01 August 2008

August Poem of the Month

and related thoughts on The Way of Exchange.

The poem below is a major revision of the July Poem of the Month, “The Curse of Co-Inherence.” As I worked through this poem with a critique partner, I realized that the focus was wrong. Rather than being a primarily positive poem in which the narrator is some kind of hero, the more honest approach was to explore the narrative persona’s fear of getting entangled in the other person’s pain. This, I think, is central to my confusion about Charles Williams’s doctrine of Co-Inherence—or, more specifically, to the application and practice of co-inherence he called “The Way of Exchange” or “The Doctrine of Substitution.” So here (and also over on the Coinherence List, a yahoo group) I’m going to write a bit about my three biggest problems with the Way of Exchange, and see if anyone has any thoughts.

You do NOT have to be a Charles Williams scholar to chime into this discussion; you need not have ever read his stuff or even heard of him. I’ll start by summarizing his doctrine. Basically, CW believed that all human beings (and especially all Christians, but only especially because they’ve been taught about it in their theology, not because they have any kind of corner on the market) are part of one another: We are members of one body. Whatever happens to one happens to everybody. So far, so good. But he took this belief to a literal extreme that I don’t think I’ve encountered anywhere else: we are a whole just as the Three Persons of the Trinity are one. God is Three; God is One. The three Persons exist in a loving relationship, yet are one single entity. So, he postulated, are we. This is Co-Inherence.

I’m OK with that, I think. But then there’s the practical application: The Way of Exchange. In this practice, people contract with each other to carry one another’s emotional or physical burdens for each other. Then they do it. So, let’s say one person has grief over the death of a child, and another has acute physical pain from an illness. The invalid agrees to suffer the grief, and the bereaved parent agrees to take on the bodily agony. And then they do it.

This is absolutely beautiful in CW’s best novel, Descent Into Hell. And I love it. It just thrills me! But I have 3 very serious questions about the use of this Doctrine of Substitution, as follows.

1. Is it Biblical? CW based this doctrine on the command to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of God” and on Paul’s exposition about how we’re members of one body. That foundation is clear to me, and thus I think I understand and assent to Co-Inherence. But where does CW get the idea that we can literally take someone else’s burden? Did Christ take all our burdens on Himself all at once on the cross? So why should we need to do it now? I think that the response has something to do with our calling to live like Christ, to “be Christ” to other people—but I still feel a bit uncomfortable, as if enormous spiritual arrogance is required to practice this Way.

Also, the whole idea that Christ’s Atonement is a Substitution (and thus the model for our small ones) might possibly be just one way of viewing what actually happened, metaphysically, on the cross. CSL pointed out that all our descriptions of the Atonement (judicial: He served our sentence for us; economic: He paid the price for all our sins; legal: He fulfilled the law in our stead…and so on) are metaphors. Yet every one of those “metaphors” depends the idea of substitution: Christ exchanged Himself for us. So perhaps that is where C gets it; but I still have a hard time making the leap from Christ’s once-for-all substitution that covered the sins of everyone (or at least of the Elect!) to the idea that we should and can therefore make personal substitutions.

2. Is it possible? I do not really see how this sort of Substitution could really work. It seems a sort of New-Agey mind-over-matter. Just because I think about, say, my husband’s toothache and wish I could take the pain instead of him, why should my thought do anything to the physical nature of reality? I know, I know; this sounds like a naturalist/materialist objection to miracles in general. Of course the Lord is able to answer my prayer (even about that toothache exchange) however He pleases, and to violate the natural laws He laid down. Didn’t He do things like that in the Old Testament? Yes, but… But I don’t know what, except that I have a hunch it doesn’t work that way. Is this just my lack of faith?

Well, let’s come at this question from a different angle: Has anyone done it? Have you ever sat down with a suffering friend and contracted to take his or her pain? Did it work? How did it work?

3. Who would ever dare?
Now, this finally gets to the heart of my thoughts and concerns, and also to the poem. I am something of a physical and emotional coward, and I don’t see how I would ever dare to take on someone else’s pain—I can’t even deal with my own. Yes, that’s part of the point: it’s easier to have someone else’s (just like how you can always think of the answer to somebody else’s question, but when you’re on the spot and it’s your turn, you can never think of the answer!). CW seemed to believe that when you offered yourself in a sacrificial, substitutionary way, Christ took most of the pain away and you were basically just imagining the other person’s suffering. So it kind of works itself out. But I am not fond of physical pain or mental agony, and I don’t know if, when it came down to brass tacks (is that the phrase?) I’d seriously make that commitment to take the other person’s, if it was really bad. Like burning at the stake, as in CW’s novel. I just couldn’t do it.

Christ could do it for me. But until I was convinced that it worked and was Biblically sanctioned, I’m sure I couldn’t make that leap.

And who could be spiritually arrogant enough to be such a hero? How dare anybody say, “I will be Christ for you in this situation; I will substitute my [better?] body and mind for yours and I will bravely shoulder your terrible burden even though I will then feel all your anguish.” Seriously! Who could do that?

It isn’t like that in Descent Into Hell. “But that’s fiction.” If I meet a doppelganger, then maybe I’ll be convinced that “this isn’t nonsense either.”

So, please, share your thoughts! And here’s that poem, much more honest now (I believe), and more about these struggles than about the nimbus of glory CW gives to Exchange in his writing—because he already did that.

The Curse of Co-Inherence

Do you see this skin, this arm? It is mine,
unmarred, unscarred. Cut it as you do yours. I
will not flinch, unless you do: it’s only vanity
that makes you think you are alone. You are not free
for arrogance, do not have leave to think your hand
is only yours. Your wounding enters me, you know.

I hold your sorrow, yet I wonder: Do you even know
what you are cutting, crying for? Here, here, take mine!
Take it—whatever it is—turn away those empty eyes
and use my tears to seal your weeping veins.
And yet, I fear this union, for the chill that freezes
you has blued and blanched my ministering hands.

Therefore I offer any-, everything, to stay your hand.
I give and try to give, hoping hard that nothing
hollow echoes your insides, shouts in your mind—
or mine. My willing and unwilling brain, my eyelids,
rivet to your, to our, agony. I blink in vain
and wonder how to warm you, yet stay free.

It’s a wonder anyone escapes the freezing
force of so much sorrow, that there are hands
free from bruises when every body knows
the blows that fall on every other flesh. My
fingers shrink in terror from transferred pain; my eyes
sting and blink away from the blue veins

showing through your cold skin, the veined
scars in wandering lines. Keep your cuffs over your freezing
wrists while I struggle to exchange my healthy hand
for yours. For there are lines, lines of some unknown
way chalked up between each ecstasy and mine,
each horror and yours and every body’s; a way that I

can take to comfort you. There need be no more “I”
for isolation; there is one human heart whose veins
in symbiotic cycle feeds the needy on another’s hope and frees
the freezing with another’s feverish vitality. From feet to hands
to head, through every grieving molecule, no
part is only yours; no blissful atom only mine.

You know, whatever tears you weep fall from twelve billion eyes—
but only I am near at hand. Do not let me sacrifice in vain.
Here, here: put on my sweater, lest I freeze.



Rosie Perera said...

I think it must be harder to imagine taking on someone else's suffering when the suffering is self-inflicted, as is the case in your poem. Anyway, I'm not sure that someone who uses self-injury as a way of soothing anxious thoughts would take very well to inflicting that injury on someone else instead. It wouldn't have the same effect, and would make them feel guilty, which might only compound the original emotional pain they were trying to alleviate.

Physical and emotional pain are very closely tied. If someone does anything to alleviate someone else's emotional pain, it can help with the physical pain too. The very knowledge that someone else has promised to carry some of my emotional burden can help it to feel lighter, whether any literal transferrence of the load takes place or not. These things lend some credence to CW's ideas on the Way of Exchange.

Although Christ's suffering was final and sufficient to bring salvation and heal all the world's hurts, there is still that mysterious statement of Paul's in Col 1:24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."

The Catholics have the concept of offering up their (inevitable) suffering on behalf of others. Richard John Neuhaus writes in As I Lay Dying of "the slow dying of Pope John [XXIII]. It was announced one day that he was offering his sufferings on behalf of the hungry of the world, the next day on behalf of prisoners, the next on behalf of unborn children. And so it went from day to day. He was going about his dying with a kind of craftsmanship, putting his dying to good use, wasting nothing." Neuhaus writes, of Col 1:24, "Not, of coruse, that there was anything deficient in Christ's suffering, but he allows us to have a share in his redeeming work, which can only be done through suffering." Neuhaus writes elsewhere (in Death on a Friday Afternoon), "When Jesus calls us, he calls us to come and die. We will die anyway. The question is whether we will die senselessly or as companions and coworkers of the crucified and risen Lord."

Here are some more thoughts on this topic, called "Redemptive Suffering" in Catholic theology.

Ann Ahnemann said...

I"ve written in Coinherence-1, the Yahoo group that deals with Charles Williams and friends, that I think CW's concept of substitution is made too complicated. Much can be done with a hug, a kiss on a kid's hurt, a smile- caritas.
I don't personally know of anyone who has literally taken on someone's physical pain. I do know many people who have taken on in prayer someone's pain and raised that person up to God. And I certainly know of that kind of prayer helping the person in pain. It happened to me. People prayed, I believed on it, on Christ's healiing power in my life. I had been diagnosed with multiple scleroris, a disease my mother's brother died of at age 52.
I was 30, very frightened. I lost the sight in my right eye, and had trouble walking very early on after the diagnosis. People prayed for me, I meditated and prayed, my husband held steady and just loved me. One morning driving to the school where I taught French, I thought I was able to see out of my right eye. Once at school I covered the left eye and discovered that indeed I could see out of my right eye. The doctors called it spontaneous regeneration of the optic nerve. I call it a miracle and credit it all to Christ Jesus in whose name people prayed.
For me, this is the essence of substitution. Christ has died for us all- Christ was and is the Substitute. To me, Charles Williams' substitution brings us, me, too close to pride. I wouldn't know how to avoid it.
And just a word about St. Paul's quote: the exegesis is that he was speaking of suffering as an apostle protecting the other apostles, wasn't he? That is not just my interpretation of that verse and that chapter.
But one must remember, it is _all_ centered in Christ. We do nothing on our own!

Iambic Admonit said...

Ann, thank you very much for sharing you amazing story of healing! Wow. I guess prayer is a kind of exchange, isn't it?

And Rosie; you're right. It doesn't make much sense to exchange when the pain is self-inflicted -- but then I want to go one step further back and find out what the real suffering is that is driving a person to self injury, and take that pain for them, whether it's insecurity, a sense of numb disconnection from reality, self loathing, or whatever. One of Ann's and my fellow co-inherence list contributors told a beautiful story of how she took someone else's pain -- and immediately felt as if the pain had been passed on, as if Christ took it for her. Wow!

Ann Ahnemann said...

Sorina wrote:
One of Ann's and my fellow co-inherence list contributors told a beautiful story of how she took someone else's pain -- and immediately felt as if the pain had been passed on, as if Christ took it for her. Wow!

And Christ is the key center. Without that, one has some sort of 'magic' operation going on- with the bearer of someone's burden as 'magician'. I've persoanlly witnessed things going in this very wrong direction in healing groups. Charles Williams in his writings on Substitution would agree that Substitution and Exchange centers in Christ. All the rest is pebble in that Living Water- spreading outward.
And sometimes one is led by the Holy Spirit to leave it all to God-that certain burdens are not yours to bear. Such may be of the character of the types of injury Rosie speaks of.
Redemptive suffering? Not being a saint, I'll have to continue to stuggle with that.
Blessings packed down and overflowing,

Iambic Admonit said...

But, Ann, I like to think of it as some kind of magic -- OK, let's say "miracle" instead. I like to think that when we are intimately connected to Christ, we can step out of the natural order of things and perform some kind of supernatural substitution.

But I don't think that's really what Williams was teaching. His prose makes that clear. Even in "Descent into Hell," he talks about how anybody can do it, and "you don't have to bring Christ in if you don't want to." Williams (and Peter Stanhope, I assume) believe that exchange is only possible because of what Christ did, the ultimate substitution, but also thinks that it's in the very fabric of how the universe, that it's how things work.

It just seems so FANTASTIC (in the most literal sense) in the novel. I want it to be more. And by wanting it to be more, I imagine I'm making it something less. An isolated, sporadic burst of supernatural something is less than an awesome weaving of all of creation and all people together in a spiritual interchange. And we're less responsible for using it if it's magic. So I need to reform!

Kimberly Kulp said...

Hi! It's been a long time, but I just HAD to comment on this one. Warning: This post will not contain high levels of philosophy or analysis, but rather a tired mom's experience!

I am not sure how this exists in ALL relatioships that God has created, but I do believe that there is a coinherence in the mother/child relationship. I physically hurt when my child hurts. I have seen my calming voice soothe his pain away and I have seen my paniced voice make the pain worse. Perhaps this is simply behavioral reactions to an intensely emotional connection. That's certainly one way to look at it. However, I like to think it is a physical connection born out of the emotional need of both parties. Regardless of whether the pain is self-inflicted, I believe a mother feels her child's pain, just as God must have felt His child's pain on the cross (and then felt the pain of turning away His balming love). As we are made in His image, I believe it possible, at least in the case of a parent/child, that this ability is transfered to us.

So, that's my experience with coinherence, a reality that both surprised, as my son is adopted, and ravaged me, as I was unprepared.
(My Favorite Langauge Arts Teacher: I am SO tired, please excuse spelling!)

Dorphl The Wise said...

I don't think it's biblical. In the Bible, Jesus was able to take on our burdens because he was God, but for any mere human being, it would be impossible (just in case someone already voiced these opinions, I haven't fully read the other comments yet.) And I think that any human who believes that they can do it is, basically, putting himself in the place of Jesus, which is sinful.
On the other hand, I do believe that it's POSSIBLE for it to happen. In fact, in my opinion, literally anything and everything can happen with the help of God, therefore I see no reason why it couldn't happen, only why it wouldn't.