The Mystery of Suffering: How Should I Respond?

In the past two weeks Great Britain has been privy to the devastating mental and physical suffering endured by  Tony Nicklinson, 58, who had unsuccessfully sought permission from the High Court in England to end his life with the help of a Doctor. He wanted to end his ‘dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable’ life after he was left paralysed below the neck following a stroke seven years ago.  Mr. Nicklinson wept uncontrollably after the judgment and said it meant his anguish would continue.  It has haunted me and remains at the forefront of my thoughts.

His experience has left me thinking about what life has in store for me and how I would cope if I were faced with a disability such as his. This kind of life story is one which will make us all think.

Never in human history has suffering been more readily relieved than today. And yet, paradoxically, we have never been more afraid of suffering.

Our forebears would find this very odd. For them, horrendous suffering was ubiquitous, the bane of rich and poor alike. For example, before anesthesia, the agony of surgery may have killed more patients than surgical procedures helped. As Thomas Dormandy put it in his splendid medical history, The Worst of EvilsThe Fight Against Pain, “the searing pain of knife and saw” almost always caused patients to fall “into a state of shock on the operating table . . . Speed was essential. Prolonged pain not only hurt. It also killed.” No wonder John Adams, after witnessing the searing agony of his daughter’s one-and-a-half hour mastectomy, said he felt “as if he were living in the Book of Job.”

Pain was an integral part of life: If a man suffered appendicitis, he died in agony. If a man contracted bone cancer, he died in agony. If a man became infected with tuberculosis, he died in agony. Then there were the non-terminal illnesses and injuries like gout, carbuncles, migraines, arthritis, and broken limbs. Suffering was the hard price one paid for being alive.

Happily, those bad old days are mostly long gone, at least in the developed world. Thanks to tremendous breakthroughs in modern medicine, suffering has been pushed largely into the shadows. Surgeries no longer kill from the pain. Hospice and palliative care offer tremendous relief for even the most painful chronic and terminal diseases. The problem today isn’t primarily one of preventing agony, but rather, our sometimes inadequate delivery of efficacious and timely palliation. (Quoted from First Things)

Suffering surrounds us. Mental and physical illness, poverty and starvation, wars and violence of all kinds overwhelm individuals, communities, entire nations. We ourselves experience suffering. It might be broken relationships and alienated families, accidents and disease, failed dreams or boring jobs, in dying and death. How many people suffer from addictions, abuse and other forms of violence! Suffering is a Mystery. It cannot be explained outright because each individual case of suffering is unique to the sufferer. These responses are as equally unique to person going through the suffering. Although we humans often try to escape suffering, the truth is that suffering is an important part of life.

In times of crisis, we have to intentionally exercise our faith, purposely and courageously reminding ourselves that God’s ultimate purpose is to bring each person into a deeper and deeper communion with Himself. This communion begins and grows here on earth, but it reaches its fulfillment only in Heaven. The battles, struggles, sorrows, and often horrible sufferings we face on our earthly pilgrimage are inescapable in a fallen world; but God, far from being absent in the midst of them, has transformed them into channels of grace, gymnasiums of virtue, and bridges to greater wisdom, mercy, and spiritual maturity.


Relating to Mary’s pain.

Image @thecatholicchurch.facebook

The Seven Dolors of Mary

1. The Prophecy of Simeon.
2. The Flight into Egypt.
3. The Loss of the Child Jesus
4. The Meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross.
5. The Crucifixion
6. Jesus’ body Struck by a Lance, Taken Down from the Cross
7. The Burial of Jesus.

Redemptive suffering.

Image @volkerballueder.com

My most profound and intimate experiences of worship have been in my darkest days ( I’ve lived through a few!) — when I’ve lost someone dear to me, when I’ve felt abandoned and isolated, when I’ve been out of options, when the pain is great, and I turn to God alone. It is during suffering that I have learned to pray my most authentic, heart-felt, honest-to-God prayers. When in pain, superficial prayers seem pointless. At these times of great distress the need to be near the Eucharist, to receive our Lord to be united with Him is overwhelming and urgent. I know He is always there, He will never desert me, He is constant. Reliable.

I have learned that in suffering I get to know Jesus and inch towards the understanding of why His message of Salvation and Forgiveness  is so powerful. I have learned things about God in suffering that I don’t think I would’ve learned about Him lying in a bed of roses.  It has been at those times of fear and seeking that I ‘ve come to realise my powerlessness and the reassurance of kneeling in the presence of God’s Might.

God could have kept Joseph out of jail, kept Daniel out of the lion’s den, kept Jeremiah from being tossed into a slimy pit, kept Paul from being shipwrecked three times, and kept the three Hebrew young men from being thrown into the blazing furnace, but he didn’t. He let those problems happen, and each of those people were drawn closer to God as a result.

Problems force us to look to God and depend on him instead of ourselves. Paul testified to this benefit: “We felt we were doomed to die and saw how powerless we were to help ourselves; but that was good, for then we put everything into the hands of God, who alone could save us ….” (2 Corinthians 1:9) You’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you’ve got.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I retreat to my ‘sanctuary’, pray to God to feel safe and calm before I’m able to relaunch into the world. God is my querencia-the place in the bullring to which a bull can safely retreat from the matadors-where I can pause and gather strength before returning to the fight. I must pause, however briefly, to regain the strength needed to battle the stresses of daily living.

 

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