We just heard Jesus start this gospel passage by saying to his disciples, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” It sounds like Jesus is protecting his disciples from some unbearable news—but we all know they eventually had to face it. The reality is that each one of us has thoughts and fears of the “unbearable.” All of us have here have either already experienced, or will experience, a reality that is more than we can handle… a reality that has left us wondering how, or if, we will get through it. And somehow we usually do. Think about what you may have already borne that you never asked for, never wanted– and if you had been told of it you would have said, “I cannot bear that.”
The unbearable is that which we do not wish for ourselves or our worst enemy. It comes to us in the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, a medical diagnosis, or some other kind of disappointment in life. It is the most painful experience we can imagine. It is that moment when all we can do is either call God’s name or curse God’s name… and sometimes we wind up doing both.
Here’s something I find interesting when contemplating this idea of the “unbearable”. Most of us, I suspect, focus on circumstances of pain, loss, and suffering, circumstances that break our hearts, shatter our lives, and bring us to tears. That is real. It is often our experience of the unbearable– but I want to point out that it’s not our only experience of the unbearable. There is an opposite aspect.
Think about a time when love, joy, or beauty was so real, so deep, or so full that you could not hold it all. It was more than you could bear– and tears poured forth, your heart was enlarged, and all you could say was, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” You stood in awe and amazement of what was happening. This can be experienced in the birth of a child (or grandchild), a dream that is finally realized after years of waiting and working for it, or a moment of beauty and meaning beyond our imagination. It can be a deep joy or event that makes us weep, forgiveness that offers a fresh start, a marriage or friendship that just keeps getting better, or a love we never thought possible. Words cannot begin to describe what we feel, or explain what is happening, or offer enough gratitude. It’s more than we can bear, and we never want it to end.
I have a difficult time watching the news out of Ukraine, because it is unbearable to see how war is affecting the lives of everyday Ukrainians: the death, the pain, the struggle, the displacement, and the destruction of so much. And yet, there is an opposite aspect here also. Here is a story from the New York Times:
Vladyslav operates a bakery in Kyiv. He employs adults with psychological disabilities. His shop specializes in cakes and pastries, as well as serving lunch. On the day before Russian troops stormed their country, Vladyslav gathered his staff together. He told them they would stop selling baked goods to individual customers; instead, they would bake bread for all. They produce 300 loaves a day, bread that they give away to homes for the disabled and volunteer organizations. “I am not militant in my nature,” Vladyslav says simply, “but I can bake bread.”
And this story was on NPR:
This is Hanna’s first year as a teacher. The 23-year-old never imagined teaching her class of fifth graders in the middle of a war– but, despite the bombings and airstrikes, millions of children in Ukraine are still going to school. Hanna is one of hundreds of dedicated and creative teachers who are managing to keep their students engaged in learning. Some students can’t attend every day because they’re constantly on the move from shelter to shelter. Many of Hanna’s students are signing in on their parents’ phones. Hanna says that the routine of school and seeing their friends online is helping. “Even if I’m not teaching the full curriculum,” Hanna says, “it’s good that they’re talking to me [and] to each other . . . [it] remind[s] us of something normal.” The sacrifice and courage of many ordinary good people is trying to make things “normal” for their fellow Ukrainians.
When we think about it, most of us have experienced both aspects of the unbearable, and you can see both in reflecting on the war in Ukraine. Notice what Jesus went on to say in the gospel reading: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” It seems to me that the unbearable, in either aspect, in whatever way it comes, very often unhinges us, pushes us to the edge of our life, and leaves us standing at the opening “to all truth.” This is not an opening into learning all truth. It is an opening into doing all truth. The unbearable calls, invites, solicits, and asks us to do all truth: to do the truth of forgiveness, hospitality, and justice… to do the truth of peace, mercy, and compassion… to do the truth of faith, hope, and love.
Every time we respond to the call of the unbearable– every time we step up to that opening– every time we do all truth– we give existence to God. We make the divine present in our lives and present in the world. The unbearable can awaken us, offer insights into our life, teach us about ourselves, help us to grow up, and bring us more fully into ourselves. Ultimately, though, it reveals the presence of God. Those who stand in the paradox of bearing the unbearable are given ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to love. I can’t help but think that God is probably never more present to us than when we bear the unbearable. Many people forget this reality.
The unbearable isn’t hard to spot. It’s happening in those times when we say things like, “No, this can’t be,” or “This is impossible,” or “I can’t believe this is happening,” or “It’s too much… I’m overwhelmed… I can’t take anymore.” But it is also happening when we say things like, “This is too good to believe,” or “Not in my wildest dreams,” or “I never imagined or expected this,” or “I don’t deserve this person in my life,” or “I have no words,” or “How can this be?” These are moments when the unbearable is breaking into our lives, shattering the horizon of our expectations, and guiding us into all truth.
And so, it is so important that, throughout our lives, no matter what our age, we are spiritually attentive to questions like: What is unbearable for you right now? What is the truth that is calling and waiting to be done by you? And how will you give existence to God in your life and in the world today? It is equally important to remember that we never bear the unbearable alone…