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Beauty from the Brokenness

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As the flickering candles and dim lights fought off the dark Texan night pouring in from outside, the chapel danced between silence and sound. The silence was palpable—as thick as the bonds of the seventy young men huddled attentively as they leaned forward to listen to their fellow senior standing behind the ambo. He began to break open his life, allowing others to listen to the symphony of his rugged voice: crescendos of moments we never expected, slurred words in between tears fought back, staccatos of the surprising levity, and pauses to gather his soul to spoken notes—his young life sung to the tune of the Paschal Mystery. I remember my astonished gaze ascending upwards from the student’s face, aglow with fire light in the dark, towards the gnarled figure of Christ on the suspended crucifix. . .

Crucifixion—Why?

I found myself in the chapel before the whirlwind events of yet another retreat, drawn to the silent gaze of that same crucifix. Memories flooded the silence and past retreat experiences reverberated into this crossroad in time. The forlorn bronze sentinel seemed to whisper something unintelligible, spoken by his broken posture—the arms were contorted, the body was shriveled, the skin was filled with grooves and cuts, and the face had pain written across it. Perhaps, the artist sought to depict the stark reality bound in the message of Good Friday. I sat there, preparing the space in my heart for the upcoming Kairos retreat this Lenten season.

I was brought humbly to my knees as I uttered silently: “Why?”

How can I possibly explain to the students I lead, these young men who usually hide their wounds so well behind their jests and their bravado, why they must suffer? Why endure the contortions of broken family tree’s limbs, the shriveled body of addictions in their veins, or the cuts on their hearts from life’s experiences? What answer can I give them when they ask what resurrection from a loving God looks like who allows suffering in the world—what sterile answer to theodicy involving love and free will can satiate the pain they must face?

Darkness—Soil for Growth

Having tasted a “dark night of the soul” in my own life a couple months ago, I scoured the brokenness of my life for God’s answer. A collision of life events shattered my worldview then. Perhaps, desperately, I clutched on to the broken mess all the more tightly, even as my grip of reality slipped. When I had the energy during that bleak period, I read books by St. John of the Cross, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and others who sat in the silence of God. I shut myself off from the world and researched philosophical, psychological, and theological understandings of suffering. I sought to find the “answer” that would put my life together back to the way that it was—to reverse things and re-enter Eden before the Fall of my own narrative. Needless to say, I found no answer of that sort.

In that darkness, the eyes of my soul adjusted, and I saw others were buried there as well, waiting and yearning. Until I experienced those darker moments in a personal way, I did not fully realize the importance of simply walking beside someone, even silently, rather than trying to say the right string of phrases. The ability to minister to students and others undergoing loss from a place of understanding was not something my soul could come to know fully from a book. My grip loosened from the shards of the past as my wounded hands reached out towards others in a new way. Paradoxically, what I found in the brokenness was something different from what I sought: empathy and openness. My new eyes not only saw the plight of the suffering sisters and brothers, but also knew them now. There was a peace in the opening of the hand and I found that the pieces were transfigured.

Resurrection—Art from Ashes

I have since begun to realize the mystery of the resurrection through a metaphor of a shattered vase. Before, I thought that our understanding of resurrection meant that when the vase broke apart, it would be brought back to what it once was. However, perhaps this is not the case, for resurrection brings forth a newness. When the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples, they were unable to recognize his appearance. “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

When the vases of our lives are shattered, perhaps the Artist does not simply glue the parts back together, for the cracks and holes are still present from having been broken. Rather, perhaps the Artist takes the shards, as they are, and creates something more beautiful still, like a mosaic. There can be gratitude even for the most jagged parts of our lives, as they find their place of connection with others. No parts of our lives are wasted, and yet, the artwork created is not merely the sum of its parts. There is a newness to what the piece portrays—a beauty that does not merely undo or erase the death, but makes something more out of it.

The Artist—Beauty from Brokenness

As these thoughts pierced the crown of my head, I continued to listen to the silence of the crucified man—feeling a pang of empathy for what Christ must have endured for the sake of love. In the honesty of humanity, the brokenness of it all left an openness, a space to meet others and the Other. In words of Han Urs von Balthasar reflecting upon the Paschal Mystery:

The most deadly of these wounds, the opened heart, does not close any more in the final life; Thomas, who puts his hand in the side, only grasps the openness of this heart. . . [1]

Have I found a succinct, airtight answer to share with my students next time they inquire about suffering that will alleviate their grief? No. However, have I found space in the open wounds of my heart to walk beside others? I would like to think so. I would like to think of this life, in all its beauty and brokenness, as something like the Eucharist, something broken open and shared for the sake of others. This “answer” Whom I found, or rather Who found me, did not remove the mystery of life, but rather invited me to walk into the very depths of it, as he did. Here, sisters and brothers of mine wait in the earthy soil of suffering, but knowing that it does not have the final Word. Here, the seeds of new life break through the husks of Good Friday, toward a resurrection. As it is in the beginning of Genesis, it is here that the Artist creates. This is the resurrection that allows ashes to paint marks of faith, suffering stories of students to become symphonies of hope, and gnarled crucified limbs to reach out in love.

Featured photo courtesy of the author.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Life Out of Death: Meditations on the Paschal Mystery, trans. Martina Stöckl (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 54.

Michael Mookie Manalili

Michael Mookie Manalili is currently serving as an educator and the retreat coordinator at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory through the Echo program. His theological interest in medieval mysticism, both apophatic contemplation and kataphatic imaginative experience, is pursued in the hope of inviting others into the mystery of Christ.