Monday, May 13, 2013

The Power of Suffering

Paradoxical though it may seem, the title of this week’s blog entry/reflection has a truth to it that goes beyond sense.  When it comes to matters of faith, indeed, most attempts at explanations are ‘senseless’ to a certain degree, though not without being rational.  Suffering, or going through something akin to Christ’s Passion, and dying – can they really be things that are powerful?  We have to almost put on a new mind to try to fathom what our faith is teaching us in order to see how these weak, debilitating and physically enfeebling moments of our lives are ‘powerful’ in a world that demands and expects some form of physical strength and power and authority in order to be a force to be reckoned with and given respect to.  Indeed, a ‘new mind’ is required for one to really enter into the realm of faith, as that is what ‘metanoia’ or a ‘changed mind’ really means.  True faith requires true metanoia – a mind change.

My physical experience this time round in hospital had been an eye opener in more ways than one.  My body’s reactions to the sixth interthrecal spinal injection that sent a dose of cytotoxins to my brain fluid caused much lethargy and listlessness such that I had to just lie in bed for days on end.  One doesn’t feel very much that one is doing anything productive with one’s life when all one can do is lie there and wait for the day to be over, and for the nagging ache at the back of the head to subside, coupled with bouts of nausea and dizziness.  I have come to realize that this is especially so for one who has made it a point to be productive and useful in one’s waking moments. 

This made me ponder if, and how, this lying in a hospital bed can be anything that bore any semblance to being something that was powerful.  Our faith is something that is paradoxical at many levels, and here I was facing the paradox for almost a week.  It gave me lots of food for thought and it was clear where the basis for this paradox of power.  It is in the very being of God himself. 

The early Greek Fathers of the Church in the eighth century used the term “perichoresis” to express the relationship of the Triune God and how the three person of the Holy Trinity relate to one another.  There is an intense giving and loving that ceaselessly co-penetrates the persons of the Trinity, and their relationship, and at the heart of it is something that can only be humanly described as intimacy at its purest form. 

What is intimacy, but a total giving and which necessarily includes a total dying.  Real intimacy is intimacy that has to mirror God’s intimacy in his very Being.  Think of it this way – what is the most intense, most generous and most loving act of intimacy that human beings can ever participate in?  It is in the marital, conjugal union of husband and wife.  There is a great sacrifice that is given in that one is giving oneself totally to the other, without condition.  It is at that near participation in divine living that gives the Church the basis for her teaching that any form of contraception is a sinful act.  Seen in this light, contraception is a sign of being conditional, and it is a giving that is limited.  It doesn’t mirror the divine way of loving that we are made for.  We have ‘missed the mark’ of holy living.  But it is when one is totally giving, giving of one’s whole body AND self, that one becomes able to cooperate with God in receiving the possibility of a new life in the child within the conjugal marital union.  With dying (of self), there comes the possibility of a new gift of life.  I have often told married couples that the marital bed is really an altar of sacrifice, and I get strange looks. 

Parables abound about the link between dying and rising, the need to die (of the seed) before the new germination of life can begin, and of course, the greatest witness to this is Christ’s own dying and resurrection, which we are called not just to believe in but to also participate in. 

St Paul’s quote from 2 Cor 12:9 where he stresses that his strength is made perfect in weakness is something that Paul must have intuited way before the later Greek Fathers came up with anything like perichoresis.  

Granted, it is strange and almost difficult to theologize and spiritualize when one is in the pit of a seeming vacant suffering in a hospital bed.  One usually only thinks of one’s uselessness and one’s powerlessness.  On most of the ‘bad’ days, I did just that.  But when that happened, I’ve come to realize that I’d only centered and focused on my own singular pain, boredom and seemingly uselessness.  To want to expand my sufferings and see them as having a unique power to transform not just me, but a world waiting for a paradoxical one required me to step out of myself.  That itself is a dying that is so hard to do when often all you want to do is nothing.  I surmise that this is something mystical that tugs at the heartstrings of anyone facing any kind of real dying, and that it is the something that is so close to the heart of the love that the Triune God has for each other in the persons of the Holy Trinity. 

We can only try to mirror that as much as we can while we are alive, and pray that we can join in that perichoretic dance when we finally die.


  1. Dear Father Luke
    Words may not comfort you during this difficult and painful time of your treatment.
    Thank you for sharing despite your own sufferings. May you find comfort in knowing that many people are praying for your healing.
    May God in His infinite goodness grant you your intentions. God bless you

  2. Father be strong.Our almighty God is watching over you. Remember the Footprints. He is carrying you whenever you are weak. You are always in our prayer Fathe Luke.

  3. Once, to a question of - “what makes a person holy?” – Fr Anthony De Mello told this story.....

    The Japanese warrior was captured and thrown into prison. At night he could not sleep for he was convinced he would be tortured next morning. Then the words of his Master came to him: “Tomorrow is not real. The only reality is now.”
    So he came to the present - and fell asleep.
    And Fr De Mello concludes, “The person over whom the Future has lost its grip.......Total presence in the now......Holiness!”

    Due to a recurrence of an old injury with its attendant pain and discomfort, I was reading your post and musing along somewhat similar vein as what you wrote........... “ (just lying in bed) for days on end. ........... One doesn’t feel very much that one is doing anything productive with one’s life when all one can do is lie there and wait for the day to be over, and................” when I was singularly struck by the thought that a nagging and incessant pain or an underlying discomfort has the power to keep one present to the present. If one were to stop chaffing impatiently at one’s need to be always actively engaged in motion or activity, not only does one’s awareness of one’s surrounding become expanded – but there seems also to be an awakening of something within the heart......the joy of being - with each intake of breath; the sense of wonder and gratitude for Life and a mild calm and contentment to let Him be in control. If this is the foretaste of holiness-in-the-making, perhaps, there is power in suffering after all.

    God bless you, Fr.

  4. Thank you Father Luke for your sharing and reflection on the meaning of suffering. Your sharings have brought me even closer to God and I believe that His Truth is being spoken through you to all of us (his children). Frankly, I had deemed you 'arrogant' before your illness but now I am seeing the "saint" in you. God has blessed you and blessed us with you on our earthly journey. Amelia

  5. Thank you, Father Luke for sharing your reflection with us. You are sorely missed at OLSS. Didn't have the opportunity to talk to you though I see you at morning Mass fairly regularly. Hope to have a chat with you soon. Shaun

  6. Dear Fr Luke

    This beautiful reflection even through your suffering makes me optimistic that God is ever present in ways we cannot even understand. Perhaps we can't see God's purpose now, but he has a reason for everything. Remember the words of the hymm - 'I ask you my friends to be still, and know that I am here with you.' Be strong, take heart!


  7. Peace be with you Fr Luke, your blog posts are like a living catechesis - kenosis.. metanoia.. peri-what?.. Theologising about your circumstances helps me to identify God's presence & action in my life, an essential life skill. So keep up this prophetic work.

    Actually, why don't you compile your blog posts into a book? Your writing is inspirational & articulate, honest & humourous, able to spark reflection from many angles. You certainly have a gift for writing, among other charisms.

    Feeling 'unproductive' must be hard. But productivity & activity is different. For the time being, conventional activity appears to be suspended, the rubrics have changed, it's the dawning of a new paradigm, a new mind is needed to enter the mind & life of God. It's natural to want to do nothing in physically trying conditions. It really takes a heroic effort to step out of self. So when you do unite your suffering with Christ's redemptive efforts, when you view these circumstances as an opportunity for sanctity, to level up in your relationship with the Trinity by yielding to the invitation to divine intimacy, when you become a sign of Christ on earth for us - this sort of productivity is much more demanding than activity, this sort of productivity not only requires sweat from your brow, but from your entire body & soul.

    Your hospital bed is the new altar of sacrifice, mystery & paradox & also the surety of the Father (Holy Spirit) your bedfellows. Being supine in bed is the flipside of the sacerdotal prostration.

    As we in our parish celebrate Pentecost tridium starting tonight, we praise & thank the Father for the gift of you - precious son, Shepherd-proxy, altus Christi - and the work of the Spirit in & through you.

    "Send forth thy Spirit O Lord, and they shall be created, and He shall renew the face of the earth. Amen."

    An Anthonian
    Church of St Anthony

  8. May peace and strength be with you Father Luke. At times frozen,it is easier to reflect God was here, mirroring the nothing we experience. In this valley, we see the power of God. It would not be humanly possible to measure the vastness of God and its impact on us, without being in the big footprint of voidness. We can spin on globe but still far from seeing. It is a miracle you write us reflections and sharing at this time. Yet, you did intangible impact from your reflections to all. May God bring more to understanding through your sharing.
    God is with you

  9. Dear Fr Luke,

    Yes, suffering is the greatest paradox that we will have to come to terms with.I am what you will call a 'young' catholic. On a daily basis I am still angry and am still questioning about God "so-called'' great plans for us.
    To say a word of truth is one thing. but to live out the truth, its another completely matter.
    i completely agree that a different/completely new mindset is required to handle situations. its like taking part in a F1 race but the choice of car-nissan sunny.
    I am still learning, but as i fight my daily battles & demons, knowing that if you are even tested to the brink, what about us "laymen?"
    But thru you, that will inspire us and so make us sufficient with the grace of god to live out our lives in true christian goodness. it will not necessary make us good people overnight, but it sure will inspire us to lives right.

    God Bless