Suffering Imperfectly

· Suffering,Compassion,Bible,Ethics

In early 2008 I attended a Pontifical Academy for Life conference at the Vatican. The Academy was discussing end-of-life care which, conveniently, was the topic of my PhD dissertation. (It was also a nice excuse to visit Italy.) My studies helped attune me to the complex, sensitive matters of death and dying. But it would take another five years before I experienced deep suffering and faced my own mortality.

Close to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica I saw it: Michelangelo’s Pietà, a sculpture from his earliest years of work that would make his name known the world over. I saw the crucified Jesus, clothed only in a loincloth, face falling back and out of view. It is his wounds and his death that are on display. But my eyes were drawn instead to the figure holding him: Mary, his mother.

I am reminded of how Mary is described in John’s gospel: so sparely that we might think of her character as little more than symbolic. The second and final time she is mentioned in is at the cross, watching her son die. And here, in this marble, she grieves beautifully. Smooth and pale, her small, maiden face with downcast eyes reveals a quiet agony not yet marred by tears. Her body, in contrast, is large, weighted down with folds of fabric and the burdens of life and death. Like a new mother, she holds her son across her lap as a baby. Her right hand cradles him; her left is open as if to say, “Why?” Sitting still in the shock of grief, here is the symbol of the Madonna whose very soul has been pierced. If suffering can be perfect, it is perfect in the Pietà.

But suffering cannot be perfect. Michelangelo must not have known this in his early life.* 

Add to this that the perfect Madonna is a distant Madonna. Those of us who try to take her in are removed from her perfect suffering by a shield of bulletproof glass.

A more recent piece of art stands out against Michelangelo’s Pietà. The main floor of Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre is graced by a sculptured plaque. Mounted close
to the MRI department, I have passed it dozens of times en route to receive regular scans. It is also near the neurology clinic where I received the diagnosis of brain cancer on the most miserable day of my life. My first memory of seeing the piece was when I left that clinic for the bitterly cold Winterpeg streets, feeling nothing like my former self, only monstrous in appearance: an unpresentable sufferer suffering imperfectly.

broken image

Here the crucified Jesus, clothed only in a loincloth, reclines. That’s about where the similarities to Pietà end. My eyes are immediately captured by Jesus’s face because it lolls toward me, his tightened brow marking his suffering. No smooth marble to be found
here. Only bronze dull with oxidation. The metal appears to be pocked, creating shadows, giving the illusion that it has been forced, even hammered into shape. With each pockmark I can feel the vibrations of the blows. The violence Jesus has suffered resonates inside me.

Jesus is so central to the piece that I walked by the plaque many times before noticing he is neither alone nor held by his grieving mother. In her place are two robed figures. Their faces and bodies are shrouded in hoods. Only one hand between the two of them is visible. We are given no identity clues. No age, no gender. But drawing on the narrative of scripture, I believe they represent Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council who dissented from their judgement to have Jesus killed, and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who had once sought out Jesus in the dead of night to be taught by him.

In no way do these figures resemble perfectly suffering Mary. Their rendering is not of quiet grief but of movement and action. They appear to have rushed in to care for Jesus’s
body just removed from the cross. The figure closest to Jesus’s head supports his back while the other enrobes Jesus’s feet. Before nightfall, they need to prepare the body for burial at a more dignified place: Joseph’s own tomb.

Like Jesus, they are pocked. They’ve been dealt a blow. It is fitting, then, that the sculpture’s name is Compassion, literally, “to suffer with.” At its base is carved a message drawn from Jesus’s temple witness:

“To heal the broken hearted—to set at liberty them that are bruised”

This is followed by a dedication:

In appreciation of all those who by their devoted labours and generosity have made it possible for this hospital to serve the community.** 

The perfect Pietà sits for all to see but none to touch. Compassion, in contrast, is seen by relatively few people—only people who make the hospital their home: people sick enough to be there, their closest loved ones, their caregivers. Only they can get close enough to touch it. And when I pass by, I do.

Touching Compassion reminds me that I am not the only pockmarked sufferer. There are others. It also reinforces that I am called to act with compassion, moving closer to those who feel unpresentable, imperfect. Suffering with suffering people is a way of seeing Jesus’s pocked face in theirs.


*I also saw the Florentine Pietà, carved by Michelangelo in his later years. It is decidedly imperfect.

** Winnipeg General Hospital, “Centennial Commemorative Plaque Dedicated,” Generator 14, no. 11 (December 1972): 1. The artist is Leo Mol, a man who, among other things, was appointed an officer
of the Order of Canada and sculpted bronze busts of three popes now housed at the Vatican.