Monday, October 18, 2010

Suffering and surrender

As priests, our pastoral encounters with our faithful include our sharing in their joys and sorrows, where there is also a sharing both in the tears of celebration and of sadness. We don’t often have to try to make some sense of a gathering when there is joy overflowing, like at weddings, birthdays and other similar occasions of happiness. But when we come to what I would call life’s border situations, quite often, what is asked of us is that some sense be made out of suffering in life. Sometimes this is explicitly asked of us, and at other times, it is asked implicitly, in the silence of the one suffering.

To be sure, it is a perennial question in life. Why is there suffering? The atheists would pounce of this as a clear sign that an all-benevolent God just doesn’t exist. And an insufficient picture of God’s immensity will naturally result in a refusal to see that suffering can exist within a loving heart of God. To expand our idea of God becomes then one of our lifelong spiritual challenges.

In just one afternoon this week, I presided at the cremation of a mother of two daughters who are young adults. She had suffered greatly for the last 32 days in the hospital ICU due to many infections, which resulted in a failure of her major organs. Later on in the same day, I visited a bedridden parishioner, another lady, who has multiple sclerosis. I could sense that there was a hanging question in the air about the meaning of suffering in the case of the dying woman’s family. Perhaps they were too distraught to formulate the question. But in the second case, there was a direct pondering over the question of the ‘why’ of suffering.

We can never get to the bottom of this question. And most of the time, we will come to a dead end, and perhaps even end up with our faith bruised and weakening if we fail to go further than ourselves. What can really help in these ‘border situations’ is to join our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ writ large on Calvary. There is a reason why we need to display large crucifixes, with the suffering Lord hanging on it. We are visual people, and we need our senses to be jolted every now and then to the reality of God’s love displayed in that immense show of love through a willing suffering. A pretty cross without any corpus on it may simplify too easily the reality of God’s love through suffering. When our going begins to get tough, when we are faced with real life suffering, the image of a suffering God who suffers with us makes our suffering a little easier to handle. Emmanuel, or ‘God-with-us’ then takes on a different dimension; a suffering dimension that is borne out of love.

I often like to encourage the infirm and those suffering in various ways, to lift their suffering to God in an act of surrender. Not so much as an act of hopelessness, but at act of faith, where we believe that God can make something beautiful and salvific and transformative out of something as inconceivable as a ‘gift’ of one’s suffering. After all, if God can make something out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo, a very basic theological principle), certainly, he can also make something wonderful out of an offered suffering. The problem is that most of us don’t think that God can ‘creatively’ use a suffering. We throw our sufferings to God, we complain about it to him, but many of us don’t lift it up as an offering, with an air of loving surrender.

When we do that, we join Mary under the Cross of her Son, our Lord. Mary’s strength lay in the fact that she didn’t ask the question ‘why’? In the light of suffering, that question is just too common and too easily asked. It doesn’t take faith to ask that question. Non-believers ask that question all the time.

The transformative question that we need to learn to ask in the light of suffering is not ‘why’ but ‘how’. How can I contribute to the world’s salvation through this suffering? How is God speaking to me here? How can I help my faith to grow through this pain? How can I join Christ on the Cross, and from there, have the great hope of the resurrection as a personal experience?

To this end, Mary serves as our prime example because she didn’t ask to understand God’s plan. She just chose instead to stand under God’s plan.


  1. Pain is a very effective teacher and that's why her lessons stay to haunt us, to keep us in chains of fear. When the excruciating pain of a disease or terminal illness engulfs us, its a blackness that obliterates all else so that we are totally powerless in it's grip...we're wordless, think-less....seemingly so non-human...

    However, if we have Emmanuel ( God-with-us), the intermittent moments of respite from pain become our hopeful moments, moments where we can 'strike back' - as we strive to reclaim a measure of our dignity, our God-given humanity - thus, life and living triumph - at least for that precious moment.

  2. A story taken from frCharles Arminjon's The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life:-
    "Count de Maistre relates the story of a girl who was the wonder of the city of St Peterbursg. Suffering had transfigured her, and made her the light of supernatural, anticipated glory shine out in her bearing and features. She was consumed by a cancer that was eating away her head. Her nose and eyes had disappeared already. The disease was moving across her virginal brow like a fire that consumes a palace. The whole city was amazed at the sweetness of her voice and her angelic resignation, and hastened to wonder at the delightful spectacle. When someone expressed compasssion for the sufferings of the girl, she replied, "I do not suffer as much as you think, for God grants me the grace of often thinking of Him."

    One day, to people who asked her what prayers she would offer to God when she was in heaven, she replied, "I shall aske Him to grant you the grace to love Him as I love Him myself."


  3. Suffering and pain enable us to remember the experiences. And for those whose faith was not so strong in the beginning...if they were 'lucky' enough to be guided by a wise human mentor back to the arms of God, to seek solace in Him, and ultimately, to turn from asking 'why' to 'how',then the sufferer will realise that after pain comes gratitude and great thankfulness, and he shall view the suffering and pain as a journey which was essential for his growth as a Christ-centred person.

    I speak from personal experience, and even now in my journey to become more rooted in Christ, the sight of the crucifix serves as a visual and poignant reminder for me to soldier on despite the occasional curved balls which life throws.

  4. How does one make sense out of suffering? Is there a "reasonable" answer? Having seen many of my relatives and friends waste away through illness has often made me wonder.

    I can't help feeling though, that those who suffer, through no fault of their own, are sharing, in some small way, in Christ's redemptive work.

    Just as mankind was redeemed from the devil's pawnshop (sin and death) by the Ultimate sacrifice - Christ's offering Himself on the cross; those who persevere in faith through terrible suffering are sharing in His redeeming work. Somehow, and in some way, a soul is being saved.

    For I believe that in God's kingdom, nothing is meaningless. Just as every hair on our heads has been counted, everything has its purpose - and that includes pain and suffering.

    I often ask myself, how real is my faith? What would my response be should I discover one day that I have been afflicted with some life-threatening sickness. Would my faith remain intact? I can only pray that God grant me the grace to hold firm and not waver.

    God Bless.

  5. Abraham Lincoln once said, "We trust, sir, that God is on our side. It is more important to know that we are on God's side."

    For I who have lived a blessed life with few sufferings, I do believe God is on my side. And I am thankful for it. More importantly, I must be conscious of these blessings and to build my faith on these good days.

    This is because the day comes when I do have to suffer, I pray that I have strengthened my faith enough to continue to be on God's side. This will not be the time to ask "why?" but to surrender, and like Mother Mary, "...just choose instead to stand under God’s plan."