by Margo Borders
When I first heard Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell, I was struck by its chilling lyrics and haunting, sorrow-inducing tone. With no background knowledge of the artist, a listener can easily detect the emotion, and often pain, Stevens is experiencing in the songs. The album, while dealing with the theme of death, wavers between hope and despair, faith and disbelief, and love and abandonment.
Stevens wrote this album in the midst of dealing with the death of his mother, with whom he did not have a close relationship. Stevens is grappling with the pain of her death in the context of
their strained relationship, the memories he harbors, and the deep regrets he has for what their relationship could have been. There is an undeniable sense of grief in each lyric he sings. With
lyrics repeating, “we’re all going to die,” “every road leads to an end,” and “what could I have said to raise you from the dead,” there is a constant sense of reflection on death and a
struggling to understand what it means to leave this world.
This album has a particular impact on me because of how Stevens engages with God in so many different ways. He seems to drift between acceptance and denial of God’s existence, as well as regarding God as both a friend and an enemy. As a Christian, this sort of reflection about God and suffering is necessary, and Stevens’ lyrics call us into that reflection once more. In a world full of suffering, we too call on the ‘God of Elijah’ in asking, “How did this happen?” Stevens affirms his “blind faith” in the midst of intense grief in saying, “still I pray to what I cannot see.”
In one of the most trying times in his life, Stevens reaches out for understanding. In one of the most poignant songs on the album, “Death with Dignity,” he begins with the lyrics, “Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you.” He can feel God, this “spirit of silence,” in the depths of his suffering, but is still separated by his fear. In the hardest times, we all struggle to face God. The true Christian spirit of hope, however, can be found in the Cross.
In the ultimate Christian sacrifice, the truest form of suffering found in Jesus’ Passion and death on the Cross, we find hope. We no longer suffer without hope because Jesus has saved us from a life of sin and despair. This does not, however, mean that our lives will not include suffering. In fact, Christianity necessitates sacrifice on earth in order to find joy and glory in heaven. Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, says that “it is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.” We cannot find true union with God without sharing in the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.
Through his grief-stricken and emotionally stirring album, Stevens returns our attention to eternal life, something beyond the here and now. In a brief and rare ray of hope, he sings about his brother’s daughter as an “illumination” in the depths of his depression. In the same sense of joy and hope, Benedict XVI describes an idea of eternal life as “plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” Let us engage with our deepest sorrows and sufferings with our vision always on Christ, not avoiding our sorrows and fears, but constantly looking forward to the indescribable joy we will experience in our union with God.