The Bright Lights of Roundhill
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Both philosophers and scholars have pondered over the problem of suffering for centuries, millennia even. St Irenaeus sought to answer it with his theodicy: Suffering will push us away from a morally immature state to one of perfection through soul-making. In our journey as Christians, God allows suffering for our benefit, as it develops our character, and enhances our awareness and knowledge of all things good. As Richard Swinburne said, “We could never learn the art of goodness in a world designed as a complete paradise,” These words feel like they ring true.
But when we converse with friends and family about the suffering they experienced as children, the problem of evil seems incomprehensible. Immovable. Stories of abuse and trauma plague so many growing up the world over, and, honestly, I have only heard the least of it. Children either escaping or being stuck, in both broken countries and broken families are commonplace and, it feels like the hardest topic on suffering to address.
As a Christian, it can be painful coming to terms with these stories. Hearing someone, you love, tell you what they have been through can create deep and sorrowful sadness if unchecked. It can be particularly challenging hearing it when like me, you’re coming from a privileged background. I come from a loving, big, family in Bath, of all places. I feel blessed beyond belief. But I feel a deep regret when I feel myself forgetting what good I have and have had growing up. The world is one of contrasts, and I have found myself on a better side of it. Indeed, suffering comes in different forms and levels for everyone, but I don’t know the least of what I have heard.
Nonetheless, albeit coming at the end of one of the most controversial TV finales in history, Tyrion Lannister was right. “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” The tale of Brandon Stark might not be applicable here, nor particularly any fantasy story. But there are real-life stories, that spread through families and friends like Chinese whispers. These are the stories that are the most powerful. These are the stories that no real-life enemy can defeat.
There are so many stories told, both bad and good. It is those that travel between the echelons of both sides of this earth’s deep, ever-present state of contrast that provide the greatest truth. And that truth is this and only this. There is a light in the darkness.The first of these stories begins in a poor household in Bath, the very city in which I live, torn apart by a broken marriage and alcohol. A child, stuck between parents and step-parents, estranged family members and a cycle of violent abuse. I am not aware of all the ins-and-outs and particular aspects to this beginning of the story, nor nearly enough sufficient details throughout to tell it properly. But I do know that this child suffered, and suffered greatly. And I remember the expressions upon the faces of the people who told me. It was something dark, and inherently so. But this child, sweet and innocent, whether she was looking for a way out or not, was given one. Some people reached out to her, helped her — through hugging arms and warm smiles. These people, families tied together by love and faith, they were Christians, and despite not always being there, they made an imprint of love whenever they could. It was as if these people were like escape ropes, their ideals and kindness the things on which to cling. Through them, this child experienced a taste of what life should have been, what it should be for every person. She felt their warmth.
It is not only this simple, however. The child did not just appreciate this kindness. She did not just cling onto it. She felt it. And I have been told she saw it, too. This tortured young soul, she would walk through a world of darkness life had brought her, walk through a street and, she would look at all the houses as she passed them, across grey roads and behind grand old trees. And she would see lights. These Christian households, she saw as lights. Beacons.
It feels like a fantasy story just like one of Tyrion’s. Still, whether you approach believing this or not: It was true. As she waited, home alone, cold, afraid, for her father to come home, she looked out of her window. And in these houses, she saw lights, and it warmed her heart. It took away her fear, if only for a moment. She felt the touch of God.
The second of these stories is set, in a small English town. A moment in time told through little chapel services and wise old voices. A tale, of which its origin was lost with time. Its meaning, though, is recounted with greater strength. The setting is far vaguer, and so too is the manner of the child’s suffering. She was an orphan child, mistreated in some way or another in this place she lived, not fed nearly enough, not nearly happy enough. It could have been the start of a story all too familiar, if not for the love and kindness that came about. This girl, skinny as one could be, dirty as a rag, walked to the bakery down the road.
Every day — or every day the child could. She would stare at the cakes in the storefront, one cake in particular. And she wished that one day she could eat one, even though she had no money to give. Maybe one day she could finally see how the nice things taste.
One day, though, her routine stopped. It was a married couple in that bakery. They’d been running it for years. And one day, something told the wife that she should speak to that little thin girl. “Would you like a cake?”, she asked. And the girl did find out how it tasted.
Sweeter words came out.
“Would you like to come in?"
With time, the husband and wife became mother and father. If only by name, as they officially adopted the girl. She lived in happiness and harmony, and she would never have to stand outside their bakery again. Months, or perhaps years went by this way. The details are hazy. But one day, she came home from school. She called the husband “Pa”.
I have been told this story so many times and the beauty has never ceased. He ran out of the room and up the stairs crying.
Then she said hello to her mother. “Ma”.
She ran away crying.
The girl, as you can imagine, didn’t know what on earth was going on. She hesitantly climbed up the stairs, scared that something was wrong. And she inched open their bedroom door, to see her mother and father crying. Crying and hugging.
They were tears of joy.
And as far as I know, they lived as a happy family from then on.
The girl from the first story grew into a wonderfully kind, happy and generous person, formed by those warm, gentle lights she saw on her street. And you would never manage to beat her at Boggle, I promise you that.
At times like these, as we pass between ever-changing and constantly stifling social restrictions and live under the dark cloud of an increasingly large death toll, it’s difficult to see past it. It’s difficult to comprehend this level of suffering.
As we traverse the final stretch of this pandemic, we must remember that tales of woe are always matched and bettered by tales of love and compassion. True too, as more and more positive news comes through about at least three potentially successful vaccines, as well as the bright lights of Christmas being just around the corner, we have more to be grateful for and so much to be hopeful for. Between debates with Trotsky and other very important, very dower men, Simone Weil pondered that “the beauty of the world is the tender smile of Christ to us through matter”, and as we lay on the precipice of struggling through perhaps the bleakest mid-winter in years, it feels like an apt reminder. It may be a flurry of snow. It might be a rare winter’s sunny day. Christ’s tender smile shines through. We just have to look for it.
There is a light in the darkness, and it is always shining.