There is a chill in the morning air. All we get of a backdrop is the expanse of the Judaean wilderness. This is Ivan Kramskoi’s 1872 painting of Christ in the Desert. On all those days spent in solitude, what thoughts did Jesus find himself steeped in, even as he fasted all those forty days?
All of us have experienced some measure of suffering, some pain or trauma, some grief or loss. “All I want is a day when the pain breaks,” Julie L. Moore laments in her poem “Recovery”. In another poem, she states matter-of-factly that “[t]here are infinite ways to suffer” and “[h]ow we struggle with the particular face of suffering”.
Our current time is marked by a world thoroughly altered by the pandemic, what James E. Cherry explores in his poems “The News From Wuhan” and “Social Distancing”. So does Jared Randall in “Trinity Lost”, with his opening lines: “It is too much for you to bend / you will break and you know / it. You know the deep hurt // is coming but you will break / you will not bend your religion / to small things: kneeling to a child // for a laugh, wearing a mask too, / admitting that maybe you could be / wrong.”
In “Anno Domini MMXXI”, Genevieve Wong ponders: “Can a heart race with / strange Aldersgate warmth, / the hope of life eternal, / when news cycles tell of / violent catastrophes, / wars and rumours of wars, / unseen viruses?”
Indeed, the world seems at war with itself, the ceaseless fighting that has become commonplace, the wrangling that seems to come from within and from without.
War delivers the tropes of hyperbole and spectacle. In Dennis Yeo’s “Resurgam”, we find an ekphrasis of Robert Capa’s memorable war photograph, The Falling Soldier, a documenting moment during the Spanish Civil War. Catholic priest Thomas Holahan revisits 9/11 in “Chandeliers of Saint Paul’s Chapel”, further contemplating the vagaries of violence at the Brussels War Heritage Museum with his poem “Fragile War”. In another piece titled “The Artist is Present”, Holahan perhaps provides us an answer to the whole question of suffering, writing “the dream that suffering / brings / is holy // the place / where we are found / is sacred // the one / who passes carefully through / is redeemed”.
Indeed, how do we weather our own suffering? How do these afflictions—however punishing for the mind, body or spirit—strengthen us? Do we endure with faith and hope, offering our own pain for the glory of God and for our eternal reward in heaven?
Susan Blackwell Ramsey takes on old narrative—there’s The Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, and Denmark’s King Christian X wearing the yellow star during Nazi occupation—and assuredly examines the inherent conflict, how resistance can enable the good and just.
As for Patrick Cabello Hansel’s “Ash Wednesday”, these are the words he lays out for us: “Teach us. Teach us / the song of unclenching the fist, / give us back our severed tongues, / shorn of their tender lies. Born / pure and broken, we stumble / through a frenzy of eating and war. / I cannot see you among the rushes, / but I hear you whistling me / a new skin, a terrible, strange / love. Here I am, Lord. / Brand me, bind me, / mark me beholden / in this dying sun.”
Perhaps all we are left with is the profound mystery of God and His ways, what is known as mysterium tremendum, how disquieting or overwrought the numinous can sometimes seem. How overwhelming it all looks and feels, from where we’re standing.
Both Kelvin Tan and Maryanne Hannan boldly address the phenomenon, with their same-titled poems of “Mysterium Tremendum”. Querying what it all might mean, Hannan leaves us with these two questions as stanzas: “What does it mean / that the one who, alone in the desert, / forewent the bread, refused the flight, / the power and glory of the evil one; / the one who grieving a sister’s pain, / put an end to Lazarus’ death? // What does it mean—for us— / that the one who hoped, / dared look at the heart of darkness / and call it Abba, / that he who did this / died on the cross: / Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?”