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.