Monday, January 13, 2014

The art of Christian suffering

Everybody suffers.  This is a fact.  There is no one human being, not even the sinless Virgin Mary who was spared suffering in life.   Each person who reads this blog either has encountered suffering in his or her life, or could well be undergoing a suffering right now.  They come in many forms – bodily injuries, inabilities of some kind, heart-aches, failures of various kinds, illness and death of loved ones.  We may choose to hide our suffering or mute it in some way, or choose not to address it, causing us to enter the realm called ‘denial’ but the fact remains – we all suffer in one way or another.

What can we do to address this?  Apart from the escapist’s solution which is often a denial, we can face these sufferings with one of several purposes and intentions.  We can look at them with different eyes and end up very differently. 

One of the more common things sufferers do is to look with eyes of anger and resentment.  This is an understandable reaction especially when it appears that life should be free of any pain and suffering.  I say ‘appear’ because this is an illusion that many falsely believe in.  Quite often, these ‘complainers’ are also comparers.  Looking at the seeming pain-free life of their friends and companions only from one vista – that of their suffering-free life, these lamenters may fail to see that there are in fact layers beneath the façade that may be hidden beneath.  These complainers and comparers thus cannot fathom why their lives are riddled with the pain and suffering while their friends seem to be bathing in bliss.  Being angry with life, with others and perhaps even with God is often a common resultant.

Connected with anger and resentment is self-pity, where one develops a ‘poor me’ attitude towards life.  A very common lament, this is equivalent to a ‘navel gazing’ where the sufferer sees himself or herself as a hapless victim, with a feeling that no one empathizes and feels his or her pain.  It is another dimension of self-centeredness where one gathers all of one’s energies to oneself, but with very negative and destructive consequences.  One can stay in this ‘comfortable’ state for a long time.  Family and friends who know of people in this state will readily attest to how difficult it is to communicate with these sufferers with any degree of success.  One seems to only listen to the voices running around in one’s head.

One could also choose to just shut out the world and refuse to talk about nor address this with anyone around.  Akin to denial, it is often fear that causes one to resort to this, as the sufferer just doesn’t know how to deal with what one is facing.  In my encounters with sufferers, I have met people who chose not to know what illness they are suffering from, and prefer to live in feigned ignorance and do not want the doctor to tell them his prognosis.

Then of course, there is the blame game.  Chief players of this game are people who have the need to pin the blame of one’s suffering on something or someone other than themselves.  Oftentimes, it is God who is blamed for having imposed or given the suffering.  After all, God seems to be the best scapegoat because he remains largely silent in the endless litany of complaints and lamentations.  The (weak) argument that there is no God can often come from sufferers who say that if God were to exist, that there should be no suffering in the world, and that everything should be grand, happy and picture perfect.  What is denied by these atheists is the fact that an all loving God would definitely want to bestow freedom to his beloved children so that we can freely choose between right and wrong, blessings and curses, and good and bad.  Only a weak, insecure despotic deity would create with an intent to control and manipulate, and the God of Jesus Christ is no such God.

I am no trained physician, and the four methods of dealing with suffering which I have shared in the first part of this blog are the result more of personal encounters with parishioners, than knowledge gained from case studies.  But I believe I am not that far from the mark as far as reactions to suffering is concerned.

What is the antidote to this?  Is there one?  Is there a Christian response to suffering that makes us believers stand out and live differently?  As believers and disciples of Christ who came to save us, we have an avenue of belief that is something that gives all sufferers a different way of handling and broaching the topic of suffering. 

In the beatitudes, one that particularly stands out as a response to suffering is “blessed are those who weep, they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).  This weeping is not a self-pity weeping that Jesus advocates.  Weeping here refers to our willingness to be compassionate and to weep with others who weep, as well as to mourn the state of our sinful and broken shared humanity that cannot save itself.  When weeping’s tears are not bitter and full of resentment, they become effective cleansers of the spirit.  But this is only possible when the suffering is offered for a higher purpose.  We may all suffer, but only the blessed do something transformative with their suffering in offering them up in an act of surrender.  This is the Christian response which is a great challenge to many.  When we offer up our sufferings to God, we are entering into the realm of humility.  We dare to acknowledge our brokenness, and this can be the genesis of our true inner transformation. 

How do we strive for a depth of soul and a largess of heart?  Spiritual masters have shared that what can aid in this development is some form of humiliation that cuts to the core of our very lives.  If we are truly honest about it, we will realise that the things or circumstances that have changed us, perhaps motivated us, or transformed us for the better have been instances in our lives when we were subjected to a situation where we were helpless and perhaps victims of some unfortunate circumstances.  Poverty could do this, and so could a failure, or something that left us with a numb vulnerability.  To the extent that we were humiliated, to that extent we can gain depth of soul.

But of course, there are two ways this can go.  We can become extremely bitter and want to exact revenge on anyone or anything that comes in our path from then on.  This is one of the reasons why there are many criminals, cheats and murderers who had such broken pasts.  They refused to allow their humiliation to change them and to shape their souls positively. 

But when we say in our praise and worship that “Jesus is the answer”, what we are saying is in fact that there is something that Jesus did that addresses these humiliations and failures and sufferings.  He held on to the humiliation and suffering which he underwent without the bitterness, resentment and anger which is the path the unenlightened often choose.  Instead, his heart was open – so open that it encompassed forgiveness, empathy for the enemy, and embraced a long suffering.  When Jesus is our pattern and model for suffering, he indeed becomes our savior from the way we have been trying to ineffectively save ourselves.

Does God have favourites?  St Peter didn’t think so when addressed Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles (10:34).  But he was referring to the misconception that only the Israelites were favoured by God.  A parent who has many children will know that it is very damaging to have a favourite child, especially when it is made known publicly.  I came across a very wise parent who was asked by one of his children who was his favourite, and he said “the one who is in front of me at the time”.  When I heard this, I immediately imaged God saying this as well, because in prayer, this is what we are doing.  We are standing in front of God, placing ourselves before him in humility and love.  We become his favourites and are thus comforted. 

How is it then that we are so slow on the uptake in submitting ourselves in contemplative prayer before God each day?  When we realise that we are so blessed and comforted when we pray this way, we will want to stand before the loving Father to surrender our suffering participate in his divine love and be his favourite. 

Doing this well is an art – the art of Christian suffering.


  1. Remember Job. God may make us suffer by killing our wife and children, but if we remain steadfast in our faith then he will replace these with a new wife and new children.

  2. Yes, sufferings I do encounter, so too do most folks. And like most I do forget to prayer and only remember to do so when in dire need. That for me is now in the past for each day upon awakening, during the course of the day and at the close of day - I will always say a little prayer for I have found the power and peacefulness it can bring to body, soul and mind. Thank you Fr Luke for this enlightenment. God be with you always!

  3. As much as we can try, we cannot fully enter into someone else's suffering. We have to "walk a mile in their shoes" before we can fully experience another's pain, I suppose. Which leads me to think of the words of that old spiritual (song):

    Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
    Nobody knows, but Jesus...

    God bless you, Fr. Luke

  4. Dear Fr Luke

    I trust you are recovering well. Thank you for all your faith uplifting posts. I would like to share a story on your blog but am unsure if it is appropriate, thus I leave it to your better judgement as to whether you want it posted.

    Yesterday, on 21 Jan 2014, my family and I attended the funeral of Isabelle who was 64 years old. She died of breast cancer at the Assisi Hospice. You may remember her well as she was a very difficult parishioner to deal with, due to her condition. She battled schizophrenia for more than 30 years. As with a few other priests, police stations and hospitals, Isabelle tended to make regular calls to them and demand their attention on a daily basis. One had to truly have the love and patience of a saint to engage her even if it was for a short period of time let alone on a daily basis. At family functions she was either not invited or made to go home early for obvious reasons. People shunned her like as though she was a leper except that it was leprosy of the mind she had and it was not something she could control. I know her well because I was close to her brother Vincent who was my former colleague and who spent his lifetime caring for her.

    When she was diagnosed with breast cancer about 3 years ago, she had a great chance of a full recovery. However the inability to convince her to have proper treatment exacerbated her condition till it reached an advanced stage. When she was finally warded at Assisi Hospice, I was too afraid to visit her as I felt the combination of both her illnesses and what I would see when I visit her, will definitely shake my faith in God at its very foundation. After all, I could not understand how a loving God could make someone like, her hold on to the short end of the straw for so long and now even in the face of death. When I communicated my fear of visiting 'her to Vincent, he said, “Don’t worry, I understand." Then a week after her admission, I was forced to bring someone to the Accident and Emergency Department at Mt Alvernia Hospital. As fate would have it I bumped into Vincent at the taxi-stand.

    Feeling embarrassed, I decided to visit Isabelle after Vincent told me of the transformation she had made after arriving at the Hospice. I saw an Isabelle I could not recognise. Instead of the terrible image I had in my mind of someone who will be breathing her last, bitter, angry, in pain and talking incoherently, I saw a very different Isabelle. A totally calm voice greeted me and my family as we entered her room. She was clear, composed and almost joyful. We talked about very normal stuff and she had no signs or symptoms of her schizophrenia whatsoever. Having a normal conversation was something I was unable to do with her for the 15 years I had known her. As we were about to leave she said “I will be going soon” as she pointed heavenwards and with a sweet smile. I left the place in shock, bewilderment, joy and shame. Shock for seeing her like I have never seen her before. Bewilderment because I could not understand how a person with her condition and baggage could be so peaceful. Joy because my faith was not only intact but strengthened. Shame because I had such a poor expectation of God's mercy and grace. Vincent noticed the change in Isabelle after one of the hospice nuns had spoken to her and counselled her, not forgetting she was receiving the Eucharist daily. It would get even better.

    (continue below)

  5. As the days followed, she began to show signs of the cancer spreading. The tests showed that cancer had spread to all parts of her body including the brain. Her vision was affected and soon she was even unable to speak clearly. The miracle was that as her body deteriorated her spirit grew stronger and most of her conversations revolved around Jesus. She would just stare at the crucifix at the top of the wall for long periods as though she had seen something. She managed to tell Vincent that “Jesus has prepared a room for me”. In the last 2 days before she died she relied on writing on a note pad. She said she had a “slight back pain but it was necessary for her to enter heaven”. The doctor and nun who attended to her said they had never seen a patient like her in all their years there. The peace and calm and faith she displayed were of saint-like proportions. Her visitors and caregivers were uplifted and even the doctor confessed to looking forward to meeting her each day. On the morning of 20 Jan 2014 she went to the Lord. The nurse who found her said she was holding on to a crucifix in one hand and 2 stuffed Assisi Hospice bears in another. I can only assume she passed away in peace and minimal discomfort as she was able to hold on to the three items that were so dear to her.

    Her funeral was the following day, 21 Jan at 7.30 am. That morning, I awoke with this bible verse ringing in my head “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. Stuff like that never happens to me so I was a little sceptical and did not give it much thought. However when I saw Vincent at the funeral mass I mentioned the verse to him and he gave me a strange look. He said “How did you know that I emailed them that verse?”. I said I didn’t. Apparently the night before Vincent had emailed Fr. Paul Staes, Sister Eucharia and the Assisi doctor expressing his gratefulness for their support and added one bible verse “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. Ha ha I thought to myself. Nice one Lord!

    The funeral mass celebrated by Fr Paul Staes was absolutely wonderful. He knew Isabelle intimately. Knowing her mental condition, he had allowed her to call him on a daily basis for many years before her cancer diagnosis. It was probably his cross he chose to carry but he never mentioned it or saw it that way. He just journeyed with her. He gave an outstanding homily about Isabelle and God's love for all of us. He bid her farewell with a most beautiful hymn called “In Paradisum” (Into Paradise). A hymn usually reserved for funerals of popes and cardinals. He said “In 1974 I sang this hymn for my father at his funeral and he was 84. Today I sing this for you Isabelle”. It was such a beautiful moment, if only it could be captured and put in a bottle.

    How could someone who had a 30-year mental condition be normal once again? How could someone with a body racked with cancer have only a “little pain” and die so peacefully? How could someone who had a life time of suffering and rejection have no anger or resentment against God but rather much love and a childlike faith? All I know is that Isabelle's story is not an old biblical parable but rather something that happened a few days ago at a hospice in Singapore. God can do the same for us too. Thank you Isabelle for being that “Cornerstone” for so many of us who knew you.

    God bless you Father!

    1. Dear Mike and Audrey

      Thank you so much for your wonderful sharing of Isabelle's final days. As you well know, I had many encounters with her in my days in her parish, and unfortunately, in my younger days as a relatively new priest then, had little experience (and charity) to deal lovingly with such a tortured soul. I did my best on one level, but at the same time, realised that I could go no further. Obviously, time had to develop compassion in me, and I am still a work in progress, unlike Isabelle, whose work in this work is now over. God has given her a great grace to see her final days end in such a holy, beautiful and peaceful way. You are blessed to have been privy to this in such an intimate way. I shall remember her specially at Mass.

      Fr Luke