By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published August 18, 2016
Life is hard.
“Well, now, Dr. King,” you must be thinking; “how profound! You mean to tell me that in all your years of experience you have at last discovered that life is difficult?”
Yet it is true. Life is hard.
If I were to share with you all the many minor crises and complexities and hassles of my current state of affairs, I would use up my allotted 1,500 words in a matter of moments.
You could do the same.
Thomas Merton put it much more eloquently when he wrote that “life moves on inexorably towards crisis.” Yet Merton goes a bit further. Life is indeed characterized by struggle, but Merton asserts that even as we constantly confront crisis, we also move continually toward “mystery.”
I know of very few books which express the essence of that statement as beautifully as Elias Marechal’s wonderful meditations collected in “Tears of an Innocent God: Conversations on Silence, Kindness, and Prayer.”
Brother Elias is a monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, and his book was published by Paulist Press just last year. Already it has garnered splendid reviews and attracted many appreciative readers, almost all of whom feel compelled to tell others about the book.
Carl McColman, one of the authors who contributed a blurb for the text, wrote that “‘Tears of an Innocent God’ celebrates divine grace and love through poetic storytelling. Its meditative wonder and contemplative insight inspire me to tell others, ‘you must read this!’”
So it was that in a difficult spring, preceding an even more complicated summer, that two people wrote to me imploring me to read and review Brother Elias’ book. At first I was hesitant. I confess that I am sometimes weary, and wary, of reading books of “spirituality.” The bookshelves are full of such texts, and I often wonder what else there is to say after considering all that Merton and Lewis and Nouwen have done, not to mention the treasures of our ancient Catholic tradition and the work of a few notable contemporary writers such as Thomas Keating and James Martin. One is easily exhausted merely by the prospect of tackling all the wonderful masterworks of the contemplative tradition. There is simply so very much to read.
T.S. Eliot argued that the artist is nonetheless compelled to add his voice to the chorus that precedes him, and if the writer succeeds, his text alters the order of the canon or “tradition” that already exists.
Brother Elias has managed to achieve that difficult task. “Tears of an Innocent God” is one of the most profound and moving books of spiritual insight I have ever read. I now fully understand why Mr. McColman and my two colleagues insisted that I not only read the book, but that I share it with you as well.
Reviewing this book is no easy task. In fact, I would like simply to say to you “you must read this!” and be done with it, for my reading of the book will not be your interpretation, any more than your experience of the book will be the same for the person with whom you choose to share it. And you will share it, be assured.
When I began reading the book, I found myself dog-earing pages to mark passages that I found particularly striking. Halfway through the book, which at 200 pages is a masterwork of brevity and immediacy, I discovered that I had creased almost every other page. The book simply abounds with one marvelous insight after another. This is one of those rare treasuries that can be read repeatedly simply by opening a page at random; wherever the reader’s glance happens to fall, he will find something relevant to the struggle or suffering of the particular day.
I would in fact recommend that the book be used that way. Consider it a kind of vade mecum, a companion that can be consulted at any time—even if just for a moment—as a means of gaining insight or bolstering faith.
Brother Elias, however, has assembled the book in a wise and careful way so that it can also be read with a more programmatic approach. The book is divided into five “Conversations.” In order, they are titled “Of Silence, Kindness, and Prayer,” “The Tears of an Innocent God,” “Tales Heard at Low Tide,” “A Journey Waiting to Begin,” and finally “All I Ask Is that You Listen.” Each conversation consists of short meditations, reflections and stories and concludes with what Brother Elias calls a “Practice.” The five practices are titled “The Prayer of Gratitude,” “Imagination in Scripture,” “Centering Prayer,” “Seeing through Our Thoughts,” and “Dealing with Afflictive Feelings.”
An added treat is that throughout the text Brother Elias includes relevant epigraphs from a wide variety of spiritual masters; while reading Brother Elias, one also feels compelled to return to, or perhaps discover, the work of the other writers he quotes.
The depth of Brother Elias’ spirituality is profound, and it contains a breadth of experience that many of us will never achieve. Though he is obviously a Catholic monk, Brother Elias has studied the major religions and contemplative traditions of both West and East. He has travelled to remote places and studied and prayed with spiritual leaders most of us can only imagine. In fact, one might describe the book as the account of a journey, and the journey motif is certainly important. But if I had to choose one word to describe the essence of the book it would indeed be what Brother Elias references as “Dabar,” which means literally “word.”
Brother Elias explains that “this Hebrew term means far more than sound or meaning. Dabar is divine, creative, life-sustaining, and life-giving energy, a transforming power come to us from beyond. It may arrive at any moment.”
The epitome of Dabar, or word, is of course “The Word,” Jesus Christ, who though divine humbled himself to take on fully our own humanity. At the core of “Tears of an Innocent God” is Jesus. To read the book carefully, whether through a structured approach or in a way that anticipates serendipity, is to encounter Jesus. As the Word, Jesus himself becomes the essence of the words that make the book.
Brother Elias knows that Jesus, the full splendor of Word, comes to us all in many different ways. The Word is not confined only to language, though Brother Elias knows the transcendent mystery that language reveals. Jesus comes to us in art and in music. Jesus comes to us through the sacraments. He comes to us in the form of people in need. He appears in the midst of great suffering. He is there in grief. He is there in agony. He is present in pain. He is at the heart of all religion, meditation and prayer. And in all the distraction and affliction of the world, Jesus desires only that he have communion with us. Jesus is hope. Jesus is joy. Jesus is love.
You know all of this, or you once knew it, or you are still waiting to find out. But Brother Elias assures the reader that whatever her situation in life, Jesus is waiting for her.
Now saying all that is one thing; revealing it—showing it—is quite another thing than telling. Like all great teachers, even Jesus himself, Brother Elias knows the power of story. He knows that narrative is crucial to genuine understanding. Jesus taught in parables, stories. Brother Elias does the same.
Drawing upon sources as diverse as his own youth in New Orleans and his many travels, as well as stories paraphrased from great writers and from Scripture, and incorporating also anecdotes and allegory, Brother Elias becomes as much librarian as writer. The reader delights in the wealth of knowledge Brother Elias shares, for it is sharing not done to show off how much he knows, but rather a joyful invitation that you come to know it all as well. Reading “Tears of an Innocent God” is much like being in a classroom with a great teacher; in fact, as I read the book, I thought many times of Merton’s sincere appreciation for his own teacher, Mark Van Doren.
Merton again. I imagine that any contemplative writer, especially a Trappist monk, labors under the anxiety of Merton’s influence. Is it even possible to read or review the work of a Trappist without thinking of Merton? In the case of “Tears of an Innocent God,” we have a new and genuine voice. It is a voice that contains all of Merton’s wisdom, and a voice that expresses itself in beautiful language. But it is a new voice, and it is above all imbued with compassion and empathy. Reading the book, I felt as though Brother Elias cared about me, that he wanted me to be rid of all my little troubles.
Toward the end of the book, Brother Elias quotes Dorothy Day: “No one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much to do.” Brother Elias puts it this way, “Should you experience a feeling that oppresses you, observe where it predominates in the body. Breathe in its black smoke and allow the Great Heart to transform that dark energy into life-giving light. Then send it back to the afflicted area. Continue as usual.”
Read “Tears of an Innocent God.” Nothing, not even your troubles, will seem quite the same.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.