To die, to sleep—
no more—and by a sleep to say we end
the heartache and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death what dreams may come
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause. There’s the respect
that makes calamity of so long life.
– Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1
How can you end suffering? The kind of suffering that Shakespeare called “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”? Perhaps no one in recent times better captures Hamlet’s suffering than actor David Tennant who, alongside Sir Patrick Stewart, crushed new pain out of a stiffly familiar role.
Shakespeare treats us to a glimpse of Hamlet’s inner musings: he suffers tremendously from the actions of others; and this suffering brings an existential weariness that lures him to consider how blissful an eternal sleep could be. Unless…
Unless death could not offer peaceful sleep; unless an afterlife existed in which untold new suffering might have to be endured for one who took it upon himself to end his own suffering. There it was: humans endure deep suffering when the thought of an unknown afterlife gives them pause. And so the question could not simply remain “to be or not to be” – no such luck for Hamlet. Rather, “to be, or to be I know not what.” Tragedy at its sharpest: there is no sure and certain way out.
Do you suffer? Not the set of first-world problems so many face – the caterer for an event proving to be a disaster, or a high-tech labor-saving appliance failing to work properly. No, do you suffer? Suffering can exist in upper-middle class subdivisions as easily as it can in the slums of Calcutta, as Mother Teresa so aptly pointed out: there are different kinds of poverty, and wealthy people may yet experience a poverty of love. So Hamlet discovered: a young man of privilege and wealth who grieves both the loss of a father and the instability of a mother who remarries too quickly – and who remarries her dead husband’s brother. Not only does Hamlet wrestle with these circumstances: it is revealed that his father did not die a natural death. And he knows who killed him…
What a modern sounding story: the self-centeredness of elders destroying the hope, stability and dreams of the young. Hamlet’s world crashes down; the formerly high-spirited young man sinks into a deep depression that even his girlfriend can’t rescue him from.
Do you suffer? Trendy psychobabble can cover suffering in a multitude of ways, as George Carlin pointed out when he criticized the use of the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder,” preferring the vivid old-fashioned word “shellshock” – even running it through your mouth creates a noise of hissing crash. The Western world prefers a sanitized suffering: suffering that is embalmed, placed under flattering lights and smeared with lipstick. Sanitized suffering that is covered with fake green plastic grass at a graveside, that waits for the crowd of mourners to depart before lowering the casket into the ground.
Hamlet refused to let his suffering to be sanitized, because he refused to let the evil that caused it to be sanitized.
Do you attempt to window-dress evil? To window-dress your own suffering?
If you don’t face your own suffering, how will you ever find rest? Real, true rest for the mind and spirit?
To face your own suffering is to come uncomfortably close to Christ in Gethsemene: does the idea of Christ, the suffering servant, comfort or trouble you? The fully divine, fully human being sweating drops of blood from anguish…
Rest will not come from appealing to “God”: “God,” that one mysterious being who motivates us when we need a pick-me-up through a smiling televangelist. But some rest may come from Father, from Son and from Holy Spirit.
Rest may come from the first person of the Trinity, the one that parents, that proclaims “let there be…”, the one from whom the Word proceeds. We may find comfort in seeking protection and safety from the birther of the universe, the one who is on the lookout for the return of the prodigal child.
Rest may come from the second person of the Trinity, the Word Made Flesh, the suffering servant. We may find refuge by placing ourselves alongside the weeping Jesus, before Lazarus’ tomb is opened, or in a moonlit garden where Jesus wrestles alone in tortuous prayer, or in the stations of the cross, where a suffering servant stumbles towards execution.
Rest may come from the third person of the Trinity, the fathomless Holy Spirit who moves and darts this way and that beyond our comprehension. We may find rest as we cease our efforts and allow the Holy Spirit to intercede for us with groans that cannot be uttered, or as we simply relax in the company of the Comforter, the Spirit of adoption.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us…
What dreams may come? Dreams may come that give us pause; there is much in the Book of Revelation to give anyone pause. But we may also dream of glory: a glory that revels in justice, that infuses new life, that reanimates dead hopes.
Come to me, all that are weary and heavy-laden –
and I will give you rest…
and end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to…
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.