A Pastoral Reflection on Suffering
“Suffering is a shoreless ocean
that surged in on Jesus tide after tide”.
The Lord, Longmans, London, 1956, page 48.
In the beginning … is the story of God who breathes life into a chaotic mix of water and earth and emptiness, and is very pleased with the result. God finds goodness in all that is.
Goodness, though, is not the same as perfection. God alone is perfect and to forget this is to invite confusion, disillusionment and frustration.
We see this on a daily basis. Whether we are planning a holiday, a marriage, a job, a day at the beach or a birthday party, we want everything to be just right. Our consumer-oriented society also leads us to expect nothing less than perfection in service and trading, often with money-back guarantees if we are not completely satisfied! We are so convinced that only the perfect is good, that when imperfection appears, particularly through sickness or loss, we can become blind to any goodness at all and look instead for someone to blame. God becomes a “perfect” target!
God did not create a perfect world, but a very good one.
In the beginning … God creates “Man” – male and female – as partners in the work of managing and maintaining the gifts that come from God’s creative love. “Man” is given the privileged responsibility of using the goodness within and around the created world to assist in the process towards perfection.
Perfection is our goal, not our present condition, as Jesus reminds us when he points to the perfection that is God whom he urges us to imitate: Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. [Matthew 5:48]
Understanding this may bring us some way along the path to appreciating and being able to live with the suffering that enters every life.
Suffering is an enigma, a puzzle, all too often inexplicable and senseless. It permeates the whole of creation and raises questions about guilt and responsibility, justice and mercy, living and dying, and – the biggest question of all – why? In this Pastoral Reflection we wish to place the questions in the context of our common human and Christian experience of living as companions of our Lord Jesus Christ who has asked each of us to take up our cross and follow him. Recognising that suffering is a part of every life, we do not glorify it but look for ways of understanding its saving power. In the words of the Hail Holy Queen prayer, we send up our sighs, to the One who loves us as dearest children and is with us through every tear and every trial. Trusting in this love, we do not expect to solve the mystery of suffering but to learn from the example of Jesus who harnessed suffering for our good and the good of the world.
This Reflection is presented in six parts, each offering an aspect of the mystery of suffering, and each a unit in itself for discussion or meditation. We hope this will lead to further exploration, and to a deepening of faith as we come to relate suffering more and more to the mystery of Christ among us. There can be no end to our questioning. Suffering remains the enigma it has always been. It is our Christian faith that can bring enlightenment and assurances along the way.
This we do know: Suffering is not a punishment for personal sin. Nor is suffering the product of a sadistic god who delights in making creatures and then destroying them. At its deepest level, suffering is the effect of sin. Not individual sins, however grave, but the sin that first damaged the relationship between God and humankind.
From being friend and partner, “Man” claimed equality with God, a claim incompatible with harmony and good order. The result was, as it was in the beginning, chaos. [see Genesis Chapter 3]
Now let us enter the mystery …
I. Relieve the anguish of my heart
and set me free from distress
Human suffering is the hurting part of life. We try hard to avoid suffering but we cannot; our struggling often leads to further suffering. Suffering accompanies life. The spiritual writer Romano Guardini’s description of suffering as a shoreless ocean illustrates its inescapable presence. Suffering is not always visible. The calmest appearance can mask great inner turmoil. Like the ocean, with its heaving, rolling waves or turbulent currents deep beneath the most tranquil surface, life carries suffering. How we meet and cope with suffering will define our whole approach to life.
We normally associate suffering with living creatures because it relates to feeling. We “feel” the pain that comes with loss, deprivation, rejection, failure and any hurt. We are distressed by any cruelty to animals. But suffering is not exclusively a feeling. In its broadest sense, suffering signals the disturbance of order and as such affects the whole of creation. Wherever there is tearing, disruption, a breaking off or a breaking apart, suffering is a factor in the process. A cell dividing in the formation of an embryo, a womb opening to allow birth, the ground splitting under the force of an erupting volcano, an earthquake, or a plant desperate for light, an inoculating needle piercing the surface of the skin, the slow, grinding slide of a glacier – all bring a measure of suffering.
This connection between suffering and creation is highlighted by St Paul in his Letter to the Romans. He considers the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. But then he points out that we are not alone in our eager longing to be rid of our bondage to decay, declaring that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains desperate to be free of its weakness. [Romans 8:18-23]
The Book of Psalms, an ancient prayer form still used in both public and private prayer, links prayers of praise and thanksgiving with heartfelt petitions for the relief of suffering, for protection from danger and assistance in time of trial. Each of the 150 psalms assumes a close relationship between God and the person or people at prayer. There is an acceptance that suffering is indeed part of what it means to be alive, but there is also a confidence expressed by the psalmist that suffering can help personal growth and draw us closer to one another. Cardinal Basil Hume, a Benedictine Monk and Archbishop of Westminster, 1976-99, wrote of the psalms that they seemed to express all the needs and aspirations of a world always in turmoil.
The psalms remain wonderfully consoling prayers for all who suffer doubt or anxiety, or any kind of hurt. Images of God as shepherd, protector, guide and friend, stress the presence of God in every situation. The thoughts expressed in the prayers have relevance in every age. All humanity is one in the search for answers and the desire to make sense of suffering.
When Romano Guardini wrote of suffering as a shoreless ocean that surged in on Jesus, he emphasised that Jesus made no attempt to eradicate all suffering. Jesus was not a social reformer, intent on ridding the world of its aches and pains. He had another agenda altogether. He neither ignored suffering nor fled from it. Rather he entered into suffering, his own and the sufferings of others. In this way he exposed the mystery of suffering as a positive healing gift. When we embrace suffering, encounter and befriend it, we can experience an amazing transformation. The disease may not disappear, the heartbreak may not mend, the physical or emotional pain may still persist, but we discover an inner peace that changes attitudes of denial and anger to acceptance, patience and compassion. This healing can be so much richer than any actual cure.
II. Love is patient
1 Corinthians 13:4
St Paul gives first place to patience in his celebrated hymn in praise of love (1 Corinthians 13). The Latin word “patiens” means “suffering”. We speak of a patient person as being “long suffering” and someone in medical care as a “patient”. By definition, love and suffering go hand in hand, which accounts for grief being more intense for those who love.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Missionaries of Charity, and who died in 1997, tells us: True love causes pain. Jesus, in order to give us the proof of his love, died on the cross. A mother, in order to give birth to her baby, has to suffer. If you really love one another, you will not be able to avoid making sacrifices. She links love with faith which, in order to be authentic, has to be generous and giving. A father, grieving the loss of his son in a car accident found some consolation in this insight when he confided to a friend, If I hadn’t loved him I wouldn’t feel this terrible sadness.
All suffering is hard and, at the time, seemingly pointless and unrewarding. Difficulties can appear insurmountable, misunderstandings and selfishness can strain relationships to a point where it seems foolish not to break away. Incurable sickness and disability can find one questioning the sanity of lingering on. Only when you accept that suffering is part of the deal of life, are you able to leave the way open for something beneficial to come from a setback, heartbreak, disappointment or tragedy.
The greatest threat to human life is not the suffering of physical or mental illness, but the suffering that comes from being unloved, unwanted or uncared for. Returning to the words of Mother (Blessed) Teresa – We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and helplessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more who are dying for a little love.
Among the many other saintly women conversant with the healing power of love is St Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. A French Carmelite, she lived only 23 years, dying in 1897. She reasoned that as a body cannot function without a heart so she could best serve the Body of Christ by being in the heart of Mother Church, burning with love for all. St Therese is a great sustainer of the People of God; people who suffer can lean on her intercession with confidence. She teaches us that love connects, empowers and is truly patient.
III. I know that my Redeemer lives
I know that my Redeemer lives, is possibly the best known quote from the Book of Job. But it is not the heart of Job’s story; it is rather the beginning and the end. Like book-ends, this expression of faith holds Job together: a good and just man, Job’s life is blessed by God; but then disaster strikes, plunging Job into darkness; slowly he recognises God’s presence and re-emerges into the light. There is great value for us in Job’s experience.
Job is perhaps the greatest sufferer in the Hebrew Scriptures. Stripped of all his possessions, abandoned by his family, derided and taunted by his friends and neighbours, he is brought to the brink of despair before finding that God, far from punishing him through his suffering, was with him every moment. We speak of someone as having “the patience of Job,” meaning they put up with so much. Here patience is most evidently relating to suffering, and is not simply a connection with time. Patience and love come together with great poignancy through Job’s encounter with suffering which challenged, threatened and finally reaffirmed his relationship with God.
To Job, God apparently delights in the miscarriage of justice. He has done nothing wrong, but his life crashes horribly. If God is his Creator, Job wonders why God does not protect and care for the work of his hands. We can feel that way, too. When relationships collapse, when things go wrong, when trouble comes, there is often no explanation and no one at fault. “Things happen”! we hear, but no one can tell you why. The innocent, like Job, seem particularly vulnerable. It seems very unfair and we feel someone has to be made to take responsibility. That’s when some turn against God, or use the situation as evidence that there is no God. Others might feel their trust in God was a waste of time, while others become sure their suffering is a punishment. None of this is true.
As Job’s experience unfolds, the reader can sense that God is nearby, quietly observing but not interfering. Job’s predicament, while not of Job’s making, comes to be seen as an opportunity to deepen his understanding of God and his own self-awareness as a creature greatly loved, but also part of a huge creation. As individuals we are not able to see the complete plan; nor can we ever hope to know the mind of God. At the same time, there is much we can come to know through patience and reflective questioning – a process that even in the human parent-child relationship, produces a stronger, more confident person, than if God (or the parent) suddenly stepped in and provided the answer.
Scripture scholars note ambiguities in the structure of the Book of Job and their observations help our theme. They point to a clash in style between the prose of the opening and closing sections and the poetry in between. Some suggest that this “clash,” leading to an awkwardness and difficulty in interpretation of the overall text, is itself a commentary on the nature of suffering, which so often defies logic and our ideas of how things should be. We strongly recommend a prayerful study of the Book of Job, either privately or with a small group. Its wisdom is both ancient and new with a life, death and resurrection theme that points directly to the mission of Jesus whose life speaks most eloquently of the redeeming nature of suffering.
IV. Was it not necessary …
The suffering of Jesus is featured in the four gospel accounts as integral to his mission. He suffered:
• in his home town of Nazareth when his own people tried to throw him off the cliff their town was built on [Luke 4:16-29];
• from the obstinacy and hatred of those who opposed his teaching [Matthew 21:45-46; 26:1-5];
• from the slowness of the disciples to grasp the meaning of his message [Matthew 16:5-12];
• grief at the death of his friend, Lazarus, and also tears for his beloved Jerusalem [John 11:1-36; Luke 19:41-44];
• the pain and shame of being falsely accused, condemned and crucified.
He warned his followers to expect trouble in this world because of him, and that there would be a cross for them to carry every day.
But this suffering is not featured for its own sake. In the preaching of the gospel it is always linked with the resurrection. It is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus that is the cornerstone of Christianity and its central belief that through this self-offering and sacrifice the world is redeemed.
The stranger speaking with the two grieving friends on the road to Emmaus, after the death and burial of Jesus, transformed their sorrow by taking them through the scriptures that foretold the very things they were despairing over. Was it not necessary, he said, that the Messiah should suffer these things and so enter into his glory. Their eyes were opened when he joined them at table and broke bread with them. They knew they had been with Jesus. [Luke 24:13-35]
These two breaking open actions – the breaking open of the word and the breaking of the bread – remain key elements in Christian worship. They are both indicative of the suffering and sacrifice that inevitably precede any new discovery or breakthrough. In our Eucharist, or Mass, they form the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The presence of Jesus in his suffering, death and resurrection becomes his gift and his challenge to us in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Pope John Paul II wrote that the Lord wished to remain with us in the Eucharist, making his presence in meal and sacrifice the promise of a humanity renewed by his love. [Ecclesia de Eucharistia 2003, No.20] He stressed this in pointing to the value of Christian hope as a means of helping the world meet the many problems and acute suffering that darken the horizon of our time.
The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the cross not out of morbid curiosity, nor for the purpose of making us feel guilty or wretched, but in order to stimulate our awareness of Christ’s love for us and to encourage our imitation of his sacrifice. The Calvary experience is inseparable from the empty tomb; it is not simply the crucifixion that holds our gaze but the death and resurrection together that give substance, purpose and focus to our worship.
Jesus’ words, Do this in memory of me, is an invitation and a direction to enter the suffering of Jesus through the breaking to discover his presence in our own suffering, and to be strengthened to become present in the suffering of others.
The introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal provides opportunities to freshen our approach to the Eucharist, to see its connection to our daily lives and experiences. Reflecting on the texts, both new and old, will make clearer how Jesus changes suffering by making it the instrument of redemption. Through his sacrifice he shows us the way of making suffering work for us.
We also commend Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the practice of quiet time before the Tabernacle. In this presence you can pour out your heart to Jesus in private conversation, joining your suffering to his and in this way contribute to the salvation of the world.
The Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick are likewise special moments of communion with the healing sacrifice of Jesus. They can spur us on to be healing instruments for Jesus in our relationships with others, for these Sacraments bring peace and restore order and thereby make us more capable of serving. These encounters with mercy are also grace-filled moments for believers to show solidarity with one another. No one is free of the need to be healed. Both Sacraments lend themselves to parish celebrations in which the Risen Christ embraces the wounded in spirit, mind or body; celebrations which provide mutual support, understanding and compassion.
V. Son, though he was, he learned to obey through suffering
In the letter to the Hebrews, we find this dramatic statement:
During his life on earth, he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the One who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. Although he was Son, he learned to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation … (Hebrews 5:7-9)
In what sense did Jesus “learn to obey”? It could only mean that he had to personally choose to be faithful to his Father’s mission when it was going to cost him so much. Some biblical references to Jesus’ sacrifice are not easily distinguished from the pagan idea of sacrificing a victim to appease a vengeful God, and can also give the impression of a cruel Father handing him over for this purpose. Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice in that sense. References to our being saved by his “blood” are only shorthand for saying we were saved by his faithfulness; his blood (his life) is what it cost him to be faithful. This was the sacrifice that out of love he chose to make.
For us, as for Jesus, the value of our suffering is not in the pain but in the faithfulness we express in the midst of it. The experience of needing to choose what God is allowing to happen when it is very different from what we would like, can be our greatest opportunities to align our will with God’s will, i.e. to obey.
In the Letter to the Romans (5:3) a passage urges us to rejoice in our sufferings because of what they can produce:
suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
We must not go looking for suffering, but when it meets us – as it surely will – we can know it holds value for us. Through our faith in Jesus Christ we can turn suffering to our advantage.
VI. You are sharing Christ’s sufferings
1 Peter 4:13
We might be able to accept the suffering that comes from our own folly, selfishness or carelessness, but unjust or unwarranted suffering is another matter. Suffering at the hands of others, sickness, disease, disaster and tragedy pose great difficulties even for people of faith. Pope John Paul II put it this way: The wonder and beauty of God’s handiwork, pointers to God’s existence, become obscured by the daily drama of so many cases of undeserved suffering. [Salvifici Doloris, 1984]
Jesus was the victim of injustice. His torture and death by crucifixion caused horrific suffering. In his humanity, Jesus struggled to accept such an enormous burden, crying in his agony, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me [Mark 15:34]. This cry finds an echo in hearts torn by news of terminal illness, the sudden death of a loved one, rejection, redundancy, unfaithfulness or when abandoned and alone and in countless other situations.
But the sufferings of Jesus did not lead to despair. They were an expression of the greatest love [John 15:13] and offered for the life of the world. Our own sufferings can be joined with those of Jesus and we continue his saving work when we are able to endure our own suffering for the good of others.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical on Christian Hope, Spe Salvi, acknowledges the difficulty suffering poses for belief and urges us to do whatever we can to relieve suffering. But he also cautions against attempting to avoid suffering altogether: It is not in our power to do so. He goes on: 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… It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love. [Spe Salvi, 2007, Nos. 36, 37]
Today, there are voices all too ready to encourage surrender at the first sign of discomfort. “You don’t have to put up with it,” is a common cry. This attitude allows for no personal inconvenience and is matched by a commercial ethic that champions replacement rather than repair. Cost favours the purchase of a new appliance against having the broken one fixed. We should be careful not to use the same criteria when things break down within ourselves or between one another.
“Assisted Suicide” is the new name for “Mercy Killing”. It sounds kinder, but it is still a direct and active involvement in the taking of the life of another person. This so-called humane treatment that would “cease the suffering” of the terminally ill, or of those whose poor quality of life appears to have become intolerable, can never be supported in Christian ethics. It would not be tolerated, or even suggested, in a society that truly cared for the weak and defenceless, seeing them rather as integral to the fabric of the community. Those who promote this final solution to pain and suffering are perhaps neglecting the wonderful assistance available to the severely infirm through palliative care and hospice support. Our efforts should be towards research into ways of further developing this care.
We commend those who work to relieve the suffering of others. As well as the remarkably effective hospice medical and nursing teams and volunteer groups, there are those who meet, with Christ-like compassion, the often anguished lives of those who have had an abortion or who are the victims of abuse. Others commit to the care of the disabled, and the L’Arche communities are blessed examples. Still others devote themselves to visiting the sick and elderly, and bringing Communion and other pastoral care to retirement homes and hospitals.
The generous response to the appeals of Caritas and other aid agencies in assisting the development, resettlement and recovery of people affected by disasters indicates a wonderful willingness to assist those in need. So much of the care given by people of faith is motivated by a sharing in the sufferings of Jesus who tells us, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. [Matthew 25:40]
Any involvement in the care of others is itself a God-given task, a response to the partnership given humankind at the beginning. To quote a Sufi teaching:
Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten.
And, seeing them, he cried, Great God, how is it that a loving creator
can see such things and yet do nothing about them?
God said, I did do something.
I made you.
VII. A sword will pierce your own soul too
A greatly honoured tradition in the Church has given us the Seven Sorrows of Mary. They accompany her life as mother of Jesus: the prophecy of Simeon that she would know the suffering of the sword [Luke 2:34]; fear for the family’s safety as Herod sought to kill the child and the consequent flight from their homeland [Matthew 2:13]; the loss of Jesus from the family group on a visit to Jerusalem and the strangeness of his words to Mary and Joseph when they found him in the temple [Luke 2:43-50]; her meeting with Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary [Luke 23:27]; standing at the foot of the cross [John 19-25]; receiving the dead body of her son [John 19-38]; the burial of Jesus [John 19:41-42].
There were other occasions in the gospel story when Mary would have suffered:
• the humiliation of being pregnant and not married and knowing the hurt this meant for Joseph [Matthew 1:18-25];
• witnessing the rejection of Jesus in his home town [Luke 4:16-29];
• having her family tell her Jesus was out of his mind [Mark 3:20-21; 31-35];
• her heartbreak as the disciples abandoned Jesus following his arrest [Mark 14:48-52].
As Mother of Sorrows, Mary is our model for our own burdens and losses, not simply as one who suffered but especially for the way she assimilated suffering into her appreciation of life. As the person closest to Jesus, and his first disciple, Mary’s life displays the inseparable connection between love and suffering. Her sorrows are echoed in our own experiences, except that she places them firmly in the context of her relationship with Jesus. Not only does this give her suffering value, it reinforces the teaching of Jesus that the way to happiness and fulfilment is through the way of the cross.
Christians believe that the parting gift of Jesus to his followers as he hung on the cross was his mother [John 19:26-27]. Placed into the care of the disciple standing with her on Calvary, Mary was gifted to all who would hear the word of God and keep it. [Luke 8:19-21] Because of this she is mother of all God’s people – Mother of the Church – and Help of Christians as they live out their lives in the vale of tears.
This is not to say that we look for suffering; it is rather an acknowledgement that life is hard and that suffering is inevitable. Through her own courageous living, Mary, the mother of Jesus, provides the perspective and the motivation for us to use difficulties, disappointments, loss and whatever negatively affects our lives, to deepen our understanding of what life is about and to draw us closer to God and to one another.
A simple, yet practical and effective, way of doing this is through the Morning Offering prayer . This gathers everything to be encountered in the new day before it happens and places them with the self-offering of Jesus. With Pope Benedict XVI we encourage the revival of the practice of offering up the hardships and annoyances that constantly “niggle” us [see Spes Salvi, 2007, No. 40]. This is very much the essence of the great Fiat prayer of Mary: Let it be done unto me according to your word. [Luke 1:38]
In exploring the mystery of suffering we have confronted an enormous puzzle that can never be fully unravelled. We recognise the need to limit suffering by finding ways of reducing its debilitating effects. But we know suffering cannot be totally eradicated. It is part of life.
We have seen the way Jesus used suffering for our good and for the good of the world, and we have looked at how our own sufferings can be part of his offering. Do not underestimate the value of faith in the arena of suffering for both the one who suffers and the care-giver.
Unable to avoid suffering, none of us should have to meet it alone. Common to all, though individually wrapped, suffering needs a community response. In solidarity with one another, we can support and encourage, befriend, care and provide reassurance and practical support, to ensure that no suffering is left unnoticed and no sufferer abandoned.
The suffering seek only to be understood and accepted in their suffering. A hand to hold, a silent presence, a gentle touch – the simplest sign of love can make all the difference to a person’s ability to find peace and purpose amidst even the severest discomfort.
Suzanne Aubert gave us the Daughters of Compassion and, in Aotearoa New Zealand this community has served since 1892 in total dedication to the sick, orphaned and homeless. Her prayer, repeated many times daily as she coped with lack of resources, misunderstanding and opposition, was Thanks be to God for what he has done and is doing for us. Let this prayer finds its voice in each of us.
As the People of God we find meaning in what we are moving towards. This is the key to our hope. It is the promise of Jesus that draws us forward – the promise of light and peace in God’s presence, when every tear will be wiped away. [Eucharistic Prayer III]
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