05 October 2012

Standing before suffering

When faced with great suffering, many people long for an explanation as to their suffering.  Have they done something wrong to warrant a punishment?  Does this suffering have a purpose?  However the question is posed, it might well be summed up with this one question: Why me?

We ask this question of one another, hoping for an explanation from a mere mortal that will someone explain our present situation.  Of course, none of us can provide an adequate answer; we can't understand our own suffering, let along the suffering of another.

Others try to comfort us with empty platitudes, saying, "It'll get better," or "you'll get through this," or "he's in a better place."  Well-meaning though they may be, such words or are of little help; they do not address - with courage and humility - suffering itself, but only our emotions.

Curiously, it often happens that many people are afraid to address this question to God thinking he might strike them down, or some other such thing.

Job asked this question; indeed, it might even be said that he demanded an answer of the Lord: "Oh, that I had one to hear my case: here is my signature: let the Almighty answer me (Job 31:35)!

Although we cannot rightly claim with Job, "Let God weigh me in the scales of justice; thus will he know my innocence," we can take consolation that Job so questioned the Lord and was not struck down (Job 31:6).

The Lord did not ignore Job's complaint; the Lord answered Job, though not in a manner we might have expected.  From the midst of a storm the Lord responded to Job's complaint in what can only be called a form of mockery.  Job questioned the designs and plans of God, and so God questioned Job in return:
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Tell me, if you know it all.
What is the way to the dwelling of light,
and darkness - where is its place?
That you may take it to its territory
and know the paths to its home?
You know, because you were born then,
and the number of your years is great (Job 38:18-21)!
It might seem harsh, but we do sometimes forget that "God is wise in heart and mighty in strength; who has withstood him and remained unscathed" (Job 9:4)?

For two full chapters the Lord answers Job in kind, and finally Job responds:
"Look, I am of little account; what can I answer you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I have spoken once, I will not reply;
twice, but I will do so no more" (Job 40:4-5).
Standing before suffering, standing before the Lord, what is there to say?  We faced with suffering we come face to face with the reality that suffering is a mystery, in the true sense of the word.  Mystery has at its root the Greek word muo and means "to close the mouth."  In the presence of mystery words can never speak adequately.

It seems to me there are two things we might do well in the presence of suffering.  The first is to follow the example of Job and speak no more.  The second is to follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi and praise God in the midst of suffering.

Two years before his death, Francis asked God for two particular graces:
My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die: the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of Your most bitter passion.  The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners (The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 190-191).
To this request, the Lord gave to Saint Francis the Stigmata, the holy wounds of the Savior.  Few of us are prepared to ask for these same two graces, but we can ask to receive them at least in part.

When suffering befalls us, in one of its many forms, let us not seek to complain and be rid of it.  Let us seek rather, with Saint Francis, to know in our sufferings something of the sufferings of Jesus Christ who suffered out of love for us.

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