“Our once great western Christian civilization is dying. If this matters to followers of Jesus Christ, then we must set aside our denominational differences and work together to strengthen the things that remain and reclaim what has been lost. Evangelicals and Catholics must stand together to re-establish that former Christian culture and moral consensus. We have the numbers and the organization but the question is this: Do we have the will to win this present spiritual battle for Jesus Christ against secularism? Will we prayerfully and cooperatively work toward a new Christian spiritual revival ― or will we choose to hunker down in our churches and denominationalisms and watch everything sink into the spiritual and moral abyss of a New Dark Age?” - Mark Davis Pickup

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


A few years ago I was invited to speak at a retreat for medical students in Saskatchewan, Canada. Little did we know that within 5 years Canada's Supreme Court would strike down the nation's laws against assisted suicide. Little did we know that doctors would be required to kill suicidal patients with any disease, condition or disability or refer them to doctors who would! It all begins in June 2016. The Supreme Court of Canada (and dutiful toady professional medical organizations) have decreed it shall be. Suicidal healthy and able-bodied Canadians will receive suicide prevention counselling and care. Suicidal sick and disabled Canadians will get physician assisted suicide. The state has legislated selective abandonment (disguised as autonomy) and the dangerous notion that some lives are unworthy to be lived. 

While adversity or suffering with a disability or incurable illness may have the terrible effect of isolating people, it’s important to realize that their creativity may continue unabated and even blossom in the midst of suffering. I have personal experience illustrating that suffering can sharpen creative perceptiveness and expression. Below is part my address showing historical evidence I used to prove this point to the medical students. Hold up and protect every human life. Everyone has something to bring to the table of human experience.  

Art, literature, music and the sciences have records of suffering people making colossal contributions to human creativity despite their suffering (or maybe because of it).  History records many suffering people whose creative contributions enriched our world. I want to illustrate this by highlighting some examples:

John Forbes Nash Jr. (1928-2015) Brilliant American mathematician and Winner of the 1994 Nobel prize for economics. He suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. The movie A Beautiful Mind was made about his life.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) English Novelist, is widely acclaimed as one of the great innovative novelists of the 20th Century.  She was manic depressive (which we call bi-polar today). Her psychosis ultimately led to her suicide in 1941. 

Maurice Ravel's Pianoforte Concerto for the left hand was written for an Austrian pianist (Paul Wittgenstein) who lost his right arm in the First World War.

Imagine Wittgenstein's grief! Music was the center of his world. He
Paul Wittgenstein
grew up in a prominent Viennese household visited by composers such as Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Straus: as a boy, Paul Wittgenstein occasionally played duets with them. He was close to 30 years of age when he lost his arm. It must have been a terrible shock! 

Despite losing his arm, Wittgenstein did not give up. He went on to have a successful career as a concert pianist. He commissioned various works that he could perform from composers such as Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith and Richard Strauss. Wittgenstein was a wonderful example of the human capacity to triumph over adversity. 

Paul Wittgenstein was probably just as skilled a pianist before he lost his arm as after, yet the public loved him most as a one-armed pianist. (Everyone loves an over-comer!) Did Paul Wittgenstein play Ravel's Pianoforte for the left hand better than any two-armed pianist? Probably not, but the public wanted it played by someone who had earned the right to play it.

The musician's suffering was as important to a composition for the left hand as the notes themselves; together they made the music more beautiful and compelling - and that was true. It's still true. 

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). He lost almost all his hearing at the age of twelve. Yet that is not why we remember him. We remember Thomas Edison for inventing phonograph, the movie camera, the light bulb. 

Henry Ford – (1863-1947) American industrialist and pioneer automobile manufacturer. He also had a severe hearing impairment.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) His career as a painter began at the
age of 27 and lasted a brief ten years ending in his suicide.  His works are perhaps better known than those of any other painter and yet during his lifetime he was virtually unknown. He suffered from mental illness.

His mental illness drove his moods from the highest pitches of enthusiasm and creativity – which he called the “rage of work” to periods of discouragement which he called his “fear and horror of madness.”[1] Van Gogh produced over 2,000 pieces of art.  Do you know how many of those pieces he sold during his lifetime? One. His brother Theo had to beg somebody to buy it.

Vincent Van Gogh’s attempts at romantic love were rebuffed which drove him further into isolation and internal anguish. He often suffered seizures, hallucinations and delirium for days or weeks at a time. On one occasion Van Gogh cut off part of his ear.

Van Gogh captured the suffering of mental illness in glittering, agitated canvases.  His internal turbulence and anguish is clearly evident seen in most of his paintings, which set the stage for the direction of a new style of painting we call Expressionism.  Vincent`s emotional turmoil did however bear artistic fruits in the form of a remarkable gift for perception - seeing powerfully what most others did not observe at all He projected onto the canvas what he experienced internally. [2] 

Van Gogh wrote more than 800 letters.  If you haven’t read his collected correspondence, I would recommend it. Not only is it a good autobiographical account of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, it’s great literature.

Vincent Van Gogh lived in barren rooms of rural cottages and the wards of mental institutions. His loneliness and isolation were almost larger than his life. Yet that is not what we remember about Vincent van Gogh. When we think of him we are apt to think of “Starry Nights”, Cafe Terrace, or his stunning series of Sunflowers, just to mention a few.

His last dark Painting was entitled Wheatfield with Crows.  That’s
Wheatfield with Crows
the field where he shot himself in July 1980 at the age of 37. He died three days later. Van Gogh’s last words summed up his sadness. He said, simply, “The sadness never goes away. I think I want to go home now.”
In one of his last letters to Theo, Van Gogh had written,

"I feel...a failure. That's it as far as I'm concerned...I feel that this is the destiny that I accept, that will never change."

He was not a failure. Look what he left humanity!

John Milton (1609-74) was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost – the story of Satan’s rebellion against God and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Paradise Lost is generally considered the greatest epic in the English language.

John Donne lived from 1572-1631 and was England’s greatest
metaphysical poets. He suffered a series of illnesses, one of which took him to the edge of death in 1623. While convalescing he wrote numerous devotions. In his devotions, he wrote, among other things, the misery and solitude of serious illness. We remember his immortal words,
“No man is an island entire unto itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; ... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; ... and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[3]  

Later in that same Meditation Donne wrote: “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by it.”

A few sentences later he mitigated this comment by writing,

“Another man may be sick too, and sick to the death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him.”

Donne exhorted the sufferer not to waste his suffering but allow it to be a vehicle to draw the sufferer closer to his home in heaven.

John Donne’s believed that suffering could be a blessing to the individual or others, if allowed to ripen a person’s spiritual character.  These were insights from a man who defended suicide 15 years earlier in a scurrilous book Biathanatos. Why the change of heart ? Could it be that his suffering, and interior throes of his soul, had a purifying effect on his spiritual character?

John Keats (1795-1821) Is considered one of England’s greatest poets. He died at the young age of 25 with tuberculosis. His poetry is unequalled for dignity, melody and richness of imagery. He once said, “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had time, I would have made myself remembered." He didn’t need more time to create beauty. John Keats is remembered.

Elizabeth Barrett
Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-61) An invalid and recluse, yet her gift for lyrical poetry is with us to this day.

Some scholars have speculated and surmised that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may have suffered from Tourette syndrome.[4]

Robert Schumann (1810-56) A leading composer of the Romantic movement. As a young pianist he damaged his right hand, which ended his dreams of becoming a concert pianist, but his output as a composer for piano, orchestral works and chamber music was prodigious.  Schumann suffered from depression and mental illness that worsened with age. Robert Schumann suffered from auditory hallucinations. During one of his bouts of mental illness he attempted suicide. He admitted himself to an asylum where he died in 1856.

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) Is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Most people are aware that he was deaf when he wrote his 9th Symphony. It was his crowning achievement. 

I want to bring to your attention to the fact that Beethoven was going deaf when he wrote his 1st symphony.[5] It was detectable when he began composing his 1st symphony in 1798, and when it was completed in 1800, Beethoven’s had become quite anxious about his malady. By his own words, Beethoven had noticed his hearing loss beginning in 1796 at the age of 26.[6] By 1801 his physicians began various therapies, to no avail. His deafness increased to be near total, yet his creative prowess did not falter.

All 9 symphonies were composed with some level of deafness! His mind was so muscular. How could it be that the standard bearer of the Romantic era was a composer who was deaf! Despite this, he rose above his predicament to reach unequalled human achievement. His beloved Moon Light Sonota was composed in serious deafness. The same is true for his opera Fidelio. Creatures
of Prometheus  It’s doubtful he heard much of his 5th Symphony, his concerto for violin and orchestra, his Masses. Beethoven's deafness causes him such suffering and brought him inner and outer troubles, disappointment with life and isolation.

Beethoven addressed this isolation himself in a letter he wrote to his brother Carl in 1802:

“[F]orgive me when you see me draw back....for me there is no relaxation with my fellow man, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished. ...But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.”

In that same letter, Beethoven prayed, “O Divine One, thou seest my inmost soul thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and a desire to do good.”  At the end of his letter to Karl and Johann, he wrote in his despair, “Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead.”

Those words were written at a point of crisis for Beethoven about his deafness. Happily for us, the crisis passed and the great man rose above is deafness to eventually write his 9th and final symphony at his peak of creative power. 

Although Beethoven used Schiller’s Ode to Joy, there is a spirituality or mystical quality to the 9th. Symphony. It has a note of authentic life experience. It contains energy yet a peace and acceptance only won by strife, and a wisdom only suffering can teach. (I keep a bust of Beethoven on my fireplace mantel to remind me of the human capacity to overcome adversity. See photo at the top of my blog,)

In his 9th symphony we see a triumph of human spirit over adversity sustained by a spark of God’s love in a silent world. Yes, above a starry canopy dwells a loving Father who can reach into the silent world of a deaf genius and touch us even 190 years later.
Now, we are about to enjoy the 4th movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th symphony by the West-Eastern Orchestra, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Click on image below or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChygZLpJDNE

[1]John Rowan Wilson, The Mind, (New York, Life Science Library, 1964) p.146.
[2] Vincent Van Gogh, The Art History Archive, Biography and Paintings. Accessed online at http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/expressionism/Vincent-Van-Gogh.html
[3] Meditation, XVII.
[4] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may have suffered from Tourette's Syndrome,  The Medical News, 31 August 2004. Http://www.news-medical.net/news/2004/08/31/4423.aspx. Accessed from Internet 6 February 2011. 
[5] Peter Latham, “The Music Masters: From the Sixteenth Century to the Time of Beethoven”, ed. A.L. Bacharach (London: Pelican Books, 1957), p.66.
[6] Ludwig van Beethoven – The “Heilgenst├Ądter Testament”. 

No comments: