I found myself eager for Lent this year, unlike other years when I dread the 40 days. Perhaps the influence of my Benedictine friends is at work as I desire greater intentionality in its observance. I imagine that if I enter fully into repentance, fasting, generosity and humility, I might be able to understand more fully the breadth of divine love and the kind of life God beckons. Through suffering and dying comes new life, and I know that the little mortifications of Lent can lead to greater discipline in participating in God’s redemptive mission, in particular the paschal mystery.
Recently while watching “The Gospel of John,” a three-hour film that encompasses the whole of the fourth Gospel, I could hardly bear to watch the scene of flagellation, the pained trek to Golgotha, the crucifixion, the thirst of Jesus, his final words and then his death. I tend to avoid physical suffering – that of others or myself – if at all possible. Perhaps my empathic connection is strong, and I feel the pain of the other intensely, or maybe I am simply a wimp, too squeamish to be a hospital chaplain, for sure. Nevertheless, to be fully alive entails suffering in all its forms.
Fyodor Dostoevsky penned these memorable words: “To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.” There is wisdom in his perspective, and we who follow Jesus know that suffering love is at the heart of his ministry. Not only does Jesus feel the intrinsic suffering of the human condition with its pain and weariness, he also takes on voluntary suffering as representative humanity whose vocation was utter self-giving.
“Their lives and their writing teach us to embrace the vicissitudes, whether happenstance or sought, of being human.”
Love requires suffering, and our compassion – the capacity to be present to the suffering of others – is transformative for them and for us. In her fine book Honoring the Body, Stephanie Paulsell calls us to “awaken to sacred vulnerability.” She writes: “The practice of honoring the body challenges us to remember the sacredness of the body in every moment of our lives. We cannot do this alone. Because our bodies are so vulnerable, we need each other to protect and care for them.”
There is a long history in Christianity of regarding physical suffering as a means of drawing near to God. While this is often caricatured as “God not placing more on us than we can bear,” there is the testimony that when one embraces suffering, “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10). While sin and suffering are often linked in judgmental spirituality, the relation between the two is much more mysterious in biblical parlance, and Jesus warns against assuming direct causality.
One of the great saints deeply acquainted with suffering is Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century Benedictine abbess, known for her poetry, medical insights, leadership and her “airy temperament,” as it was called. Hildegard said that her vulnerability to illness also made her more vulnerable to the Holy Spirit. Not only could her body be permeable to sickness, her body was also a portal for the Spirit. She was remarkably imaginative, and her learning was profound as she received the inspiration of the Spirit.
Another, Julian of Norwich, prayed that she might enter into the sufferings of Jesus so that she might love her “courteous Lord” more deeply. She received the “divine shewings” as a result of her prayer, and her intense suffering drew her closer to the object of her desire. Her suffering helped produce Revelations of Divine Love, a theological treatise unlike any other, written from her participation in the paschal mystery.
“To be fully alive entails suffering in all its forms.”
Without their capacity to receive their suffering with equanimity and spiritual wisdom, these women would not be revered in Christian spirituality. Suffering honed their unique insights. Their lives and their writing teach us to embrace the vicissitudes, whether happenstance or sought, of being human. Because they knew that they were accompanied by the one who had borne great suffering in their behalf, they knew the consolation of Christ.
Currently I have three friends experiencing significant health challenges, and I observe how each sifts his or her suffering to find the meaning therein. Distilled to their truest essence, each has become more grateful, more faithful and actually more good-humored as they regard their condition as more inconvenient than tragic. One actually documents how many times he has fallen yet gets back up and continues his slow way across the earth.
Lent impels us to reflect on paschal mystery in the life of Jesus and, inevitably, in our own lives. We will not escape suffering as we care for others, and our personal mortality stalks us. When we “keep death daily before our eyes,” as The Rule of St. Benedict instructs, we remember that we do not have unlimited time to do the tasks that serve others and bring glory to God. Like Paul we learn to pray: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings . . .” (Philippians 3:10).