My father once read me a terrifying Greek myth about the giant Procrustes. Everyone who visited Procrustes fit perfectly into his bed.
When a guest was too tall, he cut their legs off. When they were too short, he “stretched” them till they fit.
It was a one-size-fits-all bed.
* * *
Procrustean theology adjusts reality, stretches or shrinks it, until it matches one’s preconceptions.
It is particularly applied to suffering. “Everything works out for good,” Romans 8.28, people sometimes glibly say to those who are suffering.
Voltaire satirises this belief in Candide, which I read in my twenties. Candide endures an improbable series of terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad adventures with his tutor Dr. Pangloss who believes that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes. (Blithe optimism is finally battered out of them. Their eventual resolution would have pleased the author of Ecclesiastes. “We must cultivate our garden.”)
In a world in which Christians are reportedly beheaded by ISIS if they do not convert, and believers die from starvation or persecution, I cannot blithely say, “Everything works out for good.”
I would say instead, “God can make anything work out for good, because God is infinitely creative.”
* * *
Keats (once my favourite poet, now displaced by Gerald Manley Hopkins) praises “negative capability,” the capacity of tolerating “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Negative capability does not come naturally to me. I prefer things clear and simple. Come on, I joined Mother Teresa to become a nun aged 17, having finished school early. At Mother Teresa’s, life was clear and simple. You were told what to think, what God’s will was (obeying your superiors, and the rule) and wasn’t; what was truth and what wasn’t.
Ah, freedom from the responsibility to think. Until one started questioning the rules, and discovered that if you agreed with their wisdom and necessity, you couldn’t keep them.
(That is always the problem with the law.)
* * *
When, three weeks ago, I walked in alone out of the sunshine to the shadowy sixth floor Day Surgery Unit at the Churchill Hospital, it was like walking into Hades. I knew I would be wheeled out, unconscious. I considered running away, but the only alternative to surgery was aggressive chemotherapy or death, and the surgeon said surgery was the best alternative.
And anyway, I didn’t have the strength to run which sort of settled the question.
* * *
And now I live in negative capability, dwell in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
“Behind a frowning providence/ He hides a smiling face.” Does he really? I have thought as I turned over in bed in extreme pain from the surgical incision, unable to concentrate on reading or writing.
I thought of Milton. All he wanted to do from his teens onward was write something beautiful. He went blind in his forties, unable to write unless his sullen daughters transcribed his words
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me, useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker
Why did God let me develop a malignant polyp? I don’t know.
Will good come out of all these days in hospitals and nights in pain? I don’t know, though, of course, such an intense, intense experience stretches and changes you. It has forced me to learn to think positively to keep my spirits and energy high, and to pray, pray, pray, particularly because I am often too weak to do anything else.
Will good come out of my cancer diagnosis? I don’t know, though I expect so.
Will I die? Eventually, yes, though probably not of cancer, and not just yet.
And so I remain in negative capability, an eagle on the cliff waiting for the storm to pass, with more questions than answers, lingering in uncertainties, difficulty, doubt without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.
* * *
I love the Hegelian dialectic of the Psalms, their movement from unhappiness to acceptance to peace.
Why are you sad, oh my soul? David asks (Ps 43).
My soul was sad because I have had a malignant tumour.
My soul was sad because my surgical wound is infected
My soul was sad because I am physically tired.
My soul was sad because even my intellectual energy is limited.
My soul was sad because I do not know if the cancer has gone for good, though the doctors say that, as far as they know, they have removed it all.
My soul was sad because of this great interruption.
My soul was sad because I put off going in for a digital rectal exam and now I have had fifty shades of pain—surgical incisions and their infections; canulas, catheter removal, drainage tube removal, injected rectal dye for CT scans, daily anti-DVT injections, blood work, wound dressings…
* * *
David had many more reasons to be sad—hunger, thirst, betrayal, a bloodthirsty king, an army hunting him, parents who did not esteem him.
He listed the reasons he was sad, and then by an act of intellect and character decided to snap out of it
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.
And so I will. And so I have.
I will no longer be sad because I am a different person now than I was.
I will no longer be sad because I have a 60% chance of being alive in 5 years (70% if I take preventative chemo) and, oh, will I use those years well!
I will no longer be sad because there is nothing like the presence of death on the horizon to make you feel fully alive and joyful.
I will no longer be sad because having to make five year plans will ensure I use my time well
I am no longer sad because…well, I am just not. I have experienced peace, and joy and the presence of God over this month of being very tired indeed. (Believe it or not!)
* * *
When I went to boarding school, aged nine, St. Mary’s Convent, Nainital in the Himalayas, then run by German and British missionary nuns, I was dismayed to find breakfast was buttered white bread and either fruit or egg.
The only way one could get hot buttered toast sprinkled with sugar was to be sick and sent to the infirmary. I shocked everyone by saying I wanted to get sick.
Well, I was sick just once in eight years, aged 12, and on that occasion I refused to go to the infirmary.
I kept chanting, “I am as fit as a fiddle. I am as fit as a fiddle,” until Sister Josephine, my Irish class teacher said, “If I hear you say that once again, I will smack you.”
When she calmed down, she realised I was refusing because she read us a chapter from The Hound of the Baskervilles on the last half hour of every Friday, and I did not want to miss it.
So she promised to come to the infirmary and read it to me and I went.
* * *
The middle of The Hound of the Baskervilles is very exciting. The phantom Hound of the Baskervilles, with menacing gleaming eyes haunts Dartmoor. It is the curse of the Baskervilles.
At the end, all is revealed, it was human greed, cunning and villainy, nothing spectral or supernatural.
Even if we are Sherlock, we cannot work out what’s going on when we are in the middle of the plot.
But you know, I believe it will be a good story, because I truly believe that God loves me, and that he is a very good writer indeed.
God’s weaving, God’s weaving my suffering into something beautiful, but I am in the middle of the story, and I cannot understand what he is doing.
But, you know, I trust him anyway.