All of us ponder why God permits suffering. By faith we acknowledge that God never permits it except that a greater good may come from it. Perhaps He permits that we suffer loss in order to bestow some new gift in its place. Even beautiful relationships may hinder some new growth that God wants to bestow. For example, the death of a loved ones creates a space for the new and different while not canceling the gifts of the one who passed.
Suffering brings sobriety by reminding us that this world is not Heaven and its joys can neither last nor ultimately satisfy.
In addition, in the crucible of suffering we are tested and our faith can be strengthened and purified.
Suffering brings wisdom, which differs from mere human knowledge or experience in that it is from God. Wisdom sees past the apparent and is as much a “sense” or “disposition” as it is a body of knowledge. There is something about wisdom, so often acquired in pain, that enables us to embrace the paradoxes and riddles of life in this perplexing world, a long way from our eternal home. In wisdom we cling to God and grow more silent; we avoid simple explanations and do not demand exact answers. It is enough that God knows and that He will reveal to us only as much as we can endure now.
Yes, suffering is painful; it is a fearsome grace of God but it is a grace.
For now, the Spirit tells me that I’ve said enough, except to indicate what drew forth this meditation: an ancient maxim, an utterance of truth from ancient Greece.
He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot
forget falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. – Aeschylus, c.a. 500 B.C.
Frankly, another reason for the interest is that as our world becomes more secular, families disintegrate; the outright celebration of sinful practices spreads and there is an increase in bondage to sinful drives, psychological trauma, and openness to demonic influence.
A whole generation of priests were often taught to distrust the traditional understandings of trauma and dysfunction, which gave significant weight to spiritual causes. These priests were often trained to view most such things as merely psychological in nature. Thus, parishioners were often sent off on a recommended course of psychotherapy without so much as a prayer being said.
The tide is turning back to a more balanced approach. Catholics are rightly asking for spiritual help along with other approaches such as psychotherapy and psychotropic medicines.
With the renewed emphasis on exorcism in both the news and other sources, it must be said that some of the increasing number requesting the formal Rite of Exorcism manifest a misunderstanding of that rite as well as a lack of knowledge about other avenues of healing.
Demonic possession is rare and that is what the formal Rite of Exorcism is meant to address. Most people who present themselves (or someone they love) to the Church are not in fact possessed by the devil or demons. There may be obsession, oppression, or torment at work, along with psychological trauma, and other more natural sources of struggle.
For people who are not possessed, what is needed is deliverance, not exorcism.
What is deliverance? Deliverance is prayer and ongoing ministry that uses numerous approaches to bring healing and wholeness to those who, after baptism, have come to struggle significantly with bondage to sin and sinful drives, the influence of demons, or the effects of psychological and/or spiritual trauma.
Deliverance involves taking hold of the full freedom that God is given us, of helping the faithful who struggle to lay hold of the glorious freedom of children of God (cf Rom 8:21). St. Paul says that the Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and has brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Colossians 1:13 – 14).
There is also a magnificent passage in the Acts of the Apostles in which St. Paul is told of his mission to the Gentiles by the Lord: I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:17–18).
Fundamentally, this is a description of the ongoing work of deliverance, which the whole Church must accomplish for God’s chosen people. Deliverance seeks to take people out from under Satan’s power and place them under the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ, to bring people to, or restore them to, their true identity as sons and daughters of God.
Even after baptism, it is possible that we open doors to Satan enabling him some degree of access to our heart and mind. When this is the case, a Christian, working with clergy and fellow believers alike, must take a stand against the schemes of the devil by repenting of sin and renouncing any form of agreement with the deceptions of the enemy.
Deliverance involves coming to an understandingof the tactics of the evil one and recognizing the flawed thinking that often infects our minds. It involves coming to know and name these tactics and the deep drives of sin within us. It involves repenting of them and steadily renouncing their influence so that we come to greater serenity, peace, and healing—to deliverance.
This deliverance is effected in many ways: by the Word of God proclaimed and devoutly read; through the frequent reception of sacraments of Holy Communion and confession; through spiritual direction; through the experience of the Sacred Liturgy, praise, and worship; through authentic, close fellowship with other believers; through personal prayer; through psychotherapy (where necessary); and through what might be called “deliverance ministry,” which often involves both clergy and lay praying with those who struggle and offering support and encouragement.
This is the description of a wider ministry of deliverance that looks past exorcism (which only applies in rather rare circumstances of possession). Deliverance ministry seeks to broaden healing to the large number of people (to some extent all of us at certain times) who need healing and deliverance.
Who needs deliverance? While everyone can benefit from such a ministry in a general sort of a way, there are those among us who go through intense crises and need special, focused ministry. This ministry may occasionally involve formal exorcism, but it usually addresses a more general need for deliverance. This deliverance should be a multidisciplinary approach, as described just above.
My own experience with the need for deliverance ministry is quite personal. Some of you already know my story, but here it is for those who do not: At a critical point in my life, I needed deliverance. Specifically, I experienced grave and increasingly debilitating bouts of severe anxiety.
This significant torment began for me at about age 10, when I began to experience long periods of sleeplessness due to extreme worry. At the time, there were many crises underway in my family related to my sister’s severe mental illness and my parents’ struggles with alcohol. The episodes of extreme anxiety lasted for months at a time but were sporadic, coming and going somewhat mysteriously.
Throughout my teenage years, the frequency and intensity of these episodes increased, eventually spurring my parents to place me in outpatient psychotherapeutic counseling, through which I was prescribed psychotropic medicines. This was somewhat beneficial and my college and seminary years were largely serene.
I experienced a major crisis at age 33 when, as a young priest, I was asked to take a very challenging assignment. While I initially agreed to it, I was soon assailed by debilitating anxiety, sleeplessness, panic attacks, and almost non-stop rumination and depression. I was certain that I was losing my mind. This led to brief hospitalization and the need to step back from the assignment.
However, my crisis only worsened, descending into post-traumatic stress syndrome and deeper, darker depression. I also began to experience a demonic presence. Even on sunny days my peripheral vision was shrouded in a palpable darkness. I experienced demonic presence in my bedroom, a dark, brooding presence that tormented me throughout the night. I found it necessary to sleep in my outer room with the door open for fear of this presence.
Knowing and seeing my declining condition, a brother priest prayed with me and insisted that I seek help. It was clear that I was in need of deliverance, that I was not living the normal and promised Christian life. I was tormented by fear and locked in depression and self-loathing. My accuser, the evil one, had shown his face and largely robbed me of the glorious freedom of a child of God. Deliverance was needed, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
More than twenty years later, I can tell you I have been delivered. Thank you, Jesus! I rarely worry about things now.
I also want to say that deliverance takes time and involves a multidisciplinary approach. Unfortunately, most people just want relief. But God is in the healing business; healing takes time, courage, prayer, patience, and waiting for the Lord.
The elements of my deliverance and healing included daily Mass, daily prayer and reading of Scripture, spiritual direction, psychotherapy, group therapy, weekly Al-Anon meetings, weekly confession, deliverance prayers, and walking in fellowship with the people of God. Gradually, through all these means, the dark moments grew briefer and the light grew brighter. My priestly ministry also grew richer. I became more compassionate and more able to help others in their struggles.
One of the things I had to discover was that my deliverance was linked to uncovering and naming sinful drives and distorted thinking, which provided doorways for the devil to rob me of my freedom.
The primary sinful drive with which I struggled was that of control, which is a form of pride. Growing up in an often-troubled home, one of my survival strategies had been to carve out small areas in my life that I could strictly control. For example, I kept my bedroom very clean, even locking it when I was away from the house. There were many similar things that I did; the little areas of life that I could control gave me some sense of safety.
As I grew older and my responsibilities increased, I brought this desire for control into those areas and often insisted on being in control of things that could not reasonably be controlled. Finally, struggling in the face of this challenging assignment I was given, I realized that I could never possibly keep everything under control; I spiraled into great crisis.
Ultimately I needed to repent of my strong drive to control. I had to see it for the pride that it was. I needed to learn to rely more on God. But striving to rely on someone other than myself—even God—was terrifying. It took lots of repentance, growing self-knowledge, and learning “the moves” of pride and control. In addition, I had to develop better and more reasonable strategies for dealing with these situations, accepting the fact that there are many things I cannot control.
Through it all, there were great battles with Satan, who did not want to easily relax his grip on me. Thanks be to God, I had many helpers, counselors, and people who prayed for me. Deliverance did come, slowly at first, but with increasing speed as time went on.
This is deliverance ministry. It takes time and many helpers from many different disciplines. Sacraments are essential and fundamental, as are prayer and the Word of God, but in most cases deliverance cases also requires psycho-therapeutic and medical intervention. This was my journey to deliverance.
In my years as a priest I have also walked with others, slowly helping them to find serenity and to appreciate that there is a big difference between relief and healing. Little by little, building trust and striving to increase the “healing team,” I have seen many make progress similar to my own—but it takes time; it is a journey. God proceeds very delicately and deliberately in these matters. Healing takes courage and God often waits until we are ready.
So, while recent interest in exorcism is encouraging, we must be careful not to focus too much on what is rare (demonic possession), overlooking what is often more necessary and applicable to most cases: deliverance prayer and ministry.
Here a few resources I would recommend:
Two excellent books on deliverance have been written by Neal Lozano:
Writing as I am on the Feast of Saint James, likely the first Apostle to be martyred, I’d like to ponder the kinds of sufferings the Apostles endured in order to announce the Gospel and win souls for Christ. In the “softer” Church of the declining West, it is hard for us even to imagine. How many Catholics today can barely rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not risk so much as a raised eyebrow in order to speak the truth?
Yet all but one of the first Apostles suffered martyrdom as well as countless other sufferings before their lives were brutally ended. Arguably, 30 of the first 33 popes died as martyrs. Two others died in exile. Only one died in his bed.
We should never fail to thank God for the heroic ministry of the early Christians, clergy and laity alike, who risked everything to believe and to announce the Gospel. Having encountered Christ, they were so transfixed by His truth and His very person, that they could not remain silent. Even in the face of persecution and death, the Apostles declared, simply and forcefully, we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
In tribute to them and to the early Church I want to present a kind of catalogue of the sufferings of St. Paul. Of him we know the most, but surely many others suffered as he did. As you read of what Paul endured, remember the many others as well, and when discomfited by a mere inconvenience or minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.
In this first passage, Paul’s sufferings were announced by God to Ananias:
• Acts 9:15-16 – For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16).
Here are some of Paul’s own descriptions of what he endured:
• 2 Corinthians 4:8-12 – We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed — always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always manifesting the death of Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. • 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 – … in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. • 2 Corinthians 6:3-20 – … in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasting; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. • Galatians 5:11 – Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not] the offense of the cross has ceased. • 2 Corinthians 12:10 – Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. • 2 Timothy 3:10-11 – … my doctrine, my manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. • 1 Corinthians 15:30-32 – And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily …. [Indeed] I have fought with beasts at Ephesus. • 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. • Galatians 4:13 – You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first …. • Galatians 6:7 – From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus. • Romans 9:1-2 – I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. • 2 Timothy 4:10-17 Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me …. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus …. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense [in Jerusalem] no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. • 2 Timothy 4:6-8 – For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearing.
And lest we think that St. Paul may have exaggerated his sufferings, consider the following occurrences documented by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:
• Acts 9:23 – Fellow Jews plot to kill him in Damascus, must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape • Acts 9:29 – Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, must flee to Caesarea • Acts 13:15 – Persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia • Acts 14:5 – Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, flees to Lystra and Derbe • Acts 14:19 – Stoned, dragged out of Lystra and left for dead • Acts 15:11 – Opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem • Acts 16:23 – Arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi • Acts 16:39 – Ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi • Acts 17:5-7, 10 – Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, must be secreted away to Beroea • Acts 17:13-15 – Forced out of Beroea, must flee to Athens • Acts 17:32 – Mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection • Acts 18:12 – Apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth • Acts 19:23-41 – Opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him • Acts 20:3 – Plotted against by the Jews in Greece • Acts 21:27-30 – Apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem • Acts 22:24 – Arrested and detained by the Romans • Acts 22:24-29 – Barely escaped being scourged • Acts 23:1-10 – Rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem • Acts 23:12-22 – Assassination plots made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him • Acts 23:33-27:2 – Two-year imprisonment in Caesarea • Acts 27:41-28:1 – Shipwrecked on the island of Malta • Acts 28:3-5 – Suffered a snakebite • Acts 28:16-31 – Imprisoned in the Rome
Paul was executed by decapitation ca. 68 A.D.
Never forget the price that others have paid in order that we may come to saving faith. Each Sunday, remember that the Creed was written in the blood of martyrs.
Warning: the following video graphically depicts the sufferings of the early martyrs in the arena:
With Father’s Day approaching, the commercial below seems very appropriate. God the Father is surely the origin of all fatherhood here on Earth.
And yet most of us struggle with the fact that God allows bad things to happen. Why does he not intervene more often to protect us from attacks of various sorts and from events that cause sadness, setbacks, or suffering?
While the answer is mysterious, the clearest response is that God allows suffering in order that some greater blessing may occur. To some degree I have found this to be so in my life. Some of my greatest blessings required that a door slam shut or that I endure some suffering. Had my college sweetheart not dumped me, it is not likely that I would be priest today. Had I gotten some of my preferred assignments during my early years as a priest, I would not have been enriched by the assignments I did have. Those assignments helped draw me out and grow me far more than the cozy, familiar places I had wanted. Had I not entered into the crucible of depression and anxiety in my 30s, I would not have learned to trust God as much as I do, and I would have missed learning important lessons about myself and about life.
So despite that fact that we (understandably) fear suffering, for reasons of His own (reasons He knows best), God does allow some degree of it in our lives.
Yet I wonder if we really consider the countless times God did step in to prevent disasters in our life. We tend to focus on the negative things, overlooking an enormous number of often-hidden blessings: every beat of our heart, every proper function of every cell in our body, and all the perfect balances that exist in nature and the cosmos in order to sustain us.
Just consider the simple act of walking and all the missteps we might make each time but do not. Think of all the foolish risks we have taken in our life, especially when we were young, that did not end in catastrophe but surely could have. Think of all the poor choices we have made and yet escaped the worst possible consequences.
Yes, we sometimes wonder why we and others suffer and why God allows it. But do we ever wonder why we don’t suffer? Do we ever think about why and how we have escaped the consequences of some foolish things we have done? In typical human fashion, we minimize our many, many blessings and magnify and resent our sufferings.
One of the expressions I have picked up over the years, and that I use in response to people who ask me how I am doing, is this: “I’m pretty well blessed for a sinner.” I have heard others say, “I am more blessed than I deserve to be.” Yes, pretty well blessed indeed!
I thought of all these things as I watched the commercial below (it aired during the Super Bowl). And while it speaks of the watchfulness of a father, it also makes me think of my guardian angel, who has surely protected me from many disasters.
As you watch the commercial, don’t forget to thank God for the many hidden rescues He has executed for you through your guardian angel. Thank Him, too, for the hidden blessings—blessings you know nothing of—that He bestowed upon you anyway. And finally, think of the wonderful mercy He has often shown in protecting you from the worst of your foolishness.
As a follow-up to the recent post on comforting the sorrowful, I was led to consider the grief of my parents and the difficulties they faced in raising a daughter with serious mental illness.
My father died eight years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those boxes. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother’s, who died about two years before he passed away.
I discovered many things that moved me. As I read through the various papers, I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that others bear. In particular, I was struck by the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (A photo of my father and sister is at right.)
My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word until she was well past two, and even then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. The counselor at her elementary school spoke of Mary Anne as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care for her by the time she was six.
Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share here, but Mary Anne was deeply troubled. By age 13, she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches during which she was stable, but soon “the voices” would return, as would the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and attempts at suicide.
Through all of this, my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she got the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated much correspondence with insurance companies, state mental health officials, and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, during her lifetime my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, both financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and desperately wanted a sister, my parents even went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl. They filed paperwork and came very close, but the plan ultimately fell through. The baby sister we never had …
Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire; she had set fires before when the “voices” told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained that there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died—a grief observed.
My father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file:
Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage.
And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne, I could not help but moved, too, by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three sons, from the most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true that there were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister—a grief observed.
After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse, causing her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well; she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away for only a brief moment, going into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching, when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods—a grief observed.
My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble; the searching on a dark, frigid, and stormy night; the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed, he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He, too, was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died in 2007, literally and figuratively of a broken heart—a grief observed.
All these thoughts sweep over me as I look through this file labeled simply, “Mary Anne.” I pray, dear reader, that I have not lingered too long for you on these personal matters. But the truth is, all of us carry grief, and perhaps this story will help you with your own, which I pray is not too heavy.
There is an old spiritual that says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our troubles. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that refers to those who have died in the Lord: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)
For my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord but who died with grief, I pray that this text has already been fulfilled, and that they now enjoy that everything is new—a grief observed no longer.
Requiescant in pace
This second video I made on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.
Over 22 years ago as I was finishing seminary and about to be ordained my spiritual director gave me some advice on seeking a new spiritual director in my diocese. “Look for some one who has suffered,” He said. At the time I wondered about this but have come to find that it was true.
Suffering brings a profound wisdom if it is endured with faith. I have also discovered this in my own life. As much as I have hated any suffering I have endured I have to admit it has brought gifts in strange packages. Through it I discovered gifts and strengths I did not know I had. Through it I experienced things I would have avoided. Through I learned to seek help and not depend so much on myself. Through it I became better equipped to help others in their struggles. Through suffering my faith grew and so did my compassion and generosity for others who have struggled.
The scriptures say that “A broken humbled heart the Lord will not scorn” (Ps 51). A few years ago my current spiritual director shared a strange saying with me: Everything needs a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in.” Yes indeed, the light gets in through a broken heart, a heart with fissures or openings. Rarely does the light get in through a perfect wall, a perfect and strong barrier.
This is a painful truth to be sure and it makes me want to run. But in the end I have learned that it is true. God has done more with my brokenness than my strength. And, in a paradoxical way, my brokenness has become more and more my strength. I wonder if you have experienced the same? Where would we be without our crosses and sufferings? What do we have of true value that has not come at the price of suffering?
Let me get out the way and let a Saint explain it. This is from St. Rose of Lima whose feast we celebrated yesterday. This is an excerpt of what was in the breviary:
Our Lord and Saviour lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”
Suffer well fellow Christians. Beg deliverance to be sure but realize that even in the delay of relief, God is up to something good.
If this post seems familiar, it is. I am away on vacation this week and some (not all) of my posts will be repeats.
We are all struck by the fury and devastation in the Midwest this year. And we are left to wonder why and how God allows it. And old song says,
Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? ….And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters. In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the “Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.” The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald….. “Superior,” they said, “never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early!” 
Yes, where does the “love of God go?” There are no simple answers, those that attempt them know not of what they speak.
There is a story of St Antony of Egypt wherein he pondered such things and received an answer of sorts:
The Abbot Antony, being at a loss in his meditation on the depth of the judgments of God, prayed, saying, “Lord, how comes it that some die in so short a space of life, and some live to the further side of decrepit old age: and wherefore are some in want, and others rich with various means of wealth, and how are the unrighteous rich and the righteous oppressed by poverty?” And a voice came to him saying, “Antony, turn thine eyes upon thyself: for these are the judgments of God, and the knowledge of them is not for thee.”
It was an answer in its “non-answer.” For our minds see so very little. Wittgenstein famously said in his Tractatus, Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence .
I suppose if God were to advance an explanation we would hear only thunder, for our minds cannot conceive such a thing. Sometimes we must remain humbly quiet before our God. Job thought question God, and God did answer, with a non-answer:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know….! (Job 38:1-4)
Then comes the great litany of creation, one of the most painfully beautiful passages in the Old Testament (it goes on for chapters). At the end, Job can only say,
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. [You asked,] ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:1-3)
Another song (a gloss on Psalm 104) speaks of God’s glory in creation but also of its fearsomeness:
O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy, space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm. .
I have often meditated on the “non-answer, answer” and concluded that, while I cannot understand God’s ways, I have also been the situation where I cannot explain what I do, and yet do them, I must.
At times I must take my Cat Daniel to the vet f0r shots. At the mere sight of the cat carrier, he darts under the bed and begins caterwauling and digs his claws into the carpet to resist my persistent tugs to pick him up. I tell him we are only going for a visit and he will be fine. But he does not understand, even though I speak to him. So loud and awful are terrified protests that neighbors look out the widows as I take him to the car. He moans and caterwauls all the way to the vet who puts him the front of the line since the waiting room is so disturbed with his cries. He moans all the way home and, upon emerging from the cage avoids me for days out of fear. Talk about trauma. But no explanation is possible for him. I act for his good, and the good of others but he does not, cannot, see that.
At times I do “violence” in my garden. Roses must be pruned, old and dying plants must be removed. Fruits must be picked. Some flowers are cut and brought inside to be enjoyed. The soil must be broken and turned. One can imagine that if the garden and plants were sentient this is all very unsettling. I would like to explain what I am doing, but they are only plants and soil and cannot understand. When I break the soil I only enhance its ability to give life, but it does not understand this, it “feels” (in my imagined scenario) only pain. The pruning is “painful” to the roses and temporarily diminishes their glory But I know what I am doing and in Spring the glorious results show forth. Even to the clipped flowers I intend no indignity, rather it is a great dignity that they are brought into the house to enjoy special favor and admiration.
We cannot understand – I realize that humans are not cats or garden plants. But I suppose we are no better able to understand God’s ways than my Cat Daniel can understand me, or my roses comprehend my pruning. I have thought however, that the non-answer of God is not a refusal to answer us, so much as it is a manifestation of our inability to fathom God’s ultimate plans. He knows what he does and why. We are often left to cry or protest. Even if He did explain, we would hear only thunder.
There is an old song that says:
We are often tossed and driven
on the restless sea of time;
somber skies and howling tempests
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists are rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by
Trials dark on every hand,
and we cannot understand
all the ways of God would lead us
to that blessed promised land;
but he guides us with his eye,
and we’ll follow till we die,
and we’ll understand it better by and by.
Yes, by and by, but not now. Jesus says as much:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear….You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me. (John 16, varia)
For now, all we can do is pray for those who were lost and those who are suffering. We can send our help, but too many simplistic answers for why only make the suffering worse. And so we respect the mystery of God’s providence and trust by faith that All things work together for good to those who love God and are called, according to his purposes (Romans 8:28), somehow, in ways we know not.
Back in seminary, as we were coming close to ordination we were exhorted by the spiritual director of the Seminary to find a spiritual director in our diocese and to be faithful in meeting with him. I remember well being surprised at the main criteria we were told to look for. I expected to hear that he be orthodox, wise, prudent, and so forth. And I am sure our seminary director of spiritual formation presumed we knew that, for he did not list any of those as the main criteria. No he said something far different than I expected. He said, “In looking for a spiritual director I would counsel you, above all, to strive to find a priest who has suffered. Such a one will be a surer guide for you.”
I suppose it is hard to simply define what it means to have suffered. Here in America there are not many priests who have recently come from a gulag. But suffering comes in different ways and I have found it is possible to tell those who have been tempered by its schooling. There is a true wisdom that comes from suffering.
In the reading from Sirach, in Wednesday’s Mass we read this:
Wisdom breathes life into her children and admonishes those who seek her….She walks with him as a stranger and at first she puts him to the test; Fear and dread she brings upon himand tries him with her discipline until she try him by her laws and trust his soul. Then she comes back to bring him happiness and reveal her secrets to them and she will heap upon him treasures of knowledge and an understanding of justice. (Sirach 4:11-18 selectae)
Scripture also says,
Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Eccles 7:4)
With humility comes wisdom. (Prov 11:2)
Before I was afflicted I strayed, but now I obey your word. (Psalm 119:67)
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Cor 1:3-4)
Perhaps we wish it were different but most of us know that our sorrows and crosses have usually been our best teachers. There is a test in every testimony. The text above says wisdom puts us to the test, fear and even dread are brought upon us and discipline is insisted upon. Only then does wisdom open her treasures and reveal her secrets.
Where would I be today without my crosses? What knowledge and wisdom would I lack without the challenges and difficulties that caused me to ask questions and passionately seek answers. When you suffer, platitudes aren’t enough, slogans won’t do. You have to go deeper, search for real answers and often learn that there are no simple answers. Suffering also unlocks an acceptance of paradox and an appreciation that all is not as it seems and some of God’s greater gifts come in mighty strange packages. Suffering can also teach silence and waiting. Great wisdom is found in these virtues. Suffering bestows insight, trust and serene peace. Only after years of suffering could Joseph stand before his criminal brothers and say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Gen 50:20). Suffering does that, it teaches the deeper things, the harder things, the better things.
In seeking counsel, look for those who have suffered. It is not the only thing, to be sure. For some have suffered and only grown resentful and despairing. But there are those unique and beautiful souls who, tempered by suffering, and steeled by faith have come to a place where wise counsel has found a stable home. Seek them. And, dare I say, seek to be among them, as one of their number.