Finding faith, hope, and courage in a time of pain and suffering:
‘We are, each of us, imperilled, insofar as anything can turn catastrophic at any time, personally, for each of us. Each life is precarious, and some of us understand it and some don’t. But certainly, everyone will understand it in time.’Nick Cave
While I am not familiar with Nick Cave’s music and do not recall ever having watched a video clip of him singing, I AM interested in how he dealt with the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur and the impact it had on his life. I also lost a son in tragic circumstances so have some understanding of the faith, hope and courage needed to survive.
Nick Cave is a man of many talents. Musician. Songwriter, Screenwriter. Novelist. Actor. He is an Australian, born in Warracknabeel, Victoria in 1957. He has four children, Arthur, Earl, Jethro, and Luke. His son Arthur died in July 2015 following a fall from a cliff in Brighton, England. An inquest heard that the teenager had taken the hallucinogen LSD before the fall, which the coroner ruled accidental. Arthur was regarded by his family as ‘a bright, shiny, funny, complex boy who was loved deeply.’
The book Faith, Hope and Carnage is an edited transcript of more than 40 hours of conversation between Nick Cave and journalist Sean O’Hagan which took place during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 when normal routines were spectacularly disrupted.
It is a compelling book, wide ranging in its subject matter and brutally honest. Whilst some aspects of the text were outside the breadth of my experience or did not reflect my point of view, there was much that resonated, that expanded my understanding, and stirred my spirit.
Let us look at the wisdom and insight Nick Cave brings to the varied experiences we face.
Nick Cave’s grief was public. The media would not allow it to be locked away. He found that ‘there is no place to speak about grief in our regular lives.’ It is not something we do. We fear where it might take us. Our failure to understand the nuances of grief makes it difficult for us to talk about it.
Nick Cave saw value in finding a way to give expression to what he was experiencing, to uncover his voice. He says,
‘There is little headway that we can make around grief until we learn to articulate it – speak it, say it out loud, sing about it, write it down, or whatever.’
Some people become constricted by their grief. It has a hold on them, pulling them down. They withdraw into themselves, becoming unresponsive, finding solace in their loss. Nick Cave says,
‘Many grieving people just remain silent, trapped in their own secret thoughts, trapped in their own minds, with their only form of company being the dead themselves’.
Grief highlights our human mortality. The death of our loved one is confronting. The intense pain we experience is testimony to the love we feel. It is the finality of death that is disquieting, being denied their living presence. But it is in facing this reality that ‘the idea of God feels more present or maybe more essential.’ Nick Cave adds,
‘It feels like grief and God are somehow intertwined. In grief you draw closer to the veil that separates this world from the next.’
Grief changes us. It invites us to be more empathetic, more understanding, more forgiving. Grief enlarges our heart. We feel more deeply, we respond more willingly, we give more gladly. Grief releases in us a desire to be more, to do more, to love more. Nick Cave says,
‘Grief is a gift, a positive force that can become, if we allow it its full expression, a defiant, sometimes mutinous energy.’
The seeds of faith grow in the soil of adversity. Faith comes to the forefront when we are faced with challenges that exceed our ability to overcome or are such that we are unable to guarantee a positive outcome. Our vulnerability becomes the foundation for our courage and resourcefulness. As Nick Cave says,
‘There is something about being open and vulnerable that is conversely very powerful, maybe even transformative.’
Faith says that no matter the gravity of our situation, something positive will emerge that will bring meaning to our pain and imbue us with a wisdom that only suffering can teach. We become empowered to live more intentionally, more purposefully, more daringly.
Nick Cave says,
‘Ultimately, Arthur’s death, opened all kinds of possibilities and a strange reckless power came out of it. It was as if the worst had happened and nothing could hurt us, and all our ordinary concerns were little more than indulgences. There was freedom in that.’
Faith says that despite the feelings of devastation, even obliteration, the sun will rise again. Some things don’t change. Be expectant. As Nick Cave says,
‘You have to be patient and alert to the little miracles nestled in the ordinary.’
Secular humanism is a compelling force. It has no time for religion. It says that happiness and fulfilment can be achieved without it, that belief in God has nothing to offer apart from guilt, a sense of not being good enough.
Religion is often accused of causing division in society and has been implicated in all sorts of conflict and violence throughout human history. Unsurprisingly, religious affiliation is in decline, particularly in western countries.
Nick Cave laments the outright rejection of religion. He warns that,
‘Things are not easily retrieved once they are gone. They remain lost.’
Nick Cave believes religion has much to offer the grieving person. Many people, burdened by grief, find themselves isolated, with no one to talk to. It is important to know that you belong, that you are part of something bigger, that you are valued. He says,
‘Religion, at its best, can serve as a kind of shepherding force that holds communities together – it is there, within a community, that people feel more attached to each other and the world. It’s where they find a deeper meaning.’
And then there is the question of guilt, particularly with people who believe they could have prevented the death of their loved one by being more alert, more compassionate, more available. Nick Cave says,
‘Religion deals with the necessity for forgiveness, for example, and mercy, whereas I don’t think secularism has found the language to address these matters.’
The stark reality of personal tragedy engenders feelings of guilt and shame, sorrow and sadness, anger and despair. We experience a sense of abandonment, that God is unmoved by our suffering. We believe our cries go unheard, that we are alone in our grief.
The God of the Bible knows our pain. He understands our rage. He hears the frustration, the anguish, and the longing. He is not embarrassed by the intensity of our emotions. This is our reality. This is our prayer.
Many people believe distraction is the best remedy for a disrupted life. But it is wrong to assume that busyness can bring us respite from the pain of loss. It may help us forget for a time but only God’s love can heal our deepest wounds. His love is like the lapping of the waves on the shore – calming, comforting, restoring, renewing.
Stillness is the key. To experience God’s healing presence in our life we need to be still, to wait, to welcome his coming. Prayer is more than words, it is waiting.
Nick Cave sees the value of waiting, of turning off and tuning in to the whispers of his presence. He says,
‘For me, prayer creates a silent, contemplative space where the soul has its place to speak… Prayer is not so much talking to God, but rather listening for the whispers of His presence – not from outside ourselves, but within.’
Parents who lose a child in tragic circumstances feel a responsibility to honour them and keep their memory alive.
Music has been a central feature of Nick Cave’s life. Music has allowed him to know himself, to express himself. It has been a constant. Every performance provides an opportunity to connect with his audience.
The impact of Arthur’s death was inestimable. In certain situations, trauma can cause us to shut down, to suppress our emotions. Rather than dampening his creativity, Nick Cave discovered that Arthur’s death re-invigorated him. He says,
‘Arthur died and everything changed… His death ultimately became a motivating force.’
Arthur became the inspiration behind his music. When he performed, he felt Arthur’s spirit with him. Arthur was not lost to him.
Music has the power to unite. Joy and sorrow, love and hope, disappointment and despair, are experiences common to all. Music affirms our connectedness.
Music also has the power to carry us beyond our immediate concerns. Nick Cave says,
‘Music is a spiritual currency unlike any other in its ability to transport people out of their suffering, even if temporarily.’
Nick Cave’s music speaks of the yearning in all of us for more, for something greater than ourselves, for the sacred. He says,
‘Music has the ability to lead us, if only temporarily, into a sacred realm. Music plays into the yearning many of us instinctively have – the God-shaped hole.’
Hopeful people are survivors. They emerge out of the rubble, battered and bruised, determined to grasp the opportunities that come their way. They know what it is to suffer, to be stripped bare, to have nothing, to be nothing. They are not looking for sympathy. They know the hard-earned qualities of patience and perseverance are enough to triumph over adversity. Their hope is founded in a mystery, that brokenness has its own reward, new life.
Nick Cave understands. He says,
‘Hope is optimism with a broken heart.’