The suffering of Elaine Pagels
‘The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” wrote Rumi.
For religious scholar Elaine Pagels, arriving at something close to the equanimity of this insight has been the struggle of a lifetime, one marked by extraordinary intellectual achievement and extraordinary loss, movingly chronicled in “Why Religion,’’ her searing and wise new memoir.
While a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School in the late ’60s, Pagels stumbled onto the recently discovered early Christian gnostic texts, and it was life changing. Raised in a privileged secular-atheist family in Palo Alto, Calif., she flirted briefly with evangelical religion, but soon left all but an affection for the rituals of religious life behind. The manuscripts she began to read at Harvard offered a spiritual framework that transcended the dogmatic proscriptions of mainstream Christianity, a path of liberation and self-knowledge that was deeply personal and, as she read these forgotten “gospels,’’ seemed to her to be worthy of a lifetime of study — in her word, “true.”
Her translations, in “The Gnostic Gospels,’’ became an immediate international bestseller and catapulted her to a controversial but visible position in the otherwise dusty world of white male theologians.
She and her husband, Heinz Pagels, a quantum physicist, soon became parents of a son, Mark. But just as life seemed to be opening up on all fronts, Mark was diagnosed with a fatal, untreatable heart defect. This marks the beginning of a heartbreaking trail of anguish and courage for Pagels. Her account of Mark’s five years of life are tender and wrenching, sketched with exquisite detail.
A year after Mark’s passing in 1987, Heinz fell to his death in a hiking accident in Colorado, as Pagels awaited his return in a cabin nearby, caring for their two adopted infants.
As a younger woman, about to enter into her chosen field, Pagels had asked, “What kind of hunger drives us to come together, sing, pray, and share a token meal?”
Now, like Job, she is obsessed with the question that will drive the rest of her story, “Why do we suffer, and why do we die?”
This chronicle is permeated by Pagels’s profound suffering and the atmosphere of isolation that is its most impenetrable aspect. In spite of her children, colleagues who create the space and time for her to heal, and friends who drop in with life-saving help, Pagels moves through the years engulfed in darkness, rage, and guilt. She wrestles with questions about God, evil, and death and hurls herself at theological constructs of suffering, from Job to the problem of Jesus’s violent death.
Loss proves a powerful prod to a fiercely able scholar. She is tenacious, prodigious, exhaustive. Though she calls “Why Religion?’’ a personal tale, what is most evident is the rigor and skepticism that circumscribe longing.
Interestingly, the most powerful moments in this narrative are not her arguments with other exegetes, however. They are a series of remarkable visions and mystical experiences Pagels interweaves with her more intellectual journey and that leave her (and the reader) undone. She is strangely transformed by these brief moments, drawn beyond the labyrinth of grief and into a place of grace.
As Pagels approaches the end of her own journey, she acknowledges that reason alone will never adequately address our deepest human needs. She writes, “Jesus reveals that the kingdom of God . . . not [as] an actual place . . . Instead it’s a state of being that we may enter when we come to know who we are, and come to know God as the source of our being.”
The value of spiritual texts, contemplative experiences, ritual, and prayer are inestimable, she writes, in leading us into this deep knowing. And it is the desire to experience this level of our humanity that justifies and explains the ongoing-ness of religion.
Late in her story, Pagels returns to the concept of grace — and to another central dimension of a life of faith. From showing us a solitary and deeply bereaved woman alone, she comes to acknowledge the love of the Trappist monk, Thomas Keating, who visits her in New York, of his monastic brothers who organize a liturgy for her husband at their monastery in Snowmass, of the friend who recites the Kaddish on a hilltop outside London, and so many others. All represent, as Christians would say, “the hands and feet of Christ,” as pivotal, if not more so, than her intellectual arguments with God. It is the web of loving “others” who gentle her to a tentative but real peace and a capacity for affirmation.
“My own experience of the ‘nightmare’,” she writes, “the agony of feeling isolated, vulnerable, and terrified — has shown that only awareness of that sense of interconnection restores equanimity, even joy.”
A Personal Story
By Elaine Pagels
Ecco, 235 pp., $27.99
Kathleen Hirsch is the author of “A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness.’’ She writes frequently on spirituality and religion.
Correction: An earlier version of a caption with this story gave an incorrect age for Elaine Pagels’s late son, Mark. He was 3 months old when the picture was taken.
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