhaps suggested within these hollow sarcophagi. Or perhaps we are confronted with our own frailty, the imminent certainty of our own eventual parting when gazing upon these contemporary body chambers. Death will eventually come to each of us and on our journey through life we all experience the darkness of loss repeatedly to different intensities. And yet, our contemporary lives make little room for understanding and embracing this part of our story. Amidst the constant noise and never ending images of city dwelling perhaps we have forgotten how to live with loss. In our pursuit of free choice we live in a state of denial that death will touch us and if the ultimate fear does invade us we adopt a language of battle, waging war against terminal illness, hiding our grief publicly and putting on a brave face for all to see rather than allowing the experience to change us, transform us and perhaps complete us. For death can bring with it some unique gifts. It can cause us to pause, rest and be still – to ponder and question; to discover acceptance and to perceive reality and mystery in new ways.
Stair invites us to share in his creative responses to death, to give space for the questions, the unknowing, as we try and make some sense of our existence. Ultimately he has chosen not to allow bitterness to overcome him, but instead to offer a creative and beautiful response to this ultimate mystery, transforming tears into beauty rather than transmitting them as anger and destruction. Quietus gives us no answer to the pain he has experienced, but shares something of his journey, giving us hope, showing us a way forward, not a path of denial but of a gentle acceptance of the unknown.
This is the message of Palm Sunday, an invitation to acknowledge our suffering and our personal journey to Calvary and to choose not to transmit bitterness anger and destruction, but instead to choose the gift of beauty, of resurrection and hope within the darkness of our souls journey.
Suffering visits us all at different points in our life, it is inescapable and a part of the human condition, but how we journey through these seasons can either mean that they destroy us or become an opportunity for deeper growth and inner healing. One of the essential tools for healing is the ability to be honest and open about our feelings, our questions, our anger and fear; to learn to listen to ourselves and to others in order to come to terms with our suffering. It is easy within our western culture to bury our emotions with activity and noisy distractions rather than face the shadows that enfolds us.
Quietly consider the following questions.
How do I approach the suffering I have experienced?
When have I felt listened to attentively by others?
Am I honest with myself and others about my feelings?
Am I learning to listen to my own interiority?
Do I believe that God listens to me?
Do I take the time to really listen attentively to others?
Have I experienced a sense of peace in my troubles?
“Having peace means knowing oneself borne, knowing oneself loved, knowing oneself protected; it means being able to be still, quite still. Having means having a homeland in the unrest of the world; it means having solid ground under one’s feet. Though the waves may now rage and break, they can no longer rob me of my peace.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One way of expressing feelings is through journalling. Find a quiet space and in your journal write a letter to God. Allow your thoughts to pour onto the page in a way way that feels helpful. Express your anger, your questions, your fears, your sorrow, the things you are learning about yourself and others. Be real and honest, for this letter is not intended to be read by anyone else, but it is a way of making sense of what you are really feeling in a safe context.
When your pain is overwhelming it is important to share how you feel with someone, a friend, a neighbour, your doctor, a counsellor or a priest/spiritual director. If you would like to talk to someone then please email us and we can put you in touch with a professional counsellor or trained church leader.