A Pearl ... for the Brokenhearted 5
"O Pearl," quod I, "in pearls bedight,
Art thou my pearl that hast me pained,
Caused me to grieve alone at night?
Much longing for thee have I maintained
Since in the grass thou didst alight.
Pensive and pallid, I'm profaned,
Whilst thou, in life of liking light,
Art in Paradiseland with strife unstained.
What fate hath hither my jewel constrained
And me put into distress and danger?
Since we in twain were torn and taken,
I've been a joyless jeweler."
That jewel then in gentle gems
Veered up her face with eyes of gray,
Put on her crown of orient pearl,
And after that didst soberly say:
"Sir, you your tale have taken amiss,
To say your pearl is all away,
Which in a coffer so comely is closed
As in this garden gracious and gay.
Herein to dwell forever and play,
Where mishap or mourning never come near.
Here were a jewel box for thee, in fay,
If thou wert a gentle jeweler.
"But, gentle jeweler, if thou shalt lose
Thy joy for a gem that to thee was so dear,
Methinks thou art put to a mad purpose
And busieth thyself without reason clear;
For what thou didst lose was but a rose
that flowered and failed as all such turn sear.
Now, thru the kind of chest doth it enclose,
As a true pearl of price it's been proven here.
Thou takest thy fate as a thing to fear,
Tho naught's been made aught for thee, as 'twere.
Thou blamest the balm for they disease so drear;
Thou art no gentle jeweler!"
Here, with the maiden's first words to the Jeweler, we encounter what will be a continuing theme and, I suggest, the distinctive contribution of the poem as a whole. Let's consider it in some depth before letting the poet take it from there.
The father, full of the anguish of his bereavement, suddenly finds his lost daughter. More, she can now speak to him in the voice of heaven itself. The comfort he so needs and has so sought is at hand. In all sincerity and innocence he expresses to her his heartfelt condition. And she scolds him but good--and will continue to do so in stanza after stanza. His response is what ours would be: "How can you talk that way? Can't you see I'm hurting?" The poet is revealing some of the hidden assumptions that regularly underlie our own grief feelings.
In the first place, as was suggested earlier, grief of itself can be a very self-centered and self-centering emotion. When we are in the throes, it is hard to see anything except our own desperate need. Other concerns and other people with their concerns simply cease to exist. The maiden puts it bluntly: "You aren't mourning me; there is nothing about my condition that calls for mourning. Indeed, contemplation of my situation could be a balm to you. No, you are mourning (feeling sorrow for) yourself; you are lamenting only your own grief and pain. Your horizon has become constricted to the desire for your own happiness."
Despite his own protestations otherwise, the upshot shows that it was not for itself that the Jeweler valued "the peerless pearl" (whose beauty has now been immeasurably enhanced). Rather, he valued it for the enjoyment he derived from its possession--a consideration—a consideration of an entirely different order.
In the second place, grief has the effect of impressing us with our own innocence. "For me to hurt this much has got to be unfair; I couldn't have done anything to deserve this!" In grief, I know myself to be "poor me"; and I feel very strongly that other people should recognize me that way as well.
In such case, if we do look for sin ("What did I do wrong?"), we usually look in the wrong place. Certainly the poem nowhere suggests that the Jeweler had done anything that moved God to punish him by taking his daughter. No more had the biblical Job done anything to deserve his immeasurable loss. Yet both men had to repent of sin--the sin of grieving the way they did; of making the desire for their own consolation their only priority in life; of shutting out the possibility that God might have a purpose that included their suffering, a plan that went beyond simply getting them comforted at the earliest possible moment.
Still, in grief, it is as much as impossible for us to understand the grief itself as being sin. "Do you think I want to be grieving? Do you think I choose to feel this way? Don't you think I would be glad to feel otherwise if I could find any way of doing so?" Yet be that as it may, the gospel is not as impressed with our innocence as we are.
The third assumption lying behind much of our grief is the one to which the poem gives most attention. Certain of our own innocence, we proceed to invent the rather illogical equation that suffering somehow comes to count as merit. Because I have suffered, I now deserve special treatment. "How can you talk to me that way? Can't you see I'm hurting?"
We even have a common idiom for expressing the idea: "He's suffered enough already." Now in many cases that may well be so; and if the implied next line is, "Therefore he now deserves surcease, comfort, and joy," it does not follow. No, it is not my place to lay suffering upon any other individual; but neither am I called to make the judgment as to what constitutes enough in any situation.
Recall what the writer to the Hebrews tells us, that even Jesus "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). So if it should be that God has in mind for us a lesson to be learned through suffering and we haven't learned it yet, then manifestly it is not true that "we have suffered enough already." And anyway, it plainly is not the case that our suffering puts God under obligation to make it up to us with a commensurate reward.
And so the maiden of heavenly vision rises up to chastise her poor, grief-stricken, dear daddy. Yet we should know that this is not the first time such a story has taken so startling and seemingly inappropriate turn. In the Bible are two works that speak in a special way to the topic before us: the writings of the prophet Jeremiah and the book of Job. Because Jeremiah's is a personal testimony right out of the midst of his suffering, it may be the more powerful.
Jeremiah lived through a very rough time; and his personal fortunes reflected the agony of the nation itself. Jerusalem was besieged by (eventually to fall to) Babylonian armies. God directed the prophet to advocate surrender. In consequence, everyone turned against him. God forbade him to take a wife and have a family. His friends and relatives shunned him; and some of them even plotted his assassination. In his misery Jeremiah turned to God feeling that, under the circumstances, a little comfort wasn't too much to ask. And God's response?
If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan? (Jer. 12:5)
"Sorry, my friend, but you have not suffered enough already!"
It was not, of course, that God enjoyed being cruel or that he had forgotten Jeremiah or stopped loving him. In time, the prophet came to realize that--which realization itself bore fruit in a very pointed accusation against the social leaders of' the time:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, "Peace, peace," when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:14)
It could be that the charge catches the counselors of our day even more than those of Jeremiah's. The prophet apparently was referring to the counsel being given regarding the one particular political situation; we have made it the fundamental counsel of both psychology and religion. Whether regarding divorce, promiscuity, deceit, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, you name it, the word is "Peace, peace; there is no evidence here of any wound that needs healing. It is not our business what people do (or what they sell); it is for us to accept them as persons." We have become experts at "healing the wound lightly" (which, of course, is not to heal it at all) saying, "That's all right! That's all right!" when actually it is not right at all.
Whatever the grief or suffering, we are quick to assuage the hurt, telling the person what he wants to hear, giving him the sympathy and stroking he craves (and thinks he needs). This to the point that the noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger felt constrained to write a book entitled "Whatever Became of Sin?"
Yet Jeremiah became grateful for the true healing that came from the God who was willing to say, "Sorry, friend, but you have not suffered enough already." And the Jeweler will become grateful that, for his true healing, the maiden was willing to offend by telling him what he decidedly did not want to hear.
Job, too, in the face of total loss, innocently and sincerely turned to God, pleading, praying, begging, badgering, demanding that he come and make things right. God eventually came. Did he say, "Poor Job! He's suffered enough already. Now, now, that's all right! We'll make it all well!"? He did not! He said, "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2)--sounding suspiciously like the Pearl Maiden.
Job had not suffered enough and did not until, at the very end of' the book, he was ready to say, "I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). That lesson learned, however, and God immediately became all healing help, and comfort. Yet consider that, if those adept in healing the wound lightly had gotten to Job first, they would have botched the great healing, the great plan God had in mind for him. How many people in our day, I wonder, have been given "botched comfort" that left the wound unhealed?
But "repent"? Repent of' what? Job repented precisely of what we earlier called the sinful assumptions often lying behind our grieving. He repented of the self-centeredness that kept him from seeing anything except his own need for consolation. He repented that "poor me" had been so convinced of his own innocence that he was blind to the sinfulness of that very attitude. He repented that he had equated suffering with merit and consequently presented God with a bill for services due.
And as Job repented, he made a most interesting observation about himself: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you" (Job 42:5). He had known God only by what he had heard about him, a report that God was some sort of Super Santa Claus whom our innocent tears will bring running to make it all well as he pats us on the head and heaps our lap with candy. But now Job sees God with his own eyes and understands that God can work larger purposes than Job had ever dreamed--possible purposes that can include us, and redeem even our suffering. Thus Job learned the lesson that could be learned only through suffering. Yet, surely, the gain of learning to see God with one’s own eyes is well worth any suffering that might be entailed.
Yet, although God's word--"Sorry but you have not suffered enough already"--may be a sign of sin and a call to repentance, this is not necessarily the case. We do not know that it was so with Jeremiah; it definitely was not with Jesus.
In the garden, his heart ready to break with grief, he prays "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Mt. 26:39)--the same prayer that is prayed by the Jeweler, Jeremiah, Job, and ourselves. The difference is that we stop at that point (with the desire for comfort). Jesus appends a second sentence that takes priority over the first: "Yet not what I want, but what you want." And that does make all the difference, because it recognizes the possibility that the surcease of my suffering may not be the only consideration involved. Thus I become open to other priorities, God's priorities.
But the Lord God will not, in the instance of Jesus, heal the wound (humanity's wound) lightly; the cup must be drained. However, it is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who pointed out that this itself was the answer to Jesus' prayer: the cup could be taken away, although only by his draining it. Such, in effect, was also God's answer to Jeremiah; and we need always consider that it could as well be God's answer to our pleas for comfort.
Yet we should be eternally grateful that, in his extremity, Jesus went to God rather than coming to us. We likely would have said, "Poor Jesus, goodness knows you've suffered enough already; now you certainly deserve something better than death on a nasty old cross"--the redemption of' the world would have been botched.
In a somewhat different case (2 Cor. 12:7-9) the Apostle Paul, nowise guilty, was sure he had suffered enough already and so three times besought the Lord to remove the thorn in the flesh, his "messenger of Satan." But God said (and proceeded to demonstrate), "My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness." And Paul undoubtedly valued this lesson more than he would have the cessation of' his suffering.
Recall, finally, that, although upon his earthly leave-taking Jesus promised to send the Comforter, when that Comforter put in his appearance it was (not unlike the Pearl Maiden) in the form or "tongues as of fire"--a symbol, surely, of something quite different from the sympathy, stroking, and acceptance that we define as "comfort."
In another old poem--which, by its own logic, must now be classed uncouth--we are told: "Time makes ancient good uncouth." That is true; and of course it holds as well for Newsweek and all other pushers of update, downright fact. Undoubtedly our time has made the following analogy untruth as well as uncouth; but I proffer it notwithstanding.
When I was a kid with a cut cuticle, I had a choice. (Actually I didn't; but I always argued that I should.) I could have Mercurochrome. The advantage of Mercurochrome was that it didn't hurt and it looked nice (bright pink). The disadvantage was that it was more "chrome" than "cure"; the good it did applied more to the ego than the wound. On the other hand (no, on the same hand; but otherwise), I could have iodine. Iodine did some good. The trouble was that it stung like fury.
Now God is just like my iodine-loving mother--determined to do what is best for a person no matter how it hurts. When one's problem in the first place is the fact that he's hurting, it doesn't seem quite right just to make him hurt worse. And consequently, we have the word that Jeremiah addresses to our generation, saying, "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Mercurochrome by all means! You've suffered enough already.'"
Now of course, nothing we have said or that the Pearl Poet will say is meant to suggest that Christian comfort always must take this astringent aspect and never that of gentleness and balm. Obviously, scripture could provide many examples of the latter. But without at least the possibility of stringency, the healing work of comfort will never be full and true. This is the poet's argument; our discourse has been intended to help.
A jewel to me then was this guest,
And jewels her gentle sayings were.
"Indeed," quod I, "my blissful best,
To my distress thou bringest a cure;
To pardoned be I make request.
I thought my pearl was gone for good;
But now it's found, I'll take my rest
And walk with it through the bright wood
And love my Lord as he says I should
Who hath me to this bliss brought near.
Now were I with you beyond this flood,
I'd be a gentle jeweler."
"Jeweler," said that gem so clean,
"Why jest ye, man?" So mad ye be!
Three words at once you've spoken, I ween;
Ill-advised, forsooth, they were all three.
Thou wist not what in the world they mean;
Thy words before thy wits do flee.
Thou sayest thou believest me on this scene
Because thou mayest with eyes me see.
And then thou sayest, in this country
Thyself shalt walk with me right here.
The third--to pass this water free--
That may no joyful Jeweler.