In the introduction to Elie Wiesel's sad story Night about a young Jewish boy's gradual loss of faith in the midst of the holocaust, Francois Mauriac wrote about his own powerlessness to help, "... I could only embrace him weeping." Mauriac could not share that the stumbling block to the boy's faith -- the Jew on the cross -- was the cornerstone of his own.
There have been many events in recent history to which the only immediate response possible was tears followed by the anguished question "Why?" The slaughter of the Jews, the annihilation of Hiroshima, the massacres in Africa, the plundering of Third World economies with starving families and children, the genocide in Cambodia -- why must such horrible things happen? God stands accused! If I were God, we think, I should never allow such suffering! On the face of things, we have two alternatives to explain suffering -- either the universe is governed by a cruel, vengeful God who delights in torturing the innocent; or there is no God and we drift through time in total absurdity.
But there is another possible explanation. Our images of God, generated from our own human projections, often prevent us from understanding things as they really are. To make us human and distinct from other levels of creation, our creator gave us the ability to make choices. If we are to exercise this innate ability, it follows that we must be able to abuse it. If God were to intervene in our decisions, wrong actions would be impossible, our ability to make choices would be meaningless, and we would be no more than robots. The price of our freedom is pain and suffering, a price that must be paid. Kierkegaard wrote that, if being human were only a variation of animal life on the one hand or of angelic life on the other, humans would not be the prey of anguish.
It is we who first turn our world awry, and then we reap the harvest -- either ourselves or our children or our children's children. Throughout the ages, human beings have destroyed their harmony and at-one-ness with the world and introduced discordance everywhere. We humans, not God, have produced the instruments of torture and destruction and have devised ever more effective means of enslaving or terrorizing other human beings. It is our greed or stupidity or blindness that has caused the inequalities and the injustices in our societies. And God, who foresaw all the inhumanities that we would perpetrate on others and on our world, stepped into our ranks through the Word made flesh to show us the way to love and become reconciled.
When we are confronted with suffering in our own personal lives, even our most profoundly held beliefs easily break down . Our natural human impulse is to fly from trouble, and when we realize there is no escape, we are tempted to despair. When the suffering is our own, it shrouds our whole being, undermining the little courage we have. We become deaf to all but the din of our own misery. Every human being must travel this road at some time and experience this temptation to despair.
The Temptation To Despair Has Different Faces
Some people drift from despair to self-pity ...
"Why should this happen to me? ... Haven't I always tried to lead a good life?" Self-pity may be a normal reaction, but the time for it passes. If we allow it to take hold, it can destroy us as surely as a cancerous growth. Self-pity erodes our courage and our humanity. It is destructive not only of ourselves but of those who love us and who would support us. If we see ourselves as the victims of a vicious fate, we become embittered and the love that is in us will be soured into envy and hate.
Some people refuse to face reality ...
The refusal to face reality is almost as destructive as self-pity. If I shut my eyes hard enough and long enough, I can convince myself that this dreadful thing has not really happened. It will go away. I may even deaden my response with tranquillizers. In refusing to face reality, I abdicate my responsibility and say "no" to the possibility of growth.
Some people bargain with God and demand a miracle ...
Another response is to pray frantically that God will get us out of this mess. We even feel a barely suppressed sense of outrage that, since God has got us into it in the first place, God will get us out. So we expect a miracle and when the miracle fails to happen, we feel that God has failed to take care of us: "God, you let us down. Get us away from this nasty reality. Hide us." It doesn't occur to us that we are just using God as another form of denial.
How can we sneer at these responses? Who knows how we will respond when the hour strikes? Surely God is our refuge, and it is our right to ask for the agony to pass. Even Jesus did that! Did Jesus not pray that his cup might pass? -- Yes, he did, but in redeeming humility, he added, "Abba, if it be possible ... not my will but yours" (Lk 22:42). Our tragedy is not that we suffer, but that we waste suffering. Self-pity, turned inward, warps us and drives out love. In refusing to face our situation as it is, we run from the truth -- and from ourselves. If we are in flight from ourselves, we have nothing whatever to give to others except our own barrenness. We can only gain from suffering if we use the opportunity to grow in compassion and understanding, to become more sensitive to the needs of others. "Help carry one another's burdens; in that way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). Through suffering, God is offering us a share in the life that God chose for God's Word who became human.
It is easy for us to forget that the core of our faith is a human being, dying in mess and muddle and pain, crying out in despair, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34). This represents our true human condition. Jesus was sharing with us the sense of having lost God. Yet his cry of despair did not diminish his love. If one can reach the point of crying, "My God, my God," without ceasing to love, one can find contentment in the midst of one's abandonment. Even though we may not be called to imitate Jesus' life in detail (1), he does give us a way and the means to follow him in our own existential situation. At the centre of all that God is offering us, the cross stands as a commentary -- the historical sign that Jesus fully shared our human situation.
Faith in Christ Jesus is not an immunizing drug against pain; it may not even seem to be comfort of any kind. But it is a key to unlock the meaning and the latent possibilities in what we must endure. Suffering can be ennobling and creative, but it may be nonsense if we do not see meaning or put meaning into it.
What do we mean by suffering? It is something, on a trivial or cosmic scale, which is highly unpleasant to us, which hurts, which upsets our plans, and which is against our will. That is the crux of the matter. As we confront each new situation of suffering, we engage in a struggle. We fear being overcome. We are no longer sure of ourselves. The bubble of our complacency is shattered. We become vulnerable and in our vulnerability we can find God. Although our happiness ultimately lies in God, we usually will not seek this unless we are compelled to face our radical insufficiency. C.S. Lewis wrote that pain is God's megaphone to arouse us from our deafness. It is only when we are afraid or bewildered, aware of our own helplessness, that we turn to God. If we are to be re-made, re-born, turned around, we must be first broken into pieces:Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break so that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore trust the physician ... the cup the physician brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay, moistened by the Potter's own sacred tears. (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet)That there is some therapeutic value in suffering is obvious. When our own need is great, to whom do we turn? To the person for whom life has always been easy? Or to the one who has been buffeted by more than one storm? Somehow we acknowledge that the former lacks a dimension and cannot help us. However, remember that suffering does not automatically provide that deeper dimension. Like pleasure, suffering is morally neutral. What gives or does not give it value is the way it is received. It is not good in itself. The mere fact of suffering does not make a martyr. Suffering can sour and embitter. It can make people less human. It can even turn them into monsters. However, where it is accepted and used, it can bestow a maturity and a beauty of spirit that no other experience can provide. We have all seen shallow men and women grow better through adversity -- it is their one big chance to do so. (2)
Each one of us has places in our hearts which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence. There is a wisdom that only sorrow can bring. It is the source of great poetry, music, art and the great discoveries of life.It is in sorrow that we can look into ourselves and find God.
On the day that the second of my two mentally handicapped children was born, I experienced a fathomless despair. I felt that I was drowning and did not even know how to struggle. Yet there was something in me that wanted to grow through this horror, to use it for good in some way. When I reached what seemed to me the darkest depths, I was suddenly aware of being upheld, aware of a promise of strength, if I would only seek it. I know that this was a direct experience of God.
Simply because we are human, we suffer. We fall and end up with aching broken bones. We catch a flu by breathing in germs from random coughs. We experience aching emptiness with the loss of a loved one. We also suffer from the consequences of faulty decisions grounded in partial human knowledge -- which can be only partial because we are human. Such suffering we are called to deal with and accept.
However, most suffering is often the fruit of our oppressive greed and of our unwillingness to live justly with others. Whenever we encounter the suffering that has resulted from such greed -- hunger, disease, economic slavery, poverty, homelessness -- it is not good enough to quote, "My kingdom is not of this world" (Jn 18:36). Until the manifestations of our oppressive greed are eradicated from the world, we cannot hope to achieve the harmony for which we yearn. Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. John expressed it this way: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1Jn 3:17).
Closer to our own time, Dom Helder Camara wrote, "If I know that there are human beings like me in some part of the world whose lives are not worthy of being children of God, who have neither house nor clothing, neither food nor education, then I must do everything I can to help them ... For Christians, the Incarnation of Christ is a living lesson in commitment." (3) We must do what we can, however little it may be. It is indifference, not hatred, which is the true enemy of love -- indifference which keeps the silent majority silent. "For evil to triumph, the good have only to remain silent." Shortly before his death, Martin Luther King echoed these words of Augustine when he wrote, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."
It is Christ who dies of starvation or leprosy in Calcutta, who was burned with napalm in Vietnam. It is Christ who lives in the handicapped or the mentally ill, the imprisoned or the persecuted. "When, Lord, did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or naked or in prison?" (Mt 25:37). Are we so naive that we really do not know? The message of Matthew is a terrible challenge to us all. It is that wherever there is suffering and distress and injustice, Christ is there in the midst calling to us, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to myself" (Jn 12:32).
Our lives are lived in a context of human suffering in which our own experiences are but a single thread in a vast canvas. If we turn our pain outward, uniting it intentionally with the pain of the world, then our own suffering becomes a positive gift to God and the means of our own growth. If we do that, far from rejecting God, we acknowledge that we are responsible with God for the redemption of the human family. Nothing has been taken away from us, something extra has been given to us. If we stand in spirit at the foot of the cross, we can see that all the sorrow in the world is gathered together into one sorrow; and there, in the moment of seeming utter defeat, the victory over sorrow is complete.
Whether we like it or not, we share in paying the price for being human beings with our capacity to make choices. Without this capacity to choose, there would be no capacity to choose the good. To benefit from the good, we must also suffer the pain from bad choices. Our popular culture teaches us to dull our pain with many forms of escapism to protect ourselves from suffering. But if we do that we may miss something precious in the pain which we really have the capacity to face. The choice is ours.
Anthony Bloom, a doctor before becoming a priest, spoke of a young woman who was dying of cancer. Despite great pain, she refused to take drugs to alleviate her suffering. She said that the time had not yet come. Then one day she called him and said she was now ready for the drugs. She had now learned everything that pain had to teach her, and she could go in peace. He suggested that the desire to escape suffering is particularly prevalent in the West, and that in the East there is a much stronger belief that suffering, like everything else, is related to our journey towards God. When we escape suffering we may lose a chance to understand something of great importance for ourselves and, consequently, for others. (4)
Suffering does not have the last word if it is viewed from the perspectives of solidarity with others and the hope of our ultimate union with God. Because of Jesus' death and resurrection, the time will come when we shall become full human beings -- being with God, face to face. Jesus pointed the way, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24).
Why should we doubt the necessity that suffering has become part of God's way of redeeming the world? It may be difficult for us to conceive how suffering could have been part of God's 'original plan.' Yet, knowing how humanity has developed, the Christian doctrine of being made perfect through suffering is credible (Heb 5:7-9). A world without suffering -- a plastic, homogenized world where growth is forever impossible -- is now unthinkable.
Pain may lead some of us to revolt and rebel. Yet pain can provide opportunities for conversion in various aspects of our lives. C.S. Lewis suggested that until some people find evil unmistakably present in their own existence in the form of pain, they remain enclosed in an illusion. (5) Without suffering, the evil and the good pursue parallel courses, never interfacing with each other. Suffering alone makes them converge. Bonhoeffer, condemned to death by the Nazis, wrote from his death cell at Flossenburg: "I believe that God can and intends to let good spring from everything, even from what is most evil. For this, God needs human beings who know how to turn all things to the good."
What better (or worse) illustration could there be than the ghettos, the slave camps, the extermination camps of Nazi-occupied Europe of World War II? It is estimated that 20 million people died in 3000 camps in terror and starvation and humiliation and degradation. Evil was let loose and ran amok; it was a world ruled by hatred. In such a world countless people lost their faith. "I cry to you and you give me no answer; I stand before you but you take no notice" (Jb 30:20). In how many hearts must those words of Job have echoed? The extermination camps, such as Buchenwald and Auschwitz, represent the horrible levels of suffering that humans have generated through their capacity to make choices.
Yet consider something else -- those human spirits that rose above the degradation and found God in the stench and the filth and the misery. Physical strength counted for nothing. It was inner strength that counted and this was to be found in unexpected places. Public persons foundered; obscure and despised individuals displayed heroic behaviour. Some became beasts; others saints. Until their hour came, no one could tell who would belong to which category. There were, of course, magnificent examples: Janusz Dorczak, the Polish-Jewish doctor who resisted offers of a safe passage for himself and led his orphanage children from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, singing all the way;(6) Maria Skobtsova (7) of Ravensbruck and Maximilian Kolbe of Auschwitz, who both gave their lives for another; and Edith Stein, of whom it was said that God called her to implant the cross in the entire desert of hatred.
But most of the heroic women and men were unsung. They were the ones who testified to the survival of the human spirit "through the all-transcending grace in the total absence of the means of grace."(8)
The spirit cannot die even in the bleakest of places. The concentration camps indeed proved that. The following prayer was found scribbled on a piece of wrapping paper near the body of a dead child at Ravensbruck camp where 92,000 women and children died:O God, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering -- our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to the judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.Only one who had plumbed the depths of suffering could have learned so much compassion.
And what of the guilty? As time has passed, with a few exceptions, we have come to accept the judgment that these criminals were as banal as the rest of the world's little people, that they were in the grip of forces which they didn't understand and to which they succumbed. One of the jailers under Franz Stangl, the Nazi commandant of a concentration camp, described him as "like a human being, an intelligent person and not a brute." Stangl, like others of his ilk, was not a natural monster, but quite ordinary, with no gift for heroics and no instinct stronger than that of self-preservation. Can we be absolutely certain that we would have acted differently? Can we be sure that such people are beyond forgiveness?
Out of the abyss of evil, saints arose. Pierre d'Harcourt, analyzing the experiences of Buchenwald, commented that in a way, the life of the camp was "the true life, the life that bore witness to what really counted in humanity, the spirit." The letters from the condemned prisoners of the concentration camps, collected into a paperback anthology, (9)bear witness to the dizzy heights to which human beings may soar when they discover God in darkness. The letters are full of faith and courage and a joyful awareness of new-found values.
Among many of the survivors of the camps, one meets this tremendous inner strength, this indestructible human spirit. Such survivors seem to have passed beyond hatred and bitterness because they saw where the hatred and bitterness led. They are linked together by a powerful bond and mutual compassion. I shall never forget the woman I met in Warsaw at a party for survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Suddenly she turned to me and said sadly, "I wasn't there; but I wish to God I had been. I'm on the outside. Do you understand?"
Other survivors, like Wanda, are even more unforgettable. Medically experimented on by the SS, she was left to die because no 'guinea-pigs' were to be left to tell the tale! Rescued by friends, she was hidden in a bunker, surviving hourly searches by the Gestapo who were out to liquidate the 'guinea-pigs.' Suddenly all fear left her. She understood that she could no longer be hurt. Death was the worst that could happen, but she felt sure she was not going to die. With the force of a revelation, she began to see a purpose in her sufferings, and determined that if she ever got out alive, she would use her new insights and compassion to help heal the minds of others. Later she was to become a trained psychiatrist.
That is but one example among countless others. It is stories such as this which make us realize that God is indeed in the 'limit-situations' of human existence -- guilt, suffering, death. Human beings can be carried to the height of redemption only after passing through the valley of despair. We do not suffer in order to become other than who we are, but to become the real persons lying dormant within us. It all depends on ourselves. The suffering that produced a Beethoven or a Helen Keller could also produce a snivelling weakling riddled with self-pity. Two people suffer the same anguish: one is destroyed, the other enriched! One is caught in one's own turmoil and withers; the other searches more deeply and finds profound meaning -- Christ suffering in the world.
These truths recall for me a young woman who was in a wheelchair. Having broken her neck, she was completely paralysed, without feeling or skin sensation from the shoulders down. She looked after herself in her own flat (it took her two hours to get dressed), drove across London each day and did a nine to five-thirty job, after which she was too exhausted to do anything but sleep. She rejoiced in her independence, "For me it is the most wonderful and unbelievable thing. Every morning when I wake up, I think, another day! I've made it!" To find hope and joy in the midst of affliction, rather than stoicism or mere patient endurance -- that is the ultimate achievement of faith.
The paradox remains. We must continue to fight suffering, yet we must also be prepared to see in it a loving principle of renewal. We come to know our dependence and our helplessness and to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. When it is our turn, no one can persuade us that our own pain is not naked and raw. Pain, whether mental or physical or the spiritual pain of the dark night of the soul, hurts like hell and anyone who denies it is a fool and a hypocrite. But we can't run away from it, and in it lies the possibility of redemption for ourselves and for others if we can say, "For what it's worth, take it, God, and use it. Use it for those tortured people of Rwanda or the napalmed children of Vietnam. Use it to make me grow in compassion. Use it any way you will." We may utter such a prayer through clenched teeth, it may be dragged out of us, but if we can hope one day to mean it, we are halfway to humility.
Reflective Questions On Your Own Life Experiences
- During your life-time what different forms of suffering have you noticed in yourself and others?
- How do people respond to these different forms of suffering?
- Mary Craig writes that suffering "is something, on a trivial or cosmic scale, which is highly unpleasant to us, which hurts, which upsets our plans, and which is against our will. That is the crux of the matter." Give examples to illustrate this working definition of suffering.
- What were your personal reactions to this article? What is God's Spirit saying to you through these reactions?
- What have you perceived to be the therapeutic value to suffering?
- Mary Craig has used the example of the extermination camps of the World War II as the metaphor to reflect on suffering -- how has this horrible metaphor been repeated in our present time?
1. At the same time it must be admitted that many persons have frequently suffered worse deaths than crucifixion.
2. It usually takes profound suffering along the way to burn away or to purify our souls, our psyches, from all the superfluous elements that hide and cover up the inner treasure of the self, the divinity within.--from a lecture given by Kathleen Lyons, CSJ, Guelph.3. Dom Helder Camara, Church and Colonialism (London, 1969).
4. However, to seek comfort in lieu of the truth may mean that in an effort to avoid pain, we will also avoid responding to opportunities of real value, real life. We will merely exist and eventually die without having ever really lived. ... Allen Boesak of South Africa says, "We will go before God to be judged, and God will ask us: 'Where are your wounds?' and we will say, 'We have no wounds.' And God will ask, 'Was nothing worth fighting for?'"-- Wicks, R.J., Touching the Holy (Notre Dame, 1992).5. Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain (London, 1940).
6. Olczak, Hanna., Mister Doctor (London, 1966).
7. Hackel, Sergei., One of Great Price (London, 1965).
8. Simon, Ulrich, E., A Theology of Auschwitz (London, 1967).
9. d'Harcourt, Pierre., Dying We Live (London, 1958).
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