Living the Full Catastrophe

by Rev. Dr. Edward A. Frost

Presented 2012 February 19 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Log GA.

"Zorba, have you ever been married?"
Zorba answers his boss, "Am I not a man? Of course I've been married. Wife, house, Kids, everything...the full catastrophe!"

This really was not a lament on Zorba's part. He didn't mean that being married or having children was a disastrous state to be in. Zorba'a position before life was always one of amazement and his response to life was an outpouring of appreciation for its fullness and richness: life with its sorrows, tragedies, trials and inconsistencies. Zorba lived, really lived life, to its fullest–he was alive to the full catastrophe. His response to life–life as it is–was to dance through it, to celebrate it, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of failure and defeat. When his huge, marvelous, gerrymandered structure for moving rubble down from the boss's mine collapsed, he laughed like a child at the magnificence of its fall.

As he laughed with and lived with the world as it is, he was never weighed down for long. Katzanzakis wrote of his Zorba the Greek, "...he is […] never ultimately defeated either by the world or by his own considerable folly." Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn took Zorba's words for the title of his book, "Full Catastrophe Living," an account of the stress reduction clinic he founded and directed at Massachusetts General Hospital. From the first time he heard the phrase "the full catastrophe," Kabat-Zinn says, he felt that it "captured something positive about the human spirit's ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within even the most difficult trials room to grow in strength and wisdom." For Kabat-Zinn, as for Zorba, full catastrophe living means living in acceptance of the whole of life, saying yes to the enormity, the full range, of our life experience.

There are major crises in everyone's life. And, yes, there is disaster. But there is also the plethora of comparatively little things that add up. There are fires and floods, deaths and divorces. But there are also cars that won't run. Children who won't listen. Faucets that leak. Jobs that are menial or meaningless. There are bills we can't pay. Houses we can't repair. Bodies–ours or others–we can't heal. There are boyfriends. Girlfriends. Broken hearts. Broken eyeglasses. Traffic. Toothache. My mother had a saying–no doubt heard in your family, too–"It's always something."

The full catastrophe. What to make of it? How are we to live with it? There was a time–not so long ago in terms of the evolution of human understanding–when it was assumed that everything, from the mildly unpleasant incident to the horrific disaster, was divine punishment for sin or some misdeed. Our earliest forebears, often starving, dying in childbirth, short-lived through violence or disease, assumed there must have been a time when life wasn't like that. "They"–humankind that is– must have done something to deserve life as it is. And, for explanation, out of the depths of the human psyche came one or another myth of paradise lost, of first man and first woman, the introduction of evil, seduction, betrayal–and fall. Adam and Eve, blessed with paradise, not so much as a hangnail to begin a pile of woe. Nothing at hand for the makings of catastrophe: and they blew it. "Thou shalt not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." One thing they were not to do and they did it. Of course. Give a kid a bunch of red jelly beans and one green one, tell him not to touch the green one and what's he going to do? Well, you know the story: "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." Paradise lost. Out they went. An angel with a fiery sword was posted at the gates of paradise so there would be no sneaking back in. Henceforth, God said, humankind would earn their bread by the sweat of their brows and women would bring forth children in pain. Wife, kids, everything. The full catastrophe.

From that earliest story on, the faithful have assumed that what ills befall them is divine and just punishment for evil done, sins committed. The people of Jesus' time also assumed that catastrophe was divine punishment. Jesus himself assumed it. He said to a paralyzed man, "Your sins are forgiven you. Rise. Take up your bed and walk." Wailing and gnashing of teeth. What did we do to deserve this–whatever it is? For our faithful ancestors, there was no such thing as just having a run of bad luck. The crops wither and die. The cows sicken. The village burns. And priest and preacher pray to heaven that the sins of the people might be forgiven that this catastrophe might come to an end. The ill wind blows and listeth where it will. Seeking out the sinners.

Or–and there's another possible answer for what ails us–or it possible that our suffering means something? If not punishment, perhaps some deeper purpose. God wanted little baby for an angel. The virginal choir singer is stricken with cancer/polio/large truck so as to demonstrate to others the steadfastness of her faith. God sends AIDS to show how he feels about homosexuality. The Hebrew scriptures tell another ancient story–a story much older than the Hebrews who adopted it: in the story, Job stands as the supreme model of enduring faith in the face of divine caprice. In a bet with Satan over the faithfulness of the people, God rattles Job's once settled life and rolls him in dung and ashes. Job loses everything–crops, cattle. In the end, he didn't even have his health, as they say, but sat on a dunghill, scraping his sores. In the earliest version of this ancient story, before the Hebrews gave it a happier ending, the story simply ends with a devastated Job, but faithful to the bitter end. Why should you expect more? Or less? Job's own wife told him to curse God and die.

The story speaks to the bewildered faithful, suffering in spite of their righteousness. "Look at Job," God says. "There wasn't a more faithful man in all the land. And look what happened to him." If we are going to be good, the story says, we must be good for goodness sake, not for any hope of reward or fear of punishment. The lesson for the faithful in the ancient story was that there was reason and purpose for Job's suffering, cosmic purpose and meaning that transcended his suffering. Job couldn't know what the meaning and purpose was. None of his business. But he bore his suffering in the faith that God must have some good reason for it. Job's suffering demonstrated how immovable one's faith can be. The martyrs who went to lions and fires were inspired by the faith of those who went before them. The faithful whose children lay still, whose husbands mangled bodies lay in smoking foreign battlefields, whose own bodies are wracked by pain, are given stories of immovable faith by which to measure their own suffering.

The full catastrophe–the pain of birth, pain of death, a little time upon the stage only to shuffle off sans everything–all this can be endured if, perhaps, we deserve it or if, perhaps, it means something, serves some great purpose beyond our comprehension. But what if it doesn't? What if all the disasters and accumulating battering of daily life don't mean anything? Not even that we deserve them? Many people–perhaps most people–cannot bear that possibility. I have seen people who were contented skeptics all their lives, comfortable in unbelief, who, when terminally ill, reverted to their former faith. "No atheists in the fox holes," the self-righteous used to prattle.

One of my closest friends in a congregation I served, a young wife and mother, developed incurable cancer. In the hospital, after a long spiritual struggle, she turned to the young Methodist chaplain for comfort in her dying. I couldn't blame her. She needed her death to mean something. She needed an explanation for it. But I no longer had Job's faith in a God who had his own reasons for human tragedy. I had no meanings or explanations for death. Jane's parents had both died too young. Her brother had been a Navy test pilot. He was killed when his plane crashed. She was dying of cancer. She wanted me to tell her what it was all for. What did it all mean? What could she have done to deserve it all? She didn't want to hear that it was all part of the full catastrophe. She didn't want to hear that "suffering doesn't mean, it is." To say seek acceptance of what is in life sounds like, "Make the best of it." Had I said such a thing, she would have been incredulous. The tubes, wires, needles, beeps and blinking lights. "Make the best of this?" "Consider the sufferings of the blessed martyrs, my child" may work for Father, but it's not in my kit bag. The bottom line, as they say, dusted off and prettified, when it's set out there, is still "make the best of it."

Because that's what we do. When we don't have the ancient comforts of the faithful, when we have tried but can no longer entertain the prospect of paradise regained, eternal reward for earthly suffering–then what we do is make the best of it: Make the best of the full catastrophe. When we have severed the experience of suffering from its primitive attachment to punishment and when we no longer expect suffering to teach us something profound about the meaning of life, then we have the opportunity to make the best of suffering, rather than the worst of it–that is, to put it in its natural place in the fullness of life.It has been the way of western culture to lead us to deny the full catastrophe and to create a dichotomy between the good –what we like, appreciate, enjoy–and what we call evil–that which carries with it pain and suffering. We have so set ourselves over against suffering that, even if we no longer believe it the work of the devil, we still make it alien, give it power and intent. "Why me?" "What have I done to deserve this?"

With sadness, I have seen so many people nearing death waste the preciousness of their waning energy in the futile struggle to discover why death was happening to them. We deny pain and grief it's place in life. We do not let it in because, having given it such power, we do not believe we could bear its presence. Fear, anger, pain, grief–these experiences of our humanness have been made alien by our religions and so we are not intimate enough with them to know that we can endure them. Our cautious path through the thickets has its own pain and has cost us dearly. Some of us were trained by our parents–and have practiced diligently through our lives–to avoid the depths of our own being, to experience only the surface of life, to avoid what might cause us pain, including love. Yet only when life is embraced in its totality, only when we live in its depths and in all its corners can we learn that we can immerse ourselves in life's joy and also endure the suffering that is always near at hand.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught this gospel–this good news–of suffering and joy. When his church had been bombed and many people killed, he said this to the tormentors:

We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.
We will meet your physical force with Soul force. […] We will soon wear you down with our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win yours in the process.

My own foremost spiritual struggle these days is with the reality of my own illnesses, aging and mortality. I discovered in my meditation practice that I had allowed my heart disease to alienate me from my body. The surgical scar down the center of my chest I came to view each morning as the icon of my mortality. My spiritual task has become to honor my life as it is, my body as it is, my days as I have them for as long as I have them. To achieve equanimity–acceptance of what is–in the face of illness, loss and the inevitable closing of the full catastrophe is the greatest challenge and, ultimately, the greatest gift of the spiritual journey. And we must engage in that spiritual journey in a culture which gives us little help which, again, divides life into good and bad. In our culture, life is Good and Death is so bad that it hardly bears discussing. Youth is idolized. A golden calf and golden goose. Age and the aging are feared, disguised, put away or otherwise denied. Little wonder that so many waste their latter years in despair and go to their deaths not raging at the dying of the light but drugged and immobile.

One of the inspirations for my own journey has been the late Unitarian Universalist minister, Harry Scholefield. Harry, into his eighties, meditated in his garden each day at sunrise. He meditated with poetry he had learned by heart. He waited, he said, for the poets to come with their message for the day. He sat, in near winter, by an ancient tree is his garden and there came to him the words of Shakespeare in Sonnet 73,

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

For Harry, it was a peaceful companionship of fellow beings, of his own state shared with that aging tree. There is no regret of his own "time of year" and no dread of his own passing. Harry actually began his daily meditation when he first opened his eyes in the morning. He called his before-rising meditation the "Welcoming." It is to offer a welcome to what the day may bring. To welcome all that the day may bring is to practice living the full catastrophe, for it is not always easy to welcome all that the days may bring. The day may be a re-awakening to a deep loss. The day may bring us to the dentist or the surgeon. There may be an unpleasant confrontation to be faced.

When we have learned to accept the full catastrophe as being what life is, and when we have learned that we have the capacity to fill ourselves with all that delights us and that we have the strength to endure what pains us, then we can welcome each day and, in confidence, welcome all that each day brings. I am glad to have renewed my acquaintance with Zorba, for Katzanzakis gave us the most alive of beings to follow. Zorba was pagan in his scorn of either sin or salvation. He plunged as fully into anger, fear and folly as he did into joy and passion. He allowed the full catastrophe into his life and, even when it wracked his soul with pain and even when his spirit was tormented by the cruelty of which the spirit-dead are capable. He did not judge what came to him, but welcomed it all. As the only way to live life fully–to live the full catastrophe.