“Speak words that give shape to our anguish.” This poet recognized the power of the spoken word to provide a container to human experience, to impose a limit to what would be otherwise unbearable. Another poet put it like this, “To name the abyss is to avoid it.” There is a profound difference in the raw, unmediated, emotional, pre-symbolic (pre-verbal) experience of the abyss and the concept of “the abyss.”
Let me share an anecdote from clinical work many years ago. I had young male for a client who was very addictive and functioned very poorly at times. He had no history of religion and church. He stumbled upon the phenomena of “religion and church” and found himself attending a formal, non-evangelical church fairly regularly. He told me several times of how comforting the liturgy was to him, particularly that portion where he acknowledged, by the spoken word, that he was a sinner. As we explored this experience of his, he recognized that by conceptualizing that he was a “sinner” he was able to articulate a deep-seated feeling of “badness” and “darkness” and “shame.” He was able to apply a limit or boundary to the experience.
There are some whose life is sin articulate. Their life is raw, unmediated, unmitigated “hell on earth.” And I’m not talking about “sin” as it is usually taught. I’m talking about sin as the experience of being separated from one’s Source and separated in a radical fashion. It takes a quantum leap for the individual so confined to say, “I am a sinner” and in so doing escape that “hell on earth”, that world which Paul Tillich described as “an empty world of self-relatedness.”
This is actually a conversion experience and is a quantum leap from one sphere of existence into another. It involves the experience of discontinuity, what St. Augustine described at his moment of conversion as “that moment when I became other than I was.” This is not simple compliance with a syllogism
Let me close with the marvelous sonnet of John Donne:
BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due, 5
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie: 10
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.