"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Saturday, 27 February 2010

Lent, Consolatory ministry and the Wounded Healer

Well my experiment with the cellphone in the bathroom (last post) didn't do anything for me so I am back to the serious today!
We have just had our first Lent group - a house group of 12 people meeting once a week to discuss a theme. This week the subject was Isaiah chapter 40 - Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says the Lord.
What is comfort? What comfort does God offer us in times of need? Someone mentioned the additional gift of comfort afforded to those who themselves have seen grief, hurt or other affliction and come through it to be able to help others - of course the Wounded Healer.
This reminded me of the consolatory ministry and the healing prose seen in the consolatory literature of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps the earliest example of this was On Grief, written by the Greek academic and philosopher Crantor in the mid fourth century BC. This type of consolation was offered on the occasion of any human misfortune, but seems to have been used particularly to console or heal following the death of a loved one, often a child. The consolatory ministry was built around the belief that by writing about one’s own suffering the author is not only helping himself through his own difficulties but can be in a better position to help others in a similar situation. The soul or spirit was often implicated in this healing process. It reflected the healing vulnerability of the Wounded Healer.
There were many examples of this genre of literature, which developed well into the European Renaissance period of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. By then people were recognixing that  sorrow, misery, and misfortune could be matters for sympathy - up until then they were too often seen as stemming from sinfulness. Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, who lived in the fourteenth century, was well known for his self- care and self -analysis. ‘No one’s solace,’ he wrote, ‘penetrates a saddened mind more than that of a fellow sufferer, and therefore the most effective words to strengthen the spirits of the bystanders are those which emerge from the actual torments.’ He quoted from Virgil: ‘Being acquainted with grief, I learn to succor the wretched (Aen. 2.630).’
The consolatory genre surely survives to the present day in the spiritual works of Henri Nouwen and perhaps Michael Mayne, for example. It was only when I read Michael Mayne’s Learning to Dance that I discovered that he had been deeply wounded as a child, when at the age of three his father, with no warning, committed suicide and left his wife and son homeless and very poor. This, Mayne said, left ‘an immense emptiness’ in his life. He was writing a meditation on his life of faith when he learnt that he had cancer. As he struggled with his terminal and painful illness, he completed Enduring Melody,  which became his own beautifully written and moving epitaph. In an addition to Mayne’s obituary in the Times in November 2006, Canon Chris Chivers wrote of Mayne: ‘The letter he wrote to me…was full of down-to-earth wisdom, mixed with deep prayerfulness, and an all-too-rare ability to put himself in the shoes and soul of another. This will surely be the enduring melody of his richly sacrificial ministry.’ Mayne’s meditational books are steeped in wonderful imagery that helps us understand more clearly the ineffable, the God immanent but unknowable. In his vocation as priest he was clearly the very essence of the Wounded Healer to those who received his ministry.
Isaiah 40 raises issues far beyond this and I hope to cover some more in later posts. Do "misery memoirs" come within this consolatory genre I wonder?

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