The Second Station: Unmagical Thinking

February 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

"Cross Laid on Him", James MiddletonAuthor Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking captures a process of grief as it unfolded for her after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death. Grief, she says, “turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”[1] That place of grief for Didion included meaninglessness, derangement, and magical thinking. She describes the start of her magical thinking:

… but I needed that first night to be alone.

I needed to be alone so that he could come back.

This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.[2]

This borrows on anthropological thought which views magical thinking as thinking which, if someone hopes hard enough or performs some sort of right action or ritual, what is impossible will become possible. Didion had thought that first night that if she were alone she could avoid the reality of her husband’s death and wish him back into existence.  Poignantly, she also narrated her inability to give away her husband’s shoes because he would need them if he were to return.

Magical thinking might alleviate the pressure points of suffering, but it does not change the reality of the suffering.  A job that is lost remains lost. A confidence that is betrayed remains betrayed. A loved one who dies remains dead.  Yet, Didion suggests that dealing with the starkness of the reality confronts us with abject meaninglessness, with loneliness, which offers “sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”[3]  Our Christian faith, however, takes a different shape. We look not to avoid suffering or come to expect meaninglessness or insanity; we look to transform suffering into love.

Early Christians grappled with the problem of how to make sense of Jesus’ death — was it just Jesus’ human nature that suffered or did Jesus not really suffer at all? How could God in God’s divine nature suffer? In both the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the fifth century, the Church espoused the view that God was capable of suffering because of the Incarnation[4]. Later on, St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan, described God as bent low in love for us who was reckless even to the point of death.[5] Bonaventure started from the point of the Trinity, which he formulated as a love relationship whose self-diffusive love overflowed into creation. The force of this view on the Trinity lies in how one can then ponder why God became human. For Bonaventure, God became incarnate not because of sin but because of love. A later Franciscan, Bl. John Duns Scotus, would argue that God would become incarnate even if no human had sinned. If we press this further, the shape of the Second Station comes into view.

In “taking up our cross” or in experiencing the fullness of grief, we encounter a God bent low in love for us even to the point of death. Magical thinking robs us of this love, and it can help destroy experiential living. If we take Bonaventure’s view, we have a God who does not merely love us in our suffering, but a God who also suffers alongside us in love. In suffering, then, we participate in the life of the Trinity through love.  Put another way, through “unmagical” thinking, thinking that embraces the reality of what we are suffering, God enters our broken humanity to transform us again into God’s image and likeness.  In this Lenten season, may we be transformed as unmagical thinkers.

 –  Nicole Hanley


[1]  Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage International, 2007), 188.

[2] Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 189.

[3] Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 27..

[4] “The Council of Ephesus: The Epistle of Cyril to Nestorius”, http://orthodoxchurchfathers.com/fathers/npnf214/npnf2176.htm.

[5] Ilia Delio, The Humility of God (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 4.

James Middleton painted the Stations of the Cross for the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Learn more about this series in his artist’s statement.

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§ 2 Responses to The Second Station: Unmagical Thinking

  • mfoulke says:

    Thank you Nicole and Sean – I think that these two posts say a lot to me about religious and spiritual life. Fire is the mystery, the mystical symbol, the “magic” in the best sense of the word, a force for good in the world. But too much magic (in the best or worst sense of the word) distorts our ability to think and act in the world. We must embrace both clear thinking and mystery in our life together; in this way we can find deep meaning in the randomness of life. I look forward to others’ thoughts and reflections!

  • Hugh M. Grant says:

    Thank you for this, Nicole. I hear this as a call to let the Spirit move me out of the safety of my head and into the riskier experience of embodiment–to feel life and its sorrows and joys rather than thinking about them or trying to figure them out.

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