The School of Misery

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Home-schooled in misery — Oh, for the wisdom of Aeschylus

Photo of Roman bust of Aeschylus after Greek bronze hermaphroditism (340-320 BCE).

I, schooled in misery, know many purifying rites, and I know where speech is proper and where silence.”

Aeschylus, Greek playwright known as the Father of Tragedy (c. 525/524 – c. 456/455 BCE)

In the school of misery, we know to wash our hands. Knowing when and where to speak one’s minds or hold one’s tongue is harder. In Aeschylus’ time, it required the wisdom of the gods or the wisdom of Solomon.

The Intelligence Test

“COVID-9 is not just a disease. It’s an intelligence test,” wrote sportswriter Jim Souhan in response to Major League Baseball’s idea of bringing all 32 MLB teams to Phoenix where they could play out the 2020 season. The teams would be quarantined at night in area hotels; the stadium seats would be empty to keep the players safe. “COVID-19 is not just a disease. It’s an intelligence test.”

Easy speech is not only pointless in 2020. It is dangerous. But so is silence. In the school of misery more than one kind of intelligence is required. Maintaining emotional balance in a time of plague is a test of courage and compassion. Albert Camus’s The Plague, whose heroic character is not the priest, but the doctor serving among the sick and the dying, comes quickly to mind. So does the crucified-resurrected Jesus’s strange encounter with Thomas.

The Courage of Compassion Test

The Incredulity of Thomas — Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1573-1610

Caravaggio paints what readers unschooled in misery are not likely to see in the text –the continuing presence and voice of the crucified-risen Christ in the Gospel of John 20:27: “Thereafter he is saying to Thomas . . . .”

Known for his gritty realism, Caravaggio has Jesus grasping the hand of the apostle Thomas and thrusting it deep within the wound at his side, powerfully aligning Jesus’ and St. Thomas’ hands to form a lance. St. Thomas’ face expresses profound surprise as his finger thrusts deep into Jesus’ wound. Perhaps, the surprise has to do with his unbelief. It could also be surprise at the realization that he, too, is pierced. Indeed, St. Thomas appears to clutch his side as if he becomes aware of a wound at his side as well. And we who wince at this gritty depiction feel a wound at our side as well.” — Edwin David Aponte, Handbook of Latina/o Theologies, Chalice Press, 2007.

“I will meet you there — wherever the wounds are.” “My Lord, and my God!”

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, April 21, 2020.