Monday, October 27, 2014

The noble art of living with tension

Earlier today, I had a massage. For some time now, I have been experiencing tightness in my calves and the visit to a local physiotherapist was aimed at trying to ease the pressure, particularly on my left leg. At the library where Celena works, they have massages available every fortnight. It is 20 minutes, every two weeks, that she refuses to miss.

We all live with some degree of tension in our lives. Whether it is experienced physically in our shoulders or our feet, mentally in our head space or emotionally in our hearts, tension seems to be as much a part of modern living as texting and taxes. But should we be as keen to rid ourselves of tension as we seem to be?

In his book The Holy Longing: The Search for A Christian Spirituality (Image, 2008), Ronald Rolheiser, contends that tension is an integral part of the Christian experience. In fact, Rolheiser argues, tension is part of the “nobility of the soul”.

“We are better persons when we carry tension, as opposed to always looking for its easy resolution. To carry tension, especially great tension, is to ponder in the biblical sense.”

Part of the examples Rolheiser gives are based on anecdotes that involve sexual behaviour and our identity as sexual beings. They include an episode from an American TV show and an exchange between an academic and some of his students. The specifics are not important. What is significant, however, is the conclusion that tension, particularly unresolved tension, heightens our capacity for...well, everything. We appreciate the beer more after we have delayed that first sip; we feel closer to our partner after we hold off on giving into our immediate desires; that hug from an absent friend seems so much more powerful and comforting if we been apart for a long period.

In movies and television, the unresolved sexual tension between two characters is a key ingredient in keeping the audience engaged. Writers know that to keep the pages turning, the reader has to feel the tension of that comes from wondering where characters are heading and how plots are unfolding.

Jesus was no stranger to living with tension. His life was often characterised by waiting for someone to arrive, or delaying His departure for a destination (remember how he waited to go and see Lazarus, even though He had been told he was gravely ill?). Rolheiser acknowledges this, claiming that the message of Jesus contained a “strong motif of waiting, of pondering, of chastity, of having to carry tension without giving in to a premature resolution.” The most vivid example of that motif occurring was in His crucifixion and subsequent resurrection.

But why? When muscles are tense, or we crave companionship, why should we carry the tension? What is wrong with giving into the desire for release?

“The real value in carrying tension for the sake of love,” Rolheiser writes, “is that it is a gestation process.”

“By pondering as Mary did, as she stood helplessly beneath the cross, and by enduring suffering as Jesus did in the garden at Gethsemane, we have the opportunity to turn hurt into forgiveness, anger into compassion, and hatred into love.”

In other words, without some sort of death, a willingness to give up and let go, we cannot experience a resurrection. New life comes out of dying to ourselves. Carrying tension means that we are letting things – and people - be as they are, not as we would like them to be.

Ever since Amber, and then Brodie, died, I have been living with tension, a revelation or a sign as to what the greater purpose was in their deaths. In vain, I have looked for ways to massage away the ache in my heart.

Rolheiser concludes his chapter on tension and pondering as a form of prayer with a quote from a Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, who said:

“ of the great spiritual tragedies is that so many people of good will would become persons of noble soul, if only they would not panic and resolve the painful tensions within their lives too prematurely, but rather stay with them long enough, as one does in a dark night of the soul, until those tensions are transformed and help give birth to what is most noble inside of us – compassion, forgiveness and love.”

I seek nobility. Until then, however, I will live with the tension! 

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