Monday, July 23, 2007

A Meditation on Suffering

“In Christ Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Amen. (Col. 1:19-20)

I want to talk with you about what is, perhaps, the one subject in which we are all experts – suffering. We, all of us, suffer. It is part of the human condition. Philosophers and theologians have spent a lot of intellectual energy analyzing suffering; distinguishing between natural and social suffering, unavoidable and preventable suffering, meaningless and redemptive suffering. Such distinctions can be helpful, but they do not really comfort. The bottom line is that we suffer. The only real question is: “What do we do with our suffering?”

Alfred North Whitehead famously defined religion as what we do with our solitude. He was wrong. Religion is about what we do with our suffering. Please understand that when I say “our suffering” I mean our collective suffering, not simply my or your personal suffering. One of the most unfortunate effects of suffering is its tendency to turn us is in on ourselves, to separate us from one another, to make us feel as if we are alone in our suffering.

The truth is that suffering is what unites us; or, at least, it can become the means by which we enter into human solidarity and Holy Communion. As Christians, we believe that it is through Christ Jesus’ suffering, “through the blood of his cross,” that all things are reconciled with God. The divine compassion draws us into community, a community that is cosmic in scope. It is through this suffering that the whole creation is made new.

In fact, we speak of Christian discipleship as the way of the cross. Suffering is front and center. St. Paul goes so far as to say, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24). This is a stunning and bold statement when you think about it. Our participation is crucial to the economy of salvation. At the heart of Christian spirituality is the sense that our suffering becomes an extension of Christ’s suffering until all things are reconciled with God in the bond of peace.

What we do with our suffering, how we respond to the world’s suffering is absolutely central to Christian faith and life. It is perhaps particularly important in our time, when the response of so many is to deny, avoid, and flee from suffering. Our economic life and popular culture is, it seems to me, predicated on the refusal to suffer. Our obsession with youth and beauty is a flight from the suffering that aging necessarily entails. The blight of addiction is a massive refusal of suffering, an attempt to self-medicate rather than acknowledge uncomfortable feelings and deal with reality as it is. Our consumerism is a failed attempt to secure ourselves against suffering any need or loss or threat.

Remember President Bush’s admonition in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy: “Keep shopping!” God forbid that we might actually make some sacrifice in solidarity with the suffering of others. Consumption, rather than compassion, is our collective response to suffering. It is the response of the privileged. It is a far cry from St. Paul’s exclamation: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake.” (Col. 1:24).

In our reaction against the Christian masochism of “suffering for suffering’s sake,” which has been and must be rejected, the cultural pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction. We are unwilling to suffer even for our own sake, much less for the common good. In fact, we are destroying ourselves, other people, and the very capacity of the earth to sustain life because we don’t know what to do with our suffering. The looming crisis of global warming is only the latest installment on our deferred suffering plan. How ironic that in our attempts to avoid suffering at any cost, the price we pay is even more suffering on an unimaginable scale.

It is crucial as Christians, and as human beings, that we get this business of how to respond to suffering right. The first step is an absolute refusal to deny the reality of suffering. We must accept that suffering is part of life. Simone Weil goes so far as to say that “Not to accept an event which happens in the world is to wish that the world did not exist.”[i] Hers is the language of excess common to mystics, but it expresses the truth that the denial of suffering can represent a flight from reality, an attempt to make ourselves invulnerable that destroys the possibility of relationship and of compassionate response to suffering.

We must begin by accepting and even loving the world as it is. Dorothee Soelle understood this well when she wrote that “The prerequisite for acceptance is a deeper love for reality, a love that avoids placing conditions on reality. Only when we stop making conditions that a person has to satisfy before we yield ourselves to him, only then do we love him . . . The same is true of the relationship to reality, that is, of love for God. It cannot be made dependent on the fulfillment of certain conditions.”[ii]

We can accept life on life’s terms, even its tragic dimensions, its suffering; because in loving God we love the world God has made and embrace reality unconditionally. The courage to love is the courage to affirm life in the midst of suffering and death. God chooses to come among us in Christ Jesus precisely to affirm this love, a love that embraces especially suffering people and a suffering creation. To love God, to love as God loves, requires our hearts to be broken.

The first step is acknowledgement of suffering, the refusal to deny reality, even to love life as it is. But that is only the first step. The second step is to engage suffering, to enter into it, and to transform it. Love does not leave us unchanged. Our love of what is, even in its suffering, compels us, in fact, to alleviate that suffering. When we acknowledge the full reality of suffering, we can not help but be moved to compassionately engage it.

As Soelle rightly points out, “It is paradoxical but true that unconditional love for reality does not in the least defuse passionate desires to change reality. To love God unconditionally does not mean to deny our concrete desires and accept everything just as it is.”[iii] Loving the world as it is does not mean simply being passive in the face of suffering. Love demands that we risk ourselves on behalf of securing the good for our beloved, and as lovers of God, we can seek nothing less than the good for the whole creation, for “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” (Col. 1:20)

In other words, we engage suffering; we enter into it with courage and compassion, for the sake of love. But here, let me offer a cautionary note. Engaging suffering is not meant to be an exercise in heroism. It is not an excuse to use other people’s suffering, or our own, to make us feel better about ourselves, much less better than others. It isn’t about me, and it isn’t about you. It is about us. Suffering can only be addressed meaningfully at the level of community; not what I do with my suffering, but what we do with our suffering.

This is why St. Paul speaks of his own engagement with suffering as “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church.” Acceptance of suffering that evokes compassion must lead us into community, into the body, into union with Christ’s suffering for the sake of the world. If Jesus can’t save the world by himself, if his work on the Cross is in some sense incomplete without us, what makes us think we can do it alone?

What do we do with our suffering? The Christian response is one of acceptance and compassion in an ever-expanding community of all things, whether in heaven or earth. I was reminded of this simple, but not easy truth, by an experience shared by our bishop, Marc. He was describing a recent visit to St. Dorothy’s Rest, one of our diocesan retreat centers.

“You might say that the heart of St. Dorothy's is the medical camping programs,” writes Bishop Marc. “In one session, children who either have cancer, or have siblings with cancer, are the campers, and in the second, children who have received transplants are the campers.

Everyone involved in these camps is so evidently full of grace: the campers, the counselors, the nursing staff, the camp administrators, cooks and maintenance staff. I was surrounded, enveloped, floored by the compassion and grace that abounded at St. Dorothy's.

Let me simply sum it up by recounting the morning gathering today: Campers and counselors all standing in a circle, holding onto each other, asked by our chaplain, the Rev. Chip Barker-Larrimore, to name one thing for which each of us is grateful. When two tiny boys, at different points in the circle said, "Scientists," my heart was pierced, but when perhaps the smallest child said, simply, "Life," I was not sure I could trust myself to walk, in all truth. To see so clearly, to say it with such simple honesty, at such a young age, tutored by loss and pain, and also by love - I was overwhelmed.”[iv]

That is what we do with our suffering. We accept its reality, we respond with compassion, and we hang onto each other as together we form an ever-expanding circle of love that will, in God’s good time, bless and heal the whole world. How strange, and strangely beautiful, that our suffering, of all things, offered in union with Christ’s suffering, will, in the end, save us. Amen.

[i] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), p. 197.

[ii] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 92.

[iii] Ibid., p. 94.


1 comment:

Michael said...

Thank you, Fr. John, for this meditation on suffering -- especially in pointing out our despearate attempts to avoid it and the transformative power of surrender and solidarity with Christ's suffering and a suffering world.