I went to a concert at the Bucharest Atheneum to listen to The Saint John Passion by J. S. Bach. I enjoy the music of Bach enormously; I believe The Saint Matthew Passion to be one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever written, and this Saint John Passion to be almost as amazing.
To me, this music is one of the most extraordinary masterpieces ever created, together with The Mona Lisa, the Parthenon, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, the poems of Rilke, the plays of Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, the Sistine Chapel, and others.
I never had any religious training, and I was never a religious person. My parents knew nothing about religion and were not interested in it at all, and the people I grew up around also had nothing to do with it.
But, for some reason, I always had a big attraction for the figure of Christ. When I was around 9 years old, I heard that a group coming from some church was going to put on a movie about Christ on the street; I got quite interested in it and I remember going down from my apartment and asking them if I could help set up the chairs and prepare the place, and of course, watching the movie. And then, during the holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, I enjoyed very much staying up at night to watch all the Hollywood movies about Christ. And then, in my late teens, as I was helping kids who lived on the street (that’s a whole different story), there was a group of people from some religious place that also came there. They wanted to bring the image of Christ to help the kids, and they called him ‘el flaco’, the skinny one. It was a way to bring this rather unapproachable figure more down to earth… and I remember enjoying that very much.
I had some other deep contacts with this elusive figure throughout my life, but this is just a bit of background on my relationship with Jesus.
Let’s go back to that concert. As I was enjoying Bach’s music and following the story, at a certain point, near the end of it, when Jesus is on the cross, he says: ‘I thirst, I am thirsty’, and a soldier gives him some vinegar to drink. And then Jesus says his last words: ‘It is done, it is completed… tetelestai’, which in Greek means to bring to an end, to complete, to accomplish.
And, in that moment, the idea I have heard many times before but could never understand until then, the idea that Christ died for our sins, came into my mind. And a question became very strong and powerful in my heart… as I was hearing this amazingly beautiful music. I started to ask: why would they say that? what does it mean? why would somebody have to suffer so other people can benefit? what does it mean? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
It was as if that question had taken a life of its own and was really pounding in my heart, demanding an answer…
And suddenly, as the chorus was singing ‘it is completed, it is completed…’, an answer came.
It was clear that this answer was for me, and that it had really nothing to do with the tradition or the answers that the church gives about this.
What came was an amazing and beautiful answer that stroke straight into my heart and, as I felt in that moment, took an enormous weight off my shoulders.
The answer was this:
If somebody as beautiful and amazing as Jesus*, if a being that wanted nothing but to pass on some truth that he had found about the meaning of existence…, if somebody like him had to suffer, and suffer so much, why not us?
Or, in other words:
Why do we reject suffering so much?
Why are we so scared of suffering?
Why do we live a life in which we do so much in order to avoid the inevitability of suffering?
I am not talking about wanting to suffer (as I know some sects believe), or about searching for suffering, or thinking that we should or that we need to suffer, not at all! What I am talking about is the simple fact that suffering abounds in existence – and if we get some of it (as we very probably will), why resist it and reject it and be so afraid of it?
Why do we think that we SHOULD not suffer?
Why do we expect life to be always nice to us, when it is so very clear that suffering is a part of that life?
What I saw very clearly is that – as the Buddha also taught – there is suffering; and it does not matter if a being is completely awake, like the figure of Christ represents, or if somebody is completely lost in the worst aspects of his or her own mind, like the figure of the soldier giving the vinegar may want to represent, or if somebody is just one more out of the billions of other beings – suffering is an aspect of life for all.
But what can be done is to learn not to resist that suffering; is to learn to look at it in the eye and not be afraid of it, not to struggle against it and, when it is inevitable, as it often is, to allow it and to embrace it.
Of course we do what we can to avoid it (like, for example, brushing our teeth, looking both sides when we cross the street, or not walking alone in a bad neighborhood, etc) and to get rid of it when it is possible (like going to the doctor if we are sick, apologizing when it is due or learning a good philosophy that teaches us about suffering, etc); of course we do what we can not to suffer, but to expect and to demand that suffering will not reach us is completely mistaken.
Just last week, the day before the concert, I received a phone call from my uncle in Argentina that my father had an accident, and he was in the hospital. My uncle is the only direct family my father has in Argentina, and he is stuck in his house because he cannot use his legs, due to his old age.
And just the thought of my father being alone in the hospital was so painful! I felt this intense powerlessness, this immense sense of helplessness, being so far, not being able to do anything at all! And that was so painful that for a moment it felt as if my heart was breaking…**
Yes, of course I will try to do something so that the next time this does not happen… but who knows what the next time may be.
This suffering, or the million other forms that it may take… physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – is an aspect of living on this planet.
And what I felt when the answer came, as I was listening to the music, is that this passion of Christ is like a model, a ‘how to’, a manual of how to deal with suffering.
Suffering is the one thing that everybody is scared of, the one subject at the top of all other subjects… if we are not too busy or distracted, away from ourselves.
I saw that this ‘manual’ was given to us at the very dawn of Western civilization, and through it we can learn about this profound and fundamental subject: how to suffer, how to get rid of the fear of suffering.
We cannot get rid of suffering itself, this is embedded in life, but we can get rid of the fear of suffering, of the belief that it should not happen to me, and be at peace when it happens.
And the amazing thing is that a large part of the suffering that we experience – I would even say the majority of our suffering – IS the suffering that comes after we reject suffering. And it is exactly this unnecessary suffering*** what is avoidable, what we can get rid of.
I truly hope that suffering does not come to anybody, but I am almost sure that it will come to most people, in one form or another.
But what we do with that suffering depends completely on our attitude, which depends completely on the knowledge and maturity of our mind.
And I think this passion of the Christ is a model that can help us – at least the people that are open to this figure of Christ – change and upgrade our attitude towards that inevitable suffering.
* I don’t know if Jesus was the son of God, or somebody that knew something very unique and was trying to share it or if this figure is only and allegory that somebody created to teach some ideas… But I don’t really care because whatever it was, it was alive in that music, in that moment, and the answer came straight from that.
** A couple of hours later I was finally able to communicate with the hospital and 4 hours later I talked to my father on the phone. He had a bad fall. He is fine now, with a couple of broken ribs and a lung slightly punctured.
*** See the note Three Kinds of Suffering, on page 241 in my book About Presence. In it I speak about the different kinds of suffering, and that not all types of suffering are inevitable.