When I was 10 years old, my dad would often interrupt our family devotions and begin speaking in this odd, rhapsodic way about the Incarnation. At the time I didn’t understand the connection between the mysterious thing he called the Incarnation and the boring Bible lesson we’d just been reading. Yet his reverent words took up residence in my memory. They became a sort of incantation, a spell he spoke over me that I could never figure out. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the Incarnation was somehow central to my existence. What did it mean that God took on flesh and dwelt among us?
Two decades later, I stood over my wife in a room full of highly specialized doctors and nurses. There must have been 17 people in this room. “It’s a party!” they all kept telling me. Most of the nurses in the room would never get to see something like this again.
For my wife, this was no party. She was sliced open, her abdomen retracted into a circular hole. Her body was a portal to transmit three brand-new souls into the world. I snuck a look at the first, continuing to watch as the doctor pulled two more babies out.
Eventually I looked over at my wife, who was stretched out in cruciform position on the operating table. Her arms were spread wide. Her face was separated from her body by a curtain that kept her from seeing those three newborns, those babies she carried—in rapidly increasing agony—over the preceding 35 weeks.
I can think of no image from my own life that so perfectly captures the mystery of incarnation. On one side of the room there are three beautiful and healthy boys, an image of the divine gift of life. On the other side my wife is lying down, pale and barely conscious. Over the coming years, Amy would develop anemia, insomnia, and depression from the bodily strain of keeping these three identical boys alive (along with raising our 4-year-old and 2-year-old daughters). But in that moment there are the boys, healthy and crying and demanding love. I ask permission to go and hold them. All Amy can do is stare blankly before finally nodding her head. She’s too exhausted to move and too emotionally spent to appreciate what’s just happened.
The Mystery of Suffering
In The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance, the Roman Catholic priest Erik Varden has written a book that describes just this mixture of joy and brokenness we experience as incarnate creatures. A former abbot of an English monastery, Varden has spent much of his life under a rigorous monastic rule. Even though I’m a Protestant who struggles to pray as often I should, Varden writes for Christians like me. He understands the desires that keep us from God and the deeper longings that lead us back to him. I was continually moved by his descriptions of beauty and suffering that call out for spiritual explanation. Varden has written one of those merely Christian books that illuminate the whole life of faith.
The son of a rural veterinarian from Norway, Varden became fascinated by World War II and the Holocaust at a young age. As a boy, he saw a man working in the field, shirtless and scarred all the way down his back. As his father later told him, the farmer had spent time in a Nazi camp, where he had been brutally whipped. The memory stayed with Varden and left him with a desire to understand the meaning of suffering. He wanted to find a good reason for that visceral image of pain. A few years later the adolescent Varden would hear the composer Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (known as the Resurrection Symphony). This time he found himself moved by an almost inarticulate longing, and he began groping slowly toward belief. In the music he heard Mahler’s exultant insistence that our sufferings “are not in vain.”
By narrating these two experiences, Varden initiates the pattern for his short but remarkable book of spiritual devotion. He explores a theology of incarnation—our longing for God through our broken bodies and desires—through life, art, and theological meditation. Most chapters begin with a short reflection on communion or the Holy Spirit and then move toward an illustration of that theological insight, whether in life or art. Varden is not difficult to read, but his readings of Scripture and literature are theologically profound. He rewards careful attention and rereading. He describes familiar writers like Athanasius and Leo Tolstoy just as fluently as he introduces lesser-known figures such as the French Resistance worker Maiti Girtanner and the Swedish existentialist playwright Stig Dagerman.
While there is much to savor in Varden’s book, the first and last chapters are the most powerful. In the first chapter, “Remember you are dust,” Varden shows how the Genesis account of creation points in two directions. First, God’s creation of man reminds us of our humble origins. We are made of the dust of the earth. And after a life burned up with desires, we return to dust and ashes.
Secondly, and far more importantly, we have been shaped into the image of God by our Maker’s own fingers. As Varden points out, “we can never find rest in being nothing but dust.” Our spirit cries out with longing for a world beyond death. Varden quotes the playwright Dagerman, who wonders, “Divine love? I suppose it is what should set us free. In a Catholic author I read of a man who could see nothing because he was hidden in the light. If only we had a light to hide in.” Varden finds much to admire in Dagerman’s humility and honesty, but he doesn’t let Dagerman have the last word. Varden calls us to look into the abyss of death and find beyond it a light and a “comfort that does not deceive.” He wants us to remember all that Christ has done and all that he will do.
The rest of the book’s chapters trace the major Christian acts of corporate memory, the remembrances that lead us from a life where our gazes are directed at ourselves to a life defined by longing and hope. In the chapter “Remember Lot’s wife,” Varden describes the difficulty of moving forward in faith. He retells Leo Tolstoy’s “Father Sergius,” a story about a monk who takes literally Christ’s instruction to chop off limbs if they lead to sin (Mark 9:43–47). Despite his extreme actions, Tolstoy’s monk still feels the overwhelming pressures of his desires for power and sexual satisfaction. Yet even these misdirected desires continually lead him back to Christ. At the end of the story, Sergius finally finds peace in the imitation of Christ. He ends his life as a poor servant to a peasant family.
A Theology of Longing
Through vivid stories and historical examples, Varden drives his readers toward the source of all our longing. He wants us to take seriously the sufferings of this life, but he also wants us to see the real comforts of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. In the final chapter, “Beware lest you forget the Lord,” Varden draws on Athanasius’s treatise on the Incarnation to complete this theology of longing. As Athanasius explains, Adam and Eve abandoned their original longing for God. Instead of looking to God in gratitude for their creation, they cast their eyes down to the earth.
For Varden and for Athanasius, the Incarnation is the deep mystery that redeems our sufferings and straightens our wayward desires. Christ comes to earth not merely to save us but to recreate us. He meets all our desires by suffering with us. As Varden writes, “In God incarnate, our humanity itself signified divine life.” Human beings find a divine outlet for their deepest desires in the God-man who redeems not only our souls but redirects our senses from dust to light. Christ teaches us to see the broken shards of our life as a pattern of remembrance. The act of memory binds us to the long history of Christian believers who came before us. For me, it also calls to mind my dad’s mysterious words on the Incarnation.
From Varden’s book, I have found not only a vivid theology of the Incarnation but also numerous stories of Christians who have pursued God despite unimaginable suffering. (The most moving story in the book focuses on Maiti Girtanner, a talented French pianist who suffered debilitating spinal torture at the hands of the Nazis for rescuing Jews). Varden’s book constantly redirects us to the importance of longing. In the broken body of a spouse or in the painful joys of parenting, we see the wounds of Christ. After Christ’s incarnation, we understand that “our bodies are privileged instruments in our search to know and love an incarnate God.”
Symbols of Hope
A couple years after the triplets were born, my wife wrote a blog post where she imagined traveling to a time after the hard years of raising children. In a reverse act of memory, she imagined herself as a 50-year-old looking back on the early years of our kids’ lives. No young boys hurtling over couches. No girls singing operatically outdoors on the trampoline. Just a quiet house with “no smashed [Cheez-Its], no poorly placed birdseed, no ‘home’ for the snails and murdered caterpillars.” This imagined act of remembrance was painful for her. She didn’t want to be alone. She felt a deep emptiness imagining a home without children. What happens when they leave?
But she also realized that the sufferings of those years had produced, as Paul promises in Romans 5, endurance and hope. The bodily scars, severe anemia, and nights without sleep made her long for the restoration of her body and soul. She longed for an endless communion with God and other human beings. As she said in that post, “Children, though they deplete all reserves necessary for a manageable existence, are the complete and utter symbol of HOPE.”
Varden has written a book full of these symbols of hope. Near the end of The Shattering of Loneliness, Varden reminds us that beauty gives us our intimations of eternity. The beauty in earthly suffering and in God’s creation “forges communion among people by indicating a universal realm in which individual solitude ceases.” In a world where old theological words like grace and sin have lost wide currency, Varden argues that beauty can awaken spiritual longing in any human being. As my dad hinted all those years ago, Christians point to the Incarnation as a symbol of our ultimate hope, the sign that God has dwelt among us and will one day restore his saints to glory.
Jonathan Callis teaches English at Oklahoma Baptist University.
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