A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley for Evensong on Sunday 11 August 2019
Reading 2 Corinthians 1: 1–22
I hope some of you heard the exuberant fun of Swing Unlimited this afternoon, and we have just heard the anthem, inviting us to rejoice. By contrast, St Paul begins his second letter to the Corinthians on a down-beat, talking about 'affliction’.
It seems he is emerging from an awful experience. We are not sure what it was. It may have been the riot in Ephesus described in the Acts of the Apostles, but his words suggest something more drawn out, like an injury or an illness, possibly what he calls, later on in this letter, his 'thorn in the flesh'. Paul’s description of being 'weighed down' (the word he uses describes an overloaded ship in danger of sinking), and of 'despairing of life itself', is consistent with heaviness of soul, or depression.
If that is right, what caused it? Perhaps the burdens of ministry with that impossible church in Corinth, perhaps something quite unconnected. Paul doesn’t say, but instead talks about the positive significance of his suffering as a source of solidarity between believers, as a way of sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and as a means by which he (actually, 'we') might learn to depend not on self but on God.
This recalls last week’s story of Joseph (he of the Technicolor coat) who told his brothers that the harm they had done him God had used for good. It's the claim that bad things are part – or can become part – of the good purposes of God. Now to say that God engineers bad things for your and my 'benefit' is to make our Maker into a well-meaning sadist (which is perhaps the worst kind); yet to say that God is uninvolved in suffering is to make God less than the God of everything; and such a God is not worth even an hour of our time on a Sunday afternoon.
There, then, is the problem. What follow are some interim thoughts on how we might respond. With human perversity, we might say that God works like a skilled jazz player, drawing the wayward notes of other musicians towards a resolution. But what about illness of body or mind? How was God involved in Paul’s heaviness of soul, if that is what it was?
In the now vanished world of 2013 the UK Government launched its so-called happiness index. It prompted a memorable TV debate (still on the BBCs online archive). First up was Arianna Huffington, creator of online newspaper the Huffington Post, who said that the two traditional ‘metrics of success’, money and power, had created a model that was ‘broken' and was damaging people, through ‘long hours, widespread depression, stress-related illness’. She thought we needed this 'third metric', happiness.
‘What is happiness?’ asked the host, Victoria Derbyshire. Huffington liked the ancient Greek idea of the flourishing that comes with a life of purpose, 'feeling good by doing good'. Professor Robert Winston located happiness in certain childlike qualities, which we can lose in mid-life but may regain later. Author and illustrator Giles Andreae, agreed; he associated happiness with 'playfulness'. Andreae had himself suffered cancer and experienced depression, and Derbyshire asked him, ‘Do you think that means that you are more able than others to know what happiness is?' '[With] Cancer less so,' he replied, 'but depression, I think, without question.' Using language as powerful as Paul's, he spoke an 'extraordinary, violent illness' – quite unlike what people might imagine who have not had it. He continued,
The one remarkable thing about it, which is an extraordinary privilege, is to recover from depression, which almost everybody does...And when you recover, you look at the world with new eyes, you regain your capacity to experience joy, as if for the first time, and I think that’s incredibly rewarding.
Winston agreed, quoting the French thinker Montaigne, who was grateful that he had received the pain of bladder stones, because when the pain stopped he knew what it was to be happy. 'It's almost as if,' said Winston, 'to be truly happy you need to have been unhappy at some stage.' 'Without question,' said Andreae, 'it wipes your soul, and [then] it is a massive privilege [that word again] to experience joy.'
I was taken aback at the time by their persistent, positive tone. Listening again, I still am. I have questions – does ‘almost everybody’ recover from depression? – and I'm still uneasy about the doctrine of 'it's-awful-but-good-for-you'. But here is someone who, like Paul, has been there, who speaks therefore with a certain authority, and who would not now, it seems, be without his dark experience because of the 'privilege' it brought of revealing deeper joy. Might Paul say the same of his experience of whatever it was that nearly sank him? For one, it led to joy; for the other, to a radical trust in the God of Jesus, who raises the dead.
And if the God of Jesus is indeed the God of everything, then it is God (whether named or not) who is behind every return of life and joy.
Some lines from George Herbert’s ‘The Flower’
How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.
The Salisbury Cathedral choir here sing Herbert’s verses to a setting by Alec Roth