Human suffering is an important touchstone for much of what is discussed here at Mockingbird. And as a native Pensacolian watching oil wash up on our shores every day, I am seeing suffering in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends on a scale that I had never before imagined.

As a result of this daily assault, my mind keeps turning back to some points that Steven Paulson made at the 2009 Mockingbird Conference which touch on the source of human suffering.

Dr. Paulson pointed out that long ago, Saint Augustine observed that we are more where we love than where we live. Anyone who has experienced a long distance relationship knows what this is like. Before long, your thoughts and everything else about you starts going in the direction of where the other person is.

So Augustine observed that in such a situation the heart is no longer where it is geographically located, because it’s grabbing and holding on somewhere else. And where the heart is grabbing and holding is where we truly are. It’s where we live.

From this observation, Augustine asserted that the heart is essentially a love machine, that it creates love and thereby defines us and shapes our lives. And this was so well received that it’s part of where we get the association even to this day of romantic love being born out of the heart instead of the head: the idea of the heart being the source of all love.

But Martin Luther made a brilliant observation during his lifetime, one that corrected Augustine. Luther observed that the heart is not so much a love machine. It’s a hope machine. And what you’re hoping for in life is where you actually live.

In Luther’s observation, what happens when two people fall in love is that their individual hopes for the future come together in such a way that it forms a common hope. That’s what love is, it’s a common hope in one another, a hope that the other person will be there tomorrow, and the next day, that a common life will be formed, one that will last. And love dies when those individual hopes no longer form a common hope. One or the other changes his or her mind, doesn’t want marriage, or children, or what have you.

So the heart is always hoping for the future, and when it finds that it has the thing it loves, it hopes to have this thing forever into the future. And so we live our lives constantly encircling ourselves with our hopes for the future so that they are what we see. And these hopes are where we live. These hopes are what get us through our day.

And so I’ve come to understand that suffering is a natural result of this functioning of the heart as hope machine. Suffering comes out of things that are hoped for being cut off. We all hope for a long life, and we suffer when the doctor tells us we have an exit date scheduled, and it’s soon. We all hope to have our loved ones with us forever, and we suffer greatly when they are taken from us. All suffering is a kind of cutting off—it’s a reversal of hope.

And life for us here on the Gulf Coast has become an enormous reversal of hope, because we have built our lives and our economy on the fragile beauty of this place, and we have placed our hopes for the future in the assumption that this place’s beauty would endure forever. As a community, almost in the same breath together, we have come to realize that this hope has been cut off and taken from us. So we are all struggling to come to grips with this new reality, and we are suffering as a result.

Recently the rector of Christ Church Pensacola had the opportunity to ask a question of Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. He asked her in her opinion as a scientist (prior to becoming a priest, she was an oceanographer), how long will it take for the Gulf to recover to what it was prior to the spill?

She replied, “Not in our lifetimes, Neal. Probably not in our children’s lifetimes, but maybe in our grand children’s.”

How do I explain this to my seven-year-old son: that the Gulf where he and Daddy love to play and fish is probably certainly gone for Daddy’s lifetime, and may be for his lifetime as well? How do we file a claim for the dashed hopes we must now live with and the memories we will never have?

I’m reminded of a passage from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel in which the author himself appears to be remembering something from his own past, in this case the love of a young girl, a hope which for him must have been cut off in such a way that caused him great suffering:

Come up into the hills, O my young love. Return! O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again, as first I knew you in the timeless valley, where we shall feel ourselves anew, bedded on magic in the month of June. There was a place where all the sun went glistening in your hair, and from the hill we could have put a finger on a star. Where is the day that melted into one rich noise? Where the music of your flesh, the rhyme of your teeth, the dainty languor of your legs, your small firm arms, your slender fingers, to be bitten like an apple, and the little cherry-teats of your white breasts? And where are all the tiny wires of finespun maidenhair? Quick are the mouths of earth, and quick the teeth that fed upon this loveliness. You who were made for music, will hear music no more: in your dark house the winds are silent. Ghost, ghost, come back from that marriage that we did not foresee, return not into life, but into magic, where we have never died, into the enchanted wood, where we still lie strewn on the grass. Come up into the hills, O my young love: return. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.