Saturday, April 09, 2011

Suffering and Lent

CATHOLICISM IS NOT nice or pleasant, for it is a religion of warfare. If a religion is nice, if everything is OK, if things are getting better and better, then why bother? But in spiritual warfare there will be loss and sorrow — even if final victory is guaranteed.

Saint Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church, in Saint Charles, Missouri, USA - station of the cross.jpg
Station of the Cross at Saint Charles Borromeo Church, in Saint Charles, Missouri. Photo taken in 2007.

I think it is often a mistake for new Christians, or the merely curious, to attempt to read sacred scripture unaided starting from Genesis. Rather, I would instead recommend starting with the Old Testament wisdom books and the Gospels. Wisdom is not nice and pleasant, although it can give faith and hope. The wisdom literature is an arrow that pierces the heart, avoiding the worldly barricades that attempt to prevent the Gospel from reaching our intellect.

The liturgical texts are often full of suffering and lament, and in Lent, we recall the passion of Christ. The English word ‘passion’ derives from the post-classical Latin word passio, meaning ‘a suffering’ or ‘enduring’, while the Latin word compassio means to ‘suffer with’. And so we are to have compassion, to suffer with Christ: “O God my God, why have you forsaken me?

And let us consider Mary, the woman of sorrows, as our model for this suffering.

From Ruth:
Call me not Noemi (that is, beautiful), but call me Mara (that is, bitter), for the Almighty has quite filled me with bitterness. I went out full and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why then do you call me Noemi, whom the Lord has humbled, and the Almighty has afflicted?
Modern people dislike traditional, weepy Catholicism; they ask why don't they do something about it?  But life is difficult. We live in a vale of tears, exiles from our native land. We have the right to weep. Traditional Catholics take pity on those modern people who are always doing something and saying they are happy yet attempt to solve their problems via drugs and suicide.

From Lamentations:
א. I am the man that see my poverty by the rod of his indignation.
א. He has led me, and brought me into darkness, and not into light.
א. Only against me he has turned, and turned again his hand all the day.

ב. My skin and my flesh he has made old, he has broken my bones.
ב. He has built round about me, and he has compassed me with gall, and labour.
ב. He has set me in dark places as those that are dead for ever.

ג. He has built against me round about, that I may not get out: he has made my fetters heavy.
ג. Yea, and when I cry, and entreat, he has shut out my prayer.
ג. He has shut up my ways with square stones, he has turned my paths upside down.

ד. He has become to me as a bear lying in wait: as a lion in secret places.
ד. He has turned aside my paths, and has broken me in pieces, he has made me desolate.
ד. He has bent his bow, and set me as a mark for his arrows.

ה. He has shot into my reins the daughters of his quiver.
ה. I am made a derision to all my people, their song all the day long.
ה. He has filled me with bitterness, he has inebriated me with wormwood.
Contemporary religion often promises prosperity to those who have faith; God, they say, gives riches to those who are prudent and trust in themselves. Or, religion is seen as a merely social institution, a component of a just society; it is promised that suffering will be eliminated via political initiatives such as universal health care.

Job disagrees, and laments:
1 The life of man upon earth is a warfare, and his days are like the days of a hireling.
2 As a servant longs for the shade, as the hireling looks for the end of his work;
3 so I also have had empty months, and have numbered to myself wearisome nights.
4 If I lie down to sleep, I shall say: When shall I rise? And again, I shall look for the evening, and shall be filled with sorrows even till darkness.
5 My flesh is clothed with rottenness and the filth of dust; my skin is withered and drawn together.
6 My days have passed more swiftly than the web is cut by the weaver, and are consumed without any hope.
7 Remember that my life is but wind, and my eye shall not return to see good things.
8 Nor shall the sight of man behold me: your eyes are upon me, and I shall be no more.
9 As a cloud is consumed, and passes away: so he that shall go down to hell shall not come up.
10 Nor shall he return any more into his house, neither shall his place know him any more.
11 Wherefore, I will not spare my month, I will speak in the affliction of my spirit: I will talk with the bitterness of my soul.
12 Am I a sea, or a whale, that you have inclosed me in a prison?
13 If I say: My bed shall comfort me, and I shall be relieved, speaking with myself on my couch:
14 You will frighten me with dreams, and terrify me with visions.
15 So that my soul rather chooses hanging, and my bones death.
16 I have done with hope, I shall now live no longer: spare me, for my days are nothing.
17 What is a man, that you should magnify him or why do you set your heart upon him?
18 You visit him early in the morning, and you prove him suddenly.
19 How long will you not spare me, nor suffer me to swallow down my spittle?
20 I have sinned: what shall I do to you, O keeper of men? Why have you set me opposite to you and am I become burdensome to myself?
21 Why do you not remove my sin, and why do you not take away my iniquity? Behold now I shall sleep in the dust: and if you seek me in the morning, I shall not be.
Along with Job, we lament, and we wonder why we are stricken. But the answer is a mystical one. After hearing God's defense, Job replies “With the hearing of the ear, I have heard you, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.” In some respects, the discipline of Lent trains us to handle suffering well. It is easy to demonstrate that the psychological suffering in the contemporary, irreligious West is greater than the suffering found in Catholic culture.

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, rediscovered the principles of redemptive suffering and compassion while in the concentration camps; the world listened for a while, but has now forgotten those lessons. The world does not want to suffer, which is natural but unrealistic, but I think that it is worse in that it lacks compassion. Most people, of more-or-less good will, may be willing to do a little to relieve the suffering of others, but are they willing to have compassion, to suffer with the suffering, to share the burden of the suffering of others? Are we willing to help bear the cross of others?

The critics don't realize that you can both suffer and be happy at the same time. There can even be beauty in sorrow, although it might take some time to see it.

Bearing suffering gracefully is an art, which, we may pray, can be lifted by grace and with patience. Compassion is a virtue which Lent helps strengthen, and when we have true compassion, we then may more fully experience the joy of Easter.

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