The Gift of Suffering
Let me just start by telling you that I do NOT believe God wants us to suffer. I am NOT going to tell you to suffer in silence, put a good face on it, confess whatever "sin" someone says you must have committed, or believe more, pray harder, or have more faith.
Not me. If you are in pain, get to a health care provider, a therapist, a spiritual director, a lawyer, a Pilates instructor, a good friend -- whoever you need to help relieve your particular kind of suffering. My current personal favorites are my time at the potter's wheel, and time in the pasture with alpacas. Dogs and cats are great pain relievers, in my opinion.
When I suffer, everyone around me knows it. I cry - a lot. I think it is called ugly crying - where my eyes swell, my nose runs, and my mouth screws up into shapes I didn't know it could do. I get really cranky. I've been known to scream. I believe medications - whether prescribed or over-the-counter - are meant to be taken. I don't sleep well when I am suffering - physical pain is pretty obvious, but lately I think it is more psychological pain that is keeping me up at night. Lack of sleep certainly doesn't help.
We are all in a lot of pain these days, I think. The pandemic continues, though as I write it seems to have slowed down in my part of the world even while it ramps up again in others. War is raging in Ukraine, and the pictures of suffering people are haunting. People in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria are still at war. The Uyghurs are still suffering abuse at the hands of the Chinese government. The Global Conflict Tracker lists 6 conflicts with "critical" impact on U.S interests, 11 "significant" conflicts, and 10 "limited" conflicts. And in my own beloved United States, the hearings on the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court are laying bare the ugliness of racism and misogyny, which Judge Jackson is meeting with grace and poise. But what does it say about a country and its people when leaders refuse to look unflinchingly at history - the parts we'd rather forget as well as the things that make us proud? What does it say when a woman has to be better prepared than her male counterparts, and a black woman had better not make ANY mistakes? What does it say when a white man sitting in the same chair as Judge Jackson was credibly accused of sexual assault, and his hearing is now the supposed standard for how we don't treat nominees? The Republicans have treated Judge Jackson atrociously, all the while crowing that she hasn't been "Kavanaughed." Well, no, because no one has accused her of sexual assault.
I can't even watch. I tried to tune in the other day - it still seems like part of my civic duty, but I just can't. She is being treated so rudely, and with such hypocrisy that I needed to do a mental cleanse yesterday.
Suffering. It is rampant. The people who are defending their homeland against an invasive invader - whether the invasion is Russian troops or a germ. The people who fear for their lives whenever they go outside - or go to bed, whether they are in a war zone or are living while black or brown. Those who are suffering abuse at the hands of their government, their church, or their domestic partner. Those who are sick or injured and can't get the care they need. Those who are homeless and the safety net seems to have developed huge holes that they are falling through. Those of us who have been told for generations that we aren't good enough.
Why do these things happen? Where is God in all this? Why has God abandoned us?
Deep breaths. God is right here, and God is right there.
As I've been thinking about suffering, I've been listening to a podcast and reading some books and I think we've got the paradigm about suffering all wrong.
In his book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr writes about original goodness. In Fr. Richard's mind, we get it wrong when we focus on "the fall," when Adam and Eve committed original sin and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. That original sin has been taught to us as OUR sin, one that we can't ever atone for because we didn't eat the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so Jesus had to die for our sins, and every time we aren't perfect, we crucify Jesus all over again. That is a lot to live up to - or down to, I guess.
Fr. Richard writes that God created the heavens and earth and everything in them and saw that they were good. Genesis 1:31: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (NRSV) It makes no sense, then, that God would reject all - or any - of creation because God created it and loves it. If we start from that premise - that we are good and loved, even when we make mistakes (and we will), then it is a logical step to rejecting the idea of a wrathful God who would kill his beloved, only son to atone for the sins of wicked, depraved "piles of manure" like humankind - that lovely description comes from Martin Luther. (Rohr, p. 62)
If we change the premise from we are bad, bad, bad and God is angry with us, then we can begin to believe that we are and were created for good and God loves us. God does not desire our suffering any more than we do.
But we do suffer. We get sick, we grieve, we injure ourselves and others. Life is messy - there just aren't two ways around it. Suffering is an inevitable and necessary part of life. It is easy to believe in a just and loving God when everything is going well. It is also easy to believe that things are going well because we are just and righteous. The thing is, believing good things are happening to us because of our inherent goodness doesn't hold up when things go wrong - which they will. The opposite of inherent goodness is inherent badness. If good things happen because I am good, then I guess bad things happen because I am bad.
But I don't think that is the truth, at all. God planted humankind in a creation that God saw was good. Bad stuff happens.
I've been listening to a podcast called Turning to the Mystics, with James Finley. During the sessions I've been listening to, Dr. Finley is discussing John of the Cross. Saint John of the Cross was ordained into the Catholic priesthood in 1567. He became a follower of St. Teresa of Avila, who was working to reform the Carmelite order. John founded a monastery for Carmelite friars, following the teachings of Teresa. Tensions between the traditional Carmelites and the discalced Carmelites (those who accepted the reforms of Teresa and John) escalated, until in 1577 John was taken prisoner by some who opposed the reforms. During his imprisonment he was beaten, starved, and isolated in a cell that was 10 feet by 6 feet, with no light except that from one small window. During his imprisonment he wrote poetry. Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul are considered to be Spanish masterpieces. (Wikipedia).
Anyway, I admit I haven't read St. John's works. I'm trying to read them, but the language is a little archaic and I'm struggling. That is why I appreciate James Finley's guidance and interpretation.
In session one, Dr. Finlay describes what John meant as the dark night:
This is a kind of a visual metaphor for a transformative experience that begins in the loss of the felt sense of God's sustaining presence in our life. The sense of nurturance, the sense of reassurance, the sense of insight, of aspirations and consolations that are coming to us through our faith, sustaining us day by day throughout our life and in prayer, mysteriously begins to fade away and to be replaced with a sense of an absence, a felt sense, the absence of the felt sense of God, a sense of aridity.
I heard this as a description of the times I have wondered where God is. The times I have cried out, as the psalmist did (Psalm 22:1) and as Jesus did (Matthew 27:45), "Why have You forsaken me?"
I will leave you to listen to the podcast, which you can find wherever you find your podcasts (or here). At the end of this session, Dr. Finley provides his own interpretation of the dark night, which I will paraphrase. Imagine that you are sleeping on a boat, and you wake to find yourself lost at sea, with no idea where you are or how to get back to where you were. You are utterly helpless. With no one else to turn to and no ability to use your own ingenuity to save yourself, you turn to God, and encounter the infinite glory of God: "But God is now leading you towards the union with God that we experience in passing through the veil of death . . . into an infinite union with the infinite presence of God in glory. And God is deciding not to wait until you're dead to grant you this."
When we are suffering, when we have nowhere else to turn, when we have exhausted all of our own ideas about what could or should be -- that is where God is. God sits with us, holds us, weeps with us, hurts with us, rages with us, and ultimately pulls us into Godself.
The challenge, as I see it, is not to cause our own suffering - no self-flagellation or immolation. No staying in unhealthy spaces because we think it will bring us closer to God, or because someone tells us that is what God asks of us. Our task is to figure out how to empty ourselves, whether we are suffering or not, and open ourselves up to the loving glory of God - so that we can be our truest, most wonderful selves, as God created us to be.
I can't fix anything in the world - not the situation in Ukraine, not the tempers of people around me, not the hurt that those I love are experiencing. I can only pray, and as I pray, I encounter the divine. I remember that I am wholly and truly loved, as part of God's GOOD creation. And so are you. We are not alone. Morning will follow this dark night. That is something to hold onto.
Fr. Richard writes, "...God waits to see if we will trust our God partner to eventually fill the space in us, which now has grown even more spacious and receptive. This is the central theme of darkness, necessary doubt or what the mystics called "God withdrawing his love." They knew that what feels life suffering, depression, uselessness...are often deep acts of trust and invitation to intimacy on God's part. (p. 78).
God loves us. We suffer. In our suffering, God is calling out to us to trust, to love, to rely fully on God.
That is the gift of suffering.
Council on Foreign Relations. "Global Conflict Tracker." Global Conflict Tracker l Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org). Accessed March 24, 2022.
Finley, James. Turning to the Mystics. "St. John of the Cross, Session 1." Turning to The Mystics — Podcast Series with James Finley (cac.org).
Guayasamin, Oswaldo. Painting. "Suffering." Oswaldo Guayasamin-Oppression, War & Human Suffering | Raising Miro on the Road of Life. Accessed March 25, 2022.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. New York: Convergent. 2021.
St. John of the Cross. Image. John of the Cross - Bing. Accessed March 24, 2022.
Wikipedia contributors, "John of the Cross," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_of_the_Cross&oldid=1078690675. Accessed March 24, 2022.