Nothing Matters, Everything Matters
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
I've lived in Pennsylvania my entire life--on the western side, with a history rich in Appalachian sensibilities and proud celebration of the various immigrant ethnicities that served as the backbone of major industry throughout the region (most notably, coal and steel). The Whiskey Rebellion occurred not far from where I grew up--a piece of history only tangentially referenced in the Hamilton musical!
This heritage is quite distinct from another rich heritage in Pennsylvania history: the settling of the Irish and Welsh Quakers, primarily around Philadelphia. The other side of the state. Even though my cultural background and family history has nothing in common with the Quakers of the 18th century, I've long admired the writings of modern Quaker Richard Foster and now also appreciate his son's, Nathan Foster, work with Renovare. Discovering Richard Foster in college with his life-changing book (for me), Celebration of Discipline, I more recently started reading another Quaker: Thomas R. Kelly, whom Foster credits as being a life-changing writer for him.
What I've always loved from reading the Quakers is the emphasis on the Presence of God. And how a core aspect of individual and corporate worship involves seeking this Presence. I learned through them that spiritual disciplines are not checklists but, rather, pathways for entering God's Presence.
Kelly wrote his book, A Testament of Devotion, at the beginning of World War II. Throughout the book, he makes occasional reference to the horrors in Europe at that time. He ultimately concludes that the experience of God's Presence, and the accompanying peace, is the most important thing to attend to, even with a terrifying war raging.
The section most relevant for this blog is a subsection within his chapter on "Holy Obedience," entitled, "Entrance into Suffering." Kelly says that suffering is a fruit of our holy obedience to God. The specter of the Third Reich looms large as Kelly starts this section,
But we shrink from suffering and can easily call all suffering an evil thing. Yet we live in an epoch of tragic sorrows, when man is adding to the crueler forces of nature such blasphemous horrors as drag soul as well as body into hell. And holy obedience must walk in this world, not aloof and preoccupied, but stained with sorrow's travail.
He then quotes a saying that he had recently pondered with a Hindu monk: Nothing matters; everything matters. I see that this saying has continued wide usage in various circles today, with widely varying application. Kelly himself doesn't belabor his interpretation of the phrase or why his conversation with the monk was an unforgettable one. He only says that the paradox reflected in this phrase is a key of entrance into suffering.
On my own part, I suppose I try to live out this paradox, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. Through prayer and meditation, I seek to increasingly enter into Peace, where the small things and sometimes even the big things don't throw me. Nothing matters--not in a nihilistic or hopeless sense, but in a, "Don't sweat the small stuff--and it's all small stuff" sense. I've tried to encourage myself lately to take a step back and ask myself if the thing that is bothering me will matter at all in 24 hours, 48 hours, 5 days, 10 weeks, etc.
On the other hand, everything matters, and Kelly hints that "sensitive eyesight toward the world of men" is what he means by this. We should increasingly be less up in arms about the truly inconsequential things that are seemingly so upsetting, and yet more sensitive-- increasingly sensitive--to the suffering and plights around us. Can we become less attuned and tender toward ourselves and more so toward others?
What does this mean for suffering? Well, it's not about simply removing it, says Kelly. That is an "adolescent" way of thinking. Kelly's thoughts again circle back toward war-torn Europe: "One returns from Europe with the sound of weeping in one's ears." Some in the 1930s and 1940s were caught unaware, thinking that their happy lives and sunny skies would last forever. But the darkness is inevitable unless one's soul is rooted "in Eternity itself."
At times like that, people are awakened to see that "the last vestige of earthly security is gone." We've been living in a time like that as well--current wars, economic insecurity, political insecurity, social upheaval, pandemics. The great gods of Science, Wealth, Health, and Authority are upended. Where do we put our trust? These are difficult times.
Yet Kelly points out, regarding earthly security:
It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven't believed it.
How sad that we Christians were also caught unawares during these current tragedies. We thought normal life was an unaffected/unafflicted one--that the middle-class experience of home and family, work and activity was the Real Life and any deviation was the aberration. We inadvertently make our sense of security dependent on how healthy we are at a given time, what our retirement account looks like, and the satisfying sense from social media that since many others think exactly as we do, we must be right and that makes it all ok. Yes, we were vaguely aware that for billions around the world, this is not their common experience of life. For them, illness, poverty, and upheaval are the norm and not the aberration. We volunteer on occasion to help those in this plight around us and donate to those afar. We do what we can. But for us, we put our trust in a different reality--that for us, things will always go relatively smoothly. We're quite upset when it doesn't.
As Kelly puts it, speaking to his Quaker brothers and sisters,
And some of us Quakers are not yet undeceived, and childlishly expect our little cushions for our little bodies, in a world inflamed with untold ulcers. Be not fooled by the pleasantness of the Main Line life, and the niceness of Germantown existence, and the quiet coolness of your well-furnished homes. For the plagues of Egypt are upon the world, entering hovel and palace, and there is no escape for you or for me. There is an inexorable amount of suffering in all life, blind, aching, unremovable, not new but only terribly intensified in these days.
If you're still reading this, I know this is something that you don't want to hear. I don't want to hear it. It's been exactly a year since we received the diagnosis of our daughter's sarcoma in her leg. One year is not a very long period of time at all, and we are currently in-between a 3-month interval of tests to double-check that cancer hasn't returned. The last round went well, and we are taking the doctor's advice to enjoy our summer. Put these things from our mind for now. We have to. Psychologically, it is traumatic to live with a constant sense of doom. No one can live like that. And that's why it's understandable that we lapse into a type of childishness, as Kelly says. We can't live our lives constantly thinking about the horrors around us. That would be unhealthy. Some do this, and they are more dour than helpful to everyone around them.
And yet, the constant denial we all live in is also not the answer. We see the problem with it when even the slightest difficulty comes our way. Anger, irritability, sadness, and distress. Why are we so thrown by what is normal for scores of others?
Looking to Jesus' example, I see that He was very comfortable pointing out paradox and simultaneous realities. In fact, it seems like He made a point of it, often reminding His listeners during times of joy that pain is a present and future reality, as well as offering comfort to the distressed through reminders of what is really real.
For examples of the former, we have John's account of the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12). It's a spectacular display, filled with joy and celebration and obvious symbolic reference to Messianic prophecy, which the apostle John helpfully and directly quotes in his account. They want to make Jesus the king! Some outsiders--Greeks--also observe it and ask to meet Jesus. Jesus give His most direct acceptance of the praise to-date, saying, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." But what He actually means is perplexing to His hearers. He shares the grain of wheat metaphor for His (and our) death,
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
Jesus, true to form, takes this moment of celebration to tell His followers that He's about to be crucified, but that there is purpose and even necessity to it. And, we get a hint of what the apostle Paul later develops as a theology of suffering and really the whole basis of the Christian walk-- the whole point is to lose your life! Holding to it tightly will result in disaster. We see it in those who lead a hedonistic existence, how the fruits of it are selfishness, smallness, and shallowness. True and deep satisfaction remains elusive and the individual, essentially an addict, is driven to seek alternate and increasing sources of pleasure and meaning. Holding on too tightly to what you think your life should be is the way of disaster, psychologically. The Greek base for "to hate" used in this passage has to do with denouncing and renouncing. That totally makes sense. We renounce the white knuckled grasp we have over our imagined path in life, and relinquish it to the Lord. That is the path to eternal life. Nothing matters, and everything matters.
What about the reverse--Jesus comforting those whose present reality is one of distress and dismay? We see this in the subsequent pages of the Gospel of John. He's now with his disciples, and they're pretty sad. They got the message that something bad is about to happen. They've staked their whole lives on following Jesus and are hurt and confused that at the very moment where they must be thinking, "Finally, he's going to usher in the New Israel," he instead is saying it's all about to end. To this group, Jesus says (in John 14),
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.
So, the paradox is this: his disciples want the promised triumph of Israel but the means to it is the exact opposite of what they're expecting. Jesus needs to "fail" in order to win. And so do we. But the ultimate triumph is astoundingly bigger and grander than what we can even imagine. It's not that the oppression of Israel didn't matter at all. It mattered a ton, and God Himself came personally and spent 30 years caring for the Jewish people around Him and fighting back supernatural forces as well as natural ones--based on Jesus' actions and words, the religious powers-that-be were far more problematic to him than the Roman oppressors. But "everything" mattered a whole lot more--the deliverance was for a scope far greater than a specific people at a specific point in history. It's for all people, at all times, in all places.
This is the scale and scope we're invited to see, that in the midst of darkness, we are called to and part of. And the path toward it is through Presence. He IS the way. He IS the truth. And He IS the Life that all of us who are "rooted in Eternity itself" have our hearts drawn inexorably toward.