My son’s phantom ailments often set me to chuckling. After playing with some padded sticks recently, he informed me that he had broken his eyebrow; a sledding trip down a snowy hill resulted, he said, in a dislocated ear. Neither wound proved fatal.
The boy feels twists and twinges, good or bad, and interprets them into the language of pain and brokenness. Much as I may laugh at his verbal antics, I realize that I – that we – often do the same thing. I have experienced joy so intense that I thought my heart would beat out of my chest and pain so overwhelming that it circled round to an emptiness that threatened to engulf the whole world as far as the eye could see. And in their intensity, the deafening ecstasy and wrecking sorrow seemed only a hair’s breadth apart. The language of pain, I find, subsumes all these experiences, because each of them rips us out of our normal daily existence and forces us into a rarified air that mere mortals almost cannot breathe.
All this calls to mind the stories of priest and prophets, messengers and saints, who give us accounts of those moments when they felt most closely the touch of the holy. They too use the language of pain to describe these profound experiences. Isaiah, we are told, felt the touch of a burning coal on his lips when he heard God’s call; the image is lovely as metaphor, but translate this into the realm of practical existence and what you have is a scream of pain. Hildegard of Bingen felt the Living Light overwhelm her sight in such a way that her head would explode in agony. Mohammed has by some been labeled an epileptic because the touch of Allah on his heart would cause him to fall to the ground. The touch of the divine comes in ways that we find easiest to describe in the language of pain, mainly because we do not have ways to describe what truly transpires, how words like “ecstasy” and “agony” become mere playthings tossed around to describe the indescribable, categories that lose shape and meaning.
These uncategorizable moments – what they truly tell us, when we stop long enough to listen, is that all those moments of intense joy and unbearable anguish are blessings. We may use the language of pain and brokenness to describe them, but they are at the same time experiences of mystery and unity. Everything leads us to the One, though we do not always realize it.
My son, with his broken eyebrow and dislocated ear, is often a prophet for me, though not always so humorously. He – and all the wonderful people around me – have so much to tell me, to teach me, whenever I stop listening to their words and instead hear what the holy is saying through them. What a blessing.