Les Vicissitudes by Jean Dubuffet (image from Flickr)
The word vicissitudes popped into my head yesterday. I’m not entirely sure what it means or even how to spell it, and I don’t know why it suddenly appeared, unbidden, in my mind.BUY THIS IS THAT
It turns out that it means the state of being changeable; the nature of transition - usually for the worse, typically applying to someone’s life but also in nature. We often (actually not that often for most of us) use the word in the phrase ‘vicissitudes of life’ when referring to someone’s misfortune.
It may have occurred to me after a conversation at the weekend with my world-religion-teaching wife about the four nobles truths in Buddhism - especially the cause of suffering being desire and ignorance. We talked about where these understandings converged or not with the teaching of Jesus.
In a world without God this noble path makes total sense. Avoiding pain means avoiding disappointment which means avoiding the expectation of desires that so often don’t get met. I suppose there’s also an opposite approach which is to absolutely pursue desires, and hope that you can realise them all and inure yourself against pain as much as possible with money, experience, fame and love. But our reality is that nothing will stop the ultimate pain of loss and grief.
Jesus teaching sounds similar: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34) It sounds like the emptying and avoidance of ego in which we may interpret that noble path. The difference is that Jesus trusted in a good God. The fact that there is suffering in the world remains the same - both Buddha and Jesus saw that clearly. But having a good God changes how we might navigate the vicissitudes (see how I got that word in so naturally..) of life.
Our denial is not to stop desire. In fact desire fulfilled is a tree of life in Proverbs 13, which reminds us that Adam and Eve’s selfish desire for the other tree’s fruit was misguided rather than a wrong impulse. Desire realised is sweet to the soul, the proverbs go on to say, and the desire of the righteous is only good and will be granted. Our denial, therefore, is a denial of self centredness and is to focus our desire on the life that comes from God and on his desire to bless us and others through us.
This is made very complex in our broken, sinful and sick ridden world. We desire what is right and yet we experience suffering. Others desire what is wrong and seem to avoid suffering. It is in taking up our cross and following Jesus that enables us to have desire and yet also face disappointment. Jesus had desire to save people and yet found himself unsaved by God on the cross. Nevertheless he had seen enough of God’s goodness in the here and now to trust that the pain of his crucifixion did not undermine the flow of mercy and grace that had been opened like a heavenly tap in his ministry, and which would continue on to ultimately swallow up all death and pain, tears and grief.
Taking Buddhas point, it is our ignorance - in this case of God’s love and powerful plan - that limits our understanding and causes us to retreat away from him rather than run towards him in the times of pain filled transition.
After this call to discipleship, Jesus said “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Real life is found in aligning our desires with God’s. Not thinking that his desires are awful and mean, but knowing him deeply, and desiring life of the soul which then gives life to the body, to the work, to the family, to the economics, to the art, to the earth.
I wonder, too, if I’ve been thinking of this word vicissitude because I am praying for a family that is facing severe sickness at the moment. It causes me to choose to open my heart rather than simply try to believe, fight, pray and hope with my head. And I trust that this process will not only transform me and my own approach to living, but will also release my faith and prayer for blessing for this family.
Paul states the truth about the nature of living in a disappointing and painful world in this way in Romans:
'Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.
'But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.'
Martin J Young