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About Suffering They Were Never Wrong, the Old Masters

January 12, 2017

In Greek mythology, Daedalus was the great craftsman, capable creating anything—which would make him a good web designer! He is credited with having invented the creation of visual images. And he came in very handy for King Minos when he wanted a labyrinth built to imprison his wife's son, the Minotaur—an admittedly extreme solution to a difficult blended family. But in any case, Daedalus was the man for the job.

 

Sooner or later, Daedalus fell out of King Mino's favor who eventually had him locked up in a tower on the island of Crete with his own son, Icarus. Naturally, father and son dreamed of escape. But their only way out was flight. And how could anybody actually fly?

 

Still, hope would not allow Daedalus to give up. An idea took shape: he began to collect the thousands and thousands of bird feathers that fell on the island. Over time he had enough that he could fasten the large feathers together with string, the small feathers with wax.

 

And one day the work was done. Icarus and Daedalus would fly to Sicily, free to live their lives once again. So, warning his son not to flap his wings too near the sun, for fear the wax would melt and the wings fall off, nor too near the sea for fear the sea foam would make the wings too heavy, Daedalus and Icarus set off.

 

But Icarus was a boy and curious. And the sun was warm and glorious. As he drew nearer and nearer to the golden glow, he could no longer hear Daedalus’ warnings; the wax softened and, flailing, he fell before his father’s eyes into the cold Aegean sea, a cloud of feathers a small, pale stain on the green sea, all that remained of Icarus.

 

The 16th-century Dutch artist, Pieter Brueghel, made a very famous painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” depicting the story (anachronistically). And in turn, the 20th-century English poet, W.H. Auden wrote a very famous poem about that painting.

 

Brueghel's painting takes in a wide swath of sea and land. In the foreground a man in European dress plows furrows with an ox. Mid-ground, a shepherd tends to sheep; he’s looking skyward, but there is nothing to see. A boy fishes at the water’s edge. And at sea, heading on its journey is a beautiful clipper ship, full sails billowing, joining the distance ships, bound for commerce.

 

But where is Icarus? We don’t see him. We see the clipper ship, the plowman and the shepherd. We see the hard-working plowman. We see the sun making sport on the water, raising a dazzling reflection in pale gold, marine blue, azure, teal and silver.

 

But you have to look hard to find Icarus. He's in the lower right corner, his death almost an afterthought, his pale legs against the shadowy green sea, the rest of him already submerged and gone. He is just a lone boy, dying. The world around him doesn't even notice.

 

And that's what Auden wrote the poem about. He saw, in Brueghel's painting, an attitude of resignation, of acceptance—or perhaps even worse, of indifference.

 

Referring to the European painters between the years 1500 and 1800, artists like Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vermeer and, of course, Pieter Brueghel, Auden begins his poem with these lines:

About suffering they were never wrong

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone is eating or opening a window or just

walking dully along....

 

As a graduate student, this became a joke among my geeky English major housemates and me.

 

A backed-up toilet, a bad date? "About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters:"

 

A tough medieval literary theory test? Yardwork? (We were subletting a beautiful house from a professor who was on sabbatical, but the downside of it was that we were supposed to tend to his yard and gardens.) "About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters:"

 

But in fact, the poem has important things to say about how we perceive suffering.

 

Auden writes,

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman

May have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

I think Auden makes a critical point: We are too often not aware of others' suffering. Like the people in Brueghel's painting, it's easier to look away. Remember when the Bush administration imposed a ban on showing photographs of the flag-draped coffins of our servicemen and women?

 

How many of us have changed channels, looking away from scenes of heartbreak and destruction? And we have this instinct—probably a preservation instinct—to become numb to statistics.

 

We try to tune it out so we can begin again and again with hope. And we need to do that. We need to have hope. But in every faith tradition I know of, you cannot have hope without the knowledge of—even the experience of--suffering. Suffering begins the process and hope follows, not the other way around.

 

I am brought back again and again—and sometimes rudely—to St. Paul’s passage in Romans 5:

 

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance ad endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

 

 

For St. Paul, hope is the result of suffering, not suffering the result of hope. That's good news—but it's good news precisely because it's so bluntly honest: There is suffering. We ignore the needs of this world when we try to deny this.

 

The Old Masters were right: suffering is a part of life, so much a part of life that we come to ignore it—until it comes to us. Then we, like Daedalus, losing Icarus to the sea, lament all the way to the sky.

 

And once we notice and acknowledge our own and others’ sufferings, suffering we cause and in which we are complicit, then we are freed to bring hope and redress into this broken world.

 

 

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.