Monday, October 19, 2015

Our experiences in suffering can reveal a lack and a new learning curve

Ever since my slow recovery from my blood cancer experience and getting back into ministry for about 8 months now, I have had several instances where I found myself ministering to people who needed or requested for pastoral counsel.  I was quite aware when I was in the midst of my weakest and darkest moments of my treatment that what I was going through was a mixed blessing.  Though there were periods of time when I was very very weak and lifeless, I was also blessed to tell myself that these moments are very special gifts from God where I was given the opportunity to go through (as opposed to going around) my discomfort, pain and suffering and to experience God’s walking that path with me. 

There had been moments where being aware of this mixed blessing was truly advantageous to me in my ministry.  It allowed me easier access into the lives of people who took me into their confidence when they shared their pains, struggles, anger, confusion and anxieties.  Perhaps these well-meaning parishioners and fellow cancer patients saw in me a kindred soul.  It no longer made me feel uncomfortable to talk about the illness itself and the share notes on treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  Before the gift of my own situation of infirmity, I was enervated by a sense of sympathy and a deliberate act of Christian charity.  But after the entire experience and allowing myself to be shaped and moulded within, my energy and strength to minister came more from being at one with the person who was not operating at the peak of health. 

But I have come to see also that one should never make the mistake to think that one’s special and unique experience gives one the impression that one has reached Mount Parnassus and feels that one has now all the right answers to different challenging and difficult situations.  While it is true that I may have a unique and even exclusive personal encounter with suffering and pain, it would be most presumptuous to think that I am now an expert and authority on the subject.  To be sure, every single person’s experience and feelings toward his or her confrontation with illness and the journey to a new normal is going to have their own uniqueness. 

I have also since learnt that it would be ineffective and also very foolish and unwise to minister to these brothers and sisters with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.  The truth is that every affliction is unique and special, though there could be an underlying commonality in the aspect of suffering and even anxiety.  I am enlightened by what Biblical scholar Don Carson wrote about the way that Job’s well-meaning friends applied wrong ministering to one who was in a state of affliction. 

Carson says, “There is a way of using theology and theological arguments that wounds rather than heals.  This is not the fault of theology and theological arguments; it is the fault of the “miserable comforter” who fastens on an inappropriate fragment of truth, or whose timing is off, or whose attitude is condescending, or whose application is insensitive, or whose true theology is couched in such clich├ęs that they grate rather than comfort.”

There is so much truth in what Carson says.  In the same way that the road to perdition is paved with good intentions, many may go into cancer wards and hospices with a genuinely good intention in their hearts, but because of some or all of those reasons that Carson states, comes out as a truly ineffective counselor even though one may have had the grace to share in the experience suffering.  It is too easy to go in with a “plan of attack”, but at the same time, wisdom will tell us that one has to use both the head and the heart to gauge the sensitivities needed at each moment and to work while thinking on one’s feet.  The former is easier simply because one is armed with pre-thought out answers and has a false or empty confidence.  The latter is much harder because one would be remiss to not notice the unspoken fears, unnamed anger and the hidden unease that can be conveyed through unmade eye contact or a withdrawn presence. 

Do I fail sometimes in my ministry?  My most honest answer is to ask if the Pope is Catholic.  On several occasions I have made some terrible mistakes to either overthink for others, or given unhelpful “help”.  Sometimes people can end up being wounded by bad counsel that they go even deeper into themselves than before.   I am indeed hopeful that my purgatorial purification will help to atone for these transgressions.

But one thing that I have learnt that has put me in good stead is to allow others to dislike and even be confused in their sufferings.  How many times have we seen well-intentioned friends or relatives telling a mourner to “be strong”?  This is akin to telling them that it is wrong to display signs of emotional weaknesses.  But we know that it is often in truly being comfortable with our emotions that the painful yet necessary process of healing and closure can take place.  So it is with those who are suffering in their infirm conditions.  Sometimes just assuring the one suffering that “you don’t have to like what you are going through to let this be a positive experience for you” sets the person in a more emotional and psychological situation of comfort. 

I have also learnt that one doesn’t stop learning from one’s past experiences just because one seems to be recovering well.  It is way too easy for one to be complacent when one seems to be physically recovering from a bout of serious illness. 

What keeps one sensitive and real is when one doesn’t stop being thankful for the past, grateful for the present, and anticipatory of the ways that God will be revealing his love in the future.


  1. Dear Fr Luke

    You may recall that a couple of months ago I messaged you informing you of a serious 'suffering' I was going through and requesting for your prayers. This is to update you that the situation has improved much but there are still ups and downs and sometimes it feels like a roller coaster ride minus the thrills but with all the anxieties. Your continued prayers are still needed and will be much appreciated.

    More importantly, I want to let you know that while I cannot claim that "I was quite aware when I was in the midst of my weakest and darkest moments….. that what I was going through was a mixed blessing" nor that "I was also blessed to tell myself that these moments are very special gifts from God where I was given the opportunity to go through (as opposed to going around) my discomfort, pain and suffering and to experience God’s walking that path with me"; I believe that God was ministering to me through you. The weekly "reflections and ruminations" you share on your blog, especially those on suffering e.g. it being a mystery; have helped me a lot during this period and I continue to look forward to your future sharings to sustain me and help me make sense of what is happening in my life during this period.

    I would like to add that in the course of my work in the parish, I have recommended your blog to a number of people who were or are going through difficult times or suffering and they too have found solace, refuge and/or strength in your reflections.

    Please continue with your sharings until such time when you sense God asking you to do something else. I am sure many people have benefitted from them though few have explicitly said so (myself included until now) and there could be many reasons for this - time, inability to express themselves and especially reticence and fear of making themselves vulnerable among others.

    I remember you requesting your readers to share and I hope you will not be discouraged but the poor response.

    Always Yours, in Christ

  2. Thank you Fr for the reminder that the help we are eager to give should be appropriate to the situation.

    While not a comforter of the sick, I'm part of a ministry that ministers to inmates. They may not be sick in body but spiritually. It's not good enough for us to feel sorry for them and pamper them. Our ministrations must be disciplined and help them recognise and be responsible for the wrong they have done not only to society but to their families, themselves and to God. Only then can they be reconciled and at peace in the prisons and upon their release.

    God bless you, dear Father.


  3. Thank you Fr. Luke for your sharing. I have been through many struggles and praising God for all the experiences which makes me closer to Him. Somehow, I am at the state of questioning myself when I give advice when a friend share their problems and sufferings. I read a few books on discernments of God's will, because I don't want my sharing and my advices to them come from me which might makes me think I am wiser and pride came into my heart. I really want to help others especially friends and families to know Jesus and to know that they are not alone in this sufferings but I still doubt my approach. That is why I keep it in my prayers and asking Holy Spirit to guide me. Therefore, keep me in your prayers too Fr. Luke.

    God bless you Father.

    Rose Ragai

  4. “being at one with the person who was not operating at the peak of health”

    I like what you said about – “being at one with the person who was not operating at the peak of health” To be at one with another, especially in suffering speaks of an empathy, an ability to understand and share another’s experiences and emotions. It can only come about when the one who ministers has also been through this desert experience of helplessness and vulnerability, where the pain and suffering (be it -physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual) can leave one cold, hollow and empty.

    The head can hold forth on “experiencing the Paschal Mystery” but the heart speaks the language of fear. For deep within the heart of the Christian sufferer is the fear of being abandoned by God. Sometimes, it is so much easier to give in to the pain and the murky chaos within, listen to the whispering voices of despair and in self-pity, curl up and die.

    So, walking into the evening shadows with such a person requires a stout heart and a kindred spirit, - a desert sojourner and survivor and definitely not one, armed with a string of platitudes and patronizing theological arguments. Perhaps, it is then possible to persuade the afflicted to
    “leave familiar shores...... to believe in familiar rains, falling gently on my days, dancing patterns on my pain.......and set my heart upon the deep, to follow you again My Lord.” - (words from a favourite hymn)

    God bless u, Fr.