By: Jessica Coblentz
Last Sunday when the story of Jesus’s passion finished, the presider at Mass deliberately sat down in his chair and said nothing. Silence crept over the large urban sanctuary, accented by sounds of squirming bodies and the echo of children crying. All noise fell away against the force of the hundreds who sat there, saying nothing.
In the silence that followed, I recognized something familiar.
Dorothee Sölle examines “mute suffering” in her theological classic, powerfully and abruptly titled, Suffering. Mute suffering, she explains, is also a “blind” and “deaf” suffering; it is entirely isolating. Her insights emerge from an intricate theological mediation on suffering across the globe during the twentieth century. Through a seamless movement from poems of the Nazi concentration camps to scenes of poor children in Hanoi to the voices of destitute factory workers in Düsseldorf, she conveys what cannot be communicated about “unbearable” suffering.
The unspeakability of mute suffering is tied to its blindness and deafness. I learned this first-hand four years ago when I was grasping for words. After small bouts of depression since my youth, the condition took over my life with inestimable force. For a year and a half, I could not hear a word of comfort above the drone of distraught voices that filled my head. Depression blinded me from the books that had long been good company. For months I could barely read or write, for my eyes jumped between words and nothing of substance emerged. All I could see were vivid dreams of death that visited me at night if I managed to sleep. I had never imagined that one could be non-suicidal, as I was, thankfully, yet unceasingly haunted by death.
Amid all this, I could not communicate my overwhelming pain. Initially I was too afraid of the vulnerability it required. But when I was too desperate to cling to pride, I simply couldn’t say it. To the close friends who accompanied me and my family on the other side of the country who strained to be present, I could not begin to convey what I lived. “There are forms of suffering that reduce one to a silence in which no discourse is possible any longer,” observed Sölle. “There is really nothing one can say about this night of pain, whether we find it in insanity or in an incurable disease” (69).
There was a great deal that needed saying while I suffered silently. Yet communication is predicated on connection—on the kind of “common language” that Adrianne Rich dreamed of in her poems—and I could not relate to anyone. All the words I once relied on for communication no longer resonated with what I felt: What “sadness” denoted didn’t apply. “Despair” and “guilt” were likewise unsuitable. Meanwhile, blind and deaf to the world beyond my pain, I couldn’t conjure any alternative language. There was only existential silence. Disconnection. Isolation.
Sölle suggested that this was the kind of suffering that Jesus experienced in the garden of Gethsemane. There, “Jesus prayed that he would be spared the agony that lay before him,” but instead he remained “alone with his repeated cry, his fear of death, his insane hope, his threatened life” (79). Jesus could no longer trust in the consolation that had fueled his bold teaching and healing. He no longer felt the companionship of his disciples. Even his Father felt distant, even absent. Everything and everyone that had grounded his identity and sense of being-in-the-world fell away that night in the garden. It was as if his life had already been taken from him, which is why Sölle observed that “in this night’s agony the crucifixion on Golgotha is already experienced” (81).
It is possible to experience an interior death, a death in which “the ground on which life was built, the primal trust in the world’s reliability—a reliability conveyed in many diverse ways—is destroyed” (86). The unbearable suffering of Gethsemane was an interior crucifixion, a terrible prelude to the physical abandonment and death that Jesus would encounter the next day. And there are no words for speaking such pain. I know because I survived the interior death of depression, my own unbearable passion: “There is really nothing one can say about this night of pain, whether we find it in insanity or in an incurable disease”—or in the garden, or in the cross.
It was my own unspeakable suffering that I recognized in the silence of our congregation last Sunday. I remembered what it felt like to be blind and deaf and dumbstruck with pain. For the first time I leaned into the silence of the passion, wondering if silence had been terribly familiar to Jesus too. I held my breath, pondering what he felt. I bowed my head. I listened.
Perhaps I’d never before recognized the mute suffering of Jesus because we often focus our Good Friday gatherings on the words of Christ. We read the passion story and we preach the Seven Last Words, the famous sayings of Jesus during his passion. Such practices continue to be compelling for me, and, to be sure, we must speak in the face of agony, even in the face of what is unspeakable. Lament is our tradition of prayerful protest about such pain. Prophecy exhorts us to transform the structures that cause or magnify or pacify us amid the suffering of those around us. Yet, preceding lament and prophecy is a suffering that cannot be spoken—mute suffering. We might learn something by attending to the unspoken realities of the passion narrative, too.
What if we focus today on what could not be said along the long walk to Golgotha? Might this help us attend to the unspeakable suffering in our midst today? There might be blind and deaf and mute suffering sitting right there next to you on the church pew. Are we listening for it? Maybe you can’t. God forbid, you are deaf and blind and mute with your own pain. Perhaps you will recognize your suffering in what can’t be said in Jesus’s story today.
Jessica Coblentz is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Boston College. She’s writing a dissertation entitled, “Depression, Salvation, and the Human Person.”