"The Thorn and the Rose: A Journey from Suffering to Love"


1 - by Robert MacIsaac (from the "Fellowship Forum", 9/2001)

A new challenge to understanding an old theme
For many of us there is perhaps a particular habit of mind in relation to books that are called "anthologies". We may open the book at page 200, say, and search for a line or paragraph that can stimulate our thinking or evoke a familiar association, then leaf through section after section until our curiosity is satisfied. Or we may let the book stand alongside the dictionary and thesaurus, ready to provide a pithy remark should the need arise. Anthony Williams’ collection The Thorn and the Rose: A Journey from Suffering to Love departs from this format in many respects, providing the reader with new ways to enter into its subject and a new challenge to understanding an old theme.

The book truly develops its idea
The Thorn and the Rose is about suffering and its transformation. The book is indeed organized as a journey. Its three chapters, each fifty to seventy-five pages in length, are entitled "Understanding", "Practice", and "Soul & Spirit", with each chapter divided into a number of sections that touch upon particular aspects of suffering and its consequences, such as "Personal Testimony", "Limitations", "Mistakes and Failures", "Death", "Fellowship". With this type of structure the book truly develops its idea--the gradual buildup of related theme, personal anecdote, and attitudes tested in the fire of experience bring the reader (somewhat unexpectedly I found) to moments of a wordless recognition of our situation, and of its deepest possibilities.

Intimate connection between suffering and love
Before delving into this book, I would recommend reading the author’s own preface. In a few paragraphs he sets out what he has hoped to accomplish by offering us this collection. We see, for example, that it is his collection, that the book is a reflection of what he himself has chosen to read in his efforts to connect the experience of suffering to the insights and answers offered by religious traditions, psychological practices, and philosophy and literature both East and West. He also touches upon two key ideas that inform the entire volume. The first is that the transformation of suffering requires a recognition of and appeal to something higher than oneself, and the second is the intimate connection that exists between suffering and love. What becomes immediately clear is that the book will not explicate these ideas as something to be proven conclusively. No, the point is to experience them--or to put it another way, to realize how our own experience has indeed been leading us toward the place where our knowledge can become our understanding.

Demands an active participation in the journey
The choice and arrangement of selections in The Thorn and the Rose is unlike many collections in that the length varies greatly, from the half-sentence to two to three pages of uninterrupted development by a single author. Such a form demands of the reader a more active participation in the journey. While the shorter quotations perhaps deliver their message more succinctly (though this is never certain), the longer passages often require patience to grasp the essence of what the original author intended. Of course, the reader is always free to wander around a volume like this and seek out the one phrase that might be of use or interest in the moment. But to read through an entire section of this book in the sequence intended is to spend quality time with its particular theme.

The consistent message is one of acceptance
The first chapter, "Understanding", addresses our need to recognize that the suffering in our life is not there to interrupt our pleasure, or to stand before us as the Great Demon to be avoided, but that it is rather something integral to our very existence. The selections offered mingle ideology and attitude with personal experience. After only a few pages the reader recognizes that there are different levels of being at work here, such that one author will struggle with his analysis while another seems proud of a self-evident conclusion. But the consistent message from everyone quoted is one of acceptance, or at least the recognition of the need to accept.

It is also noteworthy that suffering as a term is never defined. To do so would slow down the book’s development and take away from its inspiration. Let the definitions of pain and difficulty in life remain our own; the aim is to understand, after all, not to "get it right".

Suffering means being present with one’s own experiences
The second chapter, "Practice", explores the various means that people from all walks of life have employed to actively embrace their suffering. In this chapter especially I found that I could not agree with a number of the conclusions that people came to. This helped me understand the distinction between acknowledging the reality of a painful experience in one’s life and actually transforming the experience into something else. In all fairness to the author’s structure, this latter theme predominates in Chapter Three, "Soul & Spirit". Again an interesting effect develops from a continuous reading--by the time you arrive at the subject, and demonstration, of transformation, you understand quite deeply that theory is not an option. With that one understands that avoidance of suffering is not an option either, unless one wants to avoid living. The real gift for me in reading this book were the moments that brought me to the still point of understanding how much "doing" in relation to suffering means being present and being with one’s own experiences--that through suffering and its transformation we learn to be.

Encouragement and inspiration
It is probably a good idea to read this book without any expectation of finding out something that you do not already know. We have all suffered profitably, and many of us have gone beyond experiences and attitudes that once gave us friction. So we look not for answers, but instead for encouragement, or reinforcement of our convictions, or acknowledgement of something elusive that we have previously understood, or inspiration to help us transform the current trial in our lives. We may disagree with many things included here, we may even feel that we understand more about the subject than a number of the authors quoted. In order to develop one’s own critical faculties, there is actually an advantage in not assuming that an author knows more than we do--provided we are always willing to learn something new and that we are able to acknowledge a higher understanding when it does present itself.

Worth spending quality time with
The Thorn and the Rose
contains many reliable extras for further study. There is a comprehensive section of notes identifying the exact source (and frequently page reference) of each quotation cited. The bibliography lists alphabetically by author information about each book used, and an index of names provides an easy way of collecting all quotations together from the same source....

But to reiterate what I have stated already, The Thorn and the Rose offered me many moments of understanding without words. Any book that can do this is certainly worth spending quality time with.


2 - from the "Book Reader" Fall/Winter 2002-2003

We live in a golden age of faith and awareness. Choice is ours in evolving towards health, a true health, from the abyss of suffering. This anthology of quotations is about suffering and its ultimate value in consciousness expansion--Anthony Williams was educated at Cambridge, values early Christian teachings and Fourth Way knowledge. Two themes here--the transformation of suffering into a higher level of mindfulness, and "the connection of suffering with love and positive emotion." The main sections, as in any discipline leading toward wholeness, are Understanding, Practice, Soul & Spirit. A serious Oscar Wilde: "To become the spectator of one's own life is to escape the suffering of life." An awed Meister Eckhart: "As love brings sorrow, sorrow also brings love." A vivid Goethe: "In all things it is better to hope than despair." An unequivocal Ouspensky: "Nothing transforms itself, it must be transformed by effort of will and by knowledge." An enormous amount of sources here, from peace activists to theologians to novelists and poets. George Sand: "if one does not accept life, how can one endure it?" Dorothee Solle: "There is no suffering that is another's." Rodney Collin: "Suffering is the great purifier." Every aspect of suffering and our responses--torture and evil, death, letting go, joy, transformation. Emerson: "When it is dark enough men see the stars." St. Augustine: "Mercy cannot exist apart from suffering." Williams chooses well. These quotations are fresh and different—and very wise. A rare delight, uncompromising and courageous, continuing an ancient tradition of transforming suffering into deliverance.


3 - from the "Christian New Age Quarterly" vol. 15, #4, Oct-Dec 2003

"...offers reassurance and wisdom to those caught in despair and strife."

"An enlightened spirituality and wisdom-grounded philosophy complete the spectrum of holistic treatments. A greater awareness of soul is vital to alleviating many cases of depression, especially once physical and emotional etiologies have been addressed. 'The Thorn and the Rose' contributes mightily in this area..."

"Williams' collection of quotes provides reassurance that the journey from despair to transformation has been successfully traveled many times..."

"I highly recommend 'The Thorn and the Rose' as an excellent source of wise quotes describing the journey from suffering to spiritual peace. This book would be a great addition to the library of any writer, teacher, or deep thinker. May we each remember the sage counsel of its contributors..."