Understanding Suffering

E8BEA695-27B6-436F-8EF9-EB9F269FF429Suffering is common to us all, but certainly not equally. Many times it intrudes randomly and with such cruelty, we wonder how a good God could allow it.  Albert Camus (born this day in 1913) was a leading voice in the struggle for understanding, and he believed understanding was the best we could hope for.  In his book The Absurd Man, he wrote: “the clerk in the post office is the equal of a conqueror if consciousness is common to them.” Today we call such a person “Woke.” It comes at a price.

In her wonderful book The Liturgical Year, John Chittister wrote

“Suffering is not a punishment,” Robert Ingersoll wrote, “it is a result.” Suffering, we learn as we go, is the price we pay to bring life to fullness, both for others and for ourselves. It is not to be desired in a neurotic kind of way, but it is definitely not to be denied. For when we refuse to suffer, we refuse to grow. Suffering requires us to stretch our souls to the boundaries of personal growth. It brings to the surface in us both strengths and weaknesses we could never, in any other way, know we have. It is not about surrendering ourselves to pain left devoid of meaning. It is about finding meaning in the center of the self whatever the stresses around us.

In Requiem For A Nun, William Faulkner wrote: “The salvation of the world is in man’s suffering.” A part of us acknowledges the wisdom of this saying as we consider the great sacrifices many have made for the betterment of others, yet we know it isn’t enough. The noblest efforts of our greatest men cannot begin to reconcile the great gulf between us and God brought about by our rebellion. In the end, only the suffering of Jesus can save us, and our highest aspiration is to humbly accept the gift of grace and to live a life in grateful service.

Philippians 3:12–14
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.


D I G  D E E P E R

There are two ways of approaching the contemporary models. Concepts such as “sacrifice”, “ransom” and “satisfaction”, that is, aids to understanding employed by biblical and ancient thought that are now no longer intelligible, can be replaced by other concepts that are clearer to modern man. Alternatively, the attempt can be made to bridge the gulf that yawns wider and wider (up to Anselm and his successors) between the person and work of Jesus and the rest of mankind, contrary to the Fathers’ original intuition of the commercium, the union of God and man through the “exchange of places”. If both attempts are taken together, it should be possible to come up with a promising new approach that would present the original theologico-historical plan in a radical (retrospective) form. This would promote the most satisfactory reflection possible on the biblical themes we have enumerated.

Looking at the history of modern times, we are inclined to doubt whether these two new paths, each of which has led to appreciable individual results, can be said to converge automatically on a synthesis (and, in any case, such a synthesis, of its very nature, cannot and must not be a “system”). In fact, the two approaches seem to be essentially opposed. The first model, which aims to provide a new set of aids to understanding centering on the idea of Jesus’ solidarity with mankind, takes its bearings primarily from his humanity and his active ministry. The second model, which wants to follow up the commercium theme in a radical way and insist on full substitution, looks primarily at the Cross as interpreted by Paul: here the full Godhead of the person of Jesus is the decisive factor.

Like the ancient and medieval worlds, the modern world is quite aware, when it comes to contemplating the mystery of Christ, that it is circling around the center of the drama in which God and man are involved. Even in the purely human drama, the two themes concern central, dramatic situations. On the one hand, we have the kind of solidarity that goes the whole way—that is, to death—as at the end of Dostoyevsky’s Idiot or in King Lear; and, on the other hand, there is the representative suffering that is found (both in its religious and in its social aspect) in Euripides, which Faulkner and Camus (Requiem for a Nun) have convincingly portrayed in our own time.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, from Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory: The Action, trans. Graham Harrison, vol. 4 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 266–267.

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Rick Wilcox

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