I believe it’s my Christian duty to pray. This is especially true for me as a priest: one of my most important responsibilities is to pray for the needs of those around me.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I’m especially good at remembering who and what to pray for. I often find that the more distant the situation, the harder it is to pray. I’m prone to remember to pray for someone I’ve visited in the hospital or whom I encounter frequently. Still, I try to include more remote prayer requests in my daily intercessions, whether it’s something I’ve read in the news or a request from a parishioner on behalf of a distant relative.
There is no shortage of prayer needs, but I am human, and it’s all too easy to let my own needs and quotidian responsibilities drown out might otherwise amount to a robust prayer life. I’d like to think I’m not alone in feeling this way. Most of us probably feel a mixture of sympathy (and saturation) at the constant stream of tragedies happening around the world and in our own neighborhoods.
We might be tempted to think that advances in communications technology have made us more aware of suffering in the world and therefore more sensitive to it. But it turns out that we are still human. We are still bound by our physicality, and we are most affected by events that occur within our own communities. Even the most empathetic among us do not grieve at news of a distant tragedy — even a tragedy involving the deaths of numerous people, such as the recent Orlando massacre — the same way we would grieve the death of a close friend or relative.
From one angle, this is perfectly normal and acceptable. From another angle, there is something harrowing about the fact that we become numb to all the suffering in the world in order to function. Too much bad news presents itself to us on the 24-hour news cycle for us to process, grieve, and respond as we know we ought to.
Technology is easy to blame, and people in premodern society didn’t have constant access to world events. But that doesn’t mean that our most basic human impulses have changed. This struck me recently as I read a poem I’ve returned to many times: W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”
The poem’s simplicity can mislead (as can its seemingly pretentious title), but Auden has captured something about the human condition that can only be described with a poet’s pen:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Auden wrote this poem shortly after observing a series of paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, perhaps most obviously the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Like the poem it inspired, the focal point of Brueghel’s painting does not strike the viewer right away. In fact, it would be quite easy for the casual observer to glance at this scene and not even notice poor Icarus falling into the sea:
The phrases “miraculous birth” and “dreadful martyrdom” most likely refer to Brueghel’s paintings The Census at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents, respectively. What these paintings have in common is that their primary subject matter is off-center. What Brueghel — and, by extension, Auden — captures is the notion that the world is largely indifferent to these events, whether they be monumental, tragic, or both. Everyone is going about their business and cannot be bothered to stop and ponder what is occurring before their very eyes.
I am hesitant to say more at this point, for fear of diminishing the poem’s power. A good poem cannot be reduced to a single “point” or message. The opposite is true: poetry’s strength is that it can say more with less.
Auden offered us a profound meditation on human suffering in 184 words; there are very few people who could say as much in hundreds of pages of prose. I can only offer my reflection, which is to say that Auden has wakened my senses and reminded me of the foolishness of my narcissistic tendencies.
I may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but I can pray. Yet I cannot pray unless I am attentive, and attentiveness requires openness to interruptions. I often have “somewhere to get to” and sail “calmly on,” but sometimes a splash in the ocean is not just a splash.
The featured image is “Prayer” (2006) by Wang Ge. It is licensed under Creative Commons.