Finding God in Suffering
by Marie Meaney
St Thérèse of Lisieux in death
When my grandmother was dying from tuberculosis at the young age of 31, leaving six small children and an inconsolable husband behind, one would have expected her to be worried and distressed. Instead, as she was lying on her deathbed, she kept saying, “Mourir, ce n’est rien” (“Dying is nothing”). Where did this peace come from, this capacity to let go in the face of human tragedy? For her husband – she could not have been blind to it – would be incapable of giving his children the love and affirmation they needed. None lost their faith, and one can see the grace of God as well as the piety of both parents take effect. Yet the reverberations down the generations are noticeable; those wounds have been passed on. Grace, sin and suffering are intertwined; nothing is ever hopeless this side of the grave, yet affliction frequently breaks people, driving them, often unconsciously, to hurt others. God works through the knots of pain and sin, and great sanctity can grow on this soil. Yet suffering can also bring about despair, revolt and loss of faith.
How can the same thing lead to Heaven or Hell? Nothing puts one’s faith to the test as much as affliction. Theoretically speaking, one may not have a problem with God’s existence nor question his goodness - until tragedy strikes. Then, the cry, “why is this happening to me?” arises from the depths of our being. God can seem absent in these circumstances, and the temptation to doubt His goodness and love for us is strong in these moments. Particularly when we see the young and innocent go through terrible suffering, it can lead to a crisis of faith. In Dostoevky’s The Brothers Karamasov, Ivan Karamasov says that he cannot believe in a God who allows the torture of children; he tells the story of a landowner who sets his hounds on a child for having hurt his dog with a stone. Nothing, in Ivan’s eyes, could make up for this suffering, not the punishment of the owner in this nor the next life, nor the boy’s reward in Heaven. Nothing can undo this horrendous suffering; the fact that it is in the past only makes it worse, for it remains unchangeable - a silent cry which nobody heard.
Ivan’s position seems at least honest and, some might think, justified. Furthermore, that those who have lost everything through genocide, war, or natural disaster, would rebel against a God who, at the very least, allows these things to happen, is understandable. Nobody knows how he will react in these circumstances until he has been put to the test himself. It is not, therefore, for us to judge those who have broken under the strain. Yet we can explore what leads to the one or the other, what makes people like my grandmother or Chiara Corbella (who refused aggressive treatment in order to save her unborn child and then died of cancer) grow closer to God not only despite, but through crushing affliction.
That God did not create suffering and sin, that they are the consequence of man’s fall, something human beings have brought upon themselves, is something I will take as a given. What I wish to explore instead, is how to deal concretely with the experience of suffering, how to find a personal answer to it and how to make it fruitful. For even when I accept the Fall as a convincing explanation for the existence of pain and evil, I still need to find a personally satisfying answer as to why an omnipotent and good God is not, for example, working a miracle to heal my child of leukemia.
Suffering is unbearable to us; we try to escape it as much as possible either, for example, through addictions or denial, by sinning against others or masochism (thereby trying to find pleasure in it in some twisted way). The French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil (1909-43), wrote that when faced with affliction, we take immediate refuge in lies like a hunted animal dashing for cover. Reality is painful to us, and we prefer to weave a web of lies around us, recasting our past and imagining our future, rather than living in the here and now with its challenges and crosses. Anger against God and rebelling against Him are others ways of running away from suffering, for we feel our pain less when we turn against Him. Though understandable, it is anything but a fruitful attitude. Even if he can no longer help the child torn apart by the dogs, Ivan Karamasov, as Weil points out, could have done some good in other ways. Instead, he remains self-righteously in the attitude of the accuser, settling into his anger, something for which the diabolos is also famous.
But human beings have a choice: either of escaping suffering (at least partially) by hurting others, or by embracing it themselves. As Weil writes, “man has (perhaps?) the capacity to transform his pain into sin and hence not to feel suffering”. Accepting our crosses (if they cannot be resolved legitimately) means breaking through the vicious cycle of sin and pain, interrupting the perpetuum mobile of evil being passed on over generations. Yet, the question still remains how to bear the unbearable.
Like Job, we want a clear answer to the question why we, of all people, are suffering so much. What is the purpose of affliction, when it seems merely destructive and absurd? God, as we know, does not give Job a direct answer. Interestingly, He dismisses the response of Job’s friends who think that he is being punished for some fault. Yet God’s reply to Job is incomplete, for Christ alone can be the answer. In the meantime, God shows Job that he has no capacity to understand these mysteries, and that his or his friends’ attempts to project some rhyme or reason onto affliction will, by definition, be erroneous and sin against love.
Eventually we shall be given an answer, but only if we don’t project an intelligibility on suffering which it doesn’t possess. It means embracing affliction without escaping into a fictitious reality through idols or other means. For a long time God may seem absent to us; in reality, as we will come to realize in hindsight, He was there all along. But only once we have been purified through suffering, let go of our idols, pride and ambition, will we come to see this. Then will we recognize that God’s answer to us is Himself, the Logos, speaking to us in silence. We expected an abstract answer to the question of suffering, but instead we are given Love itself, who speaks softly. As Weil writes, the soul will come to hear this “silence itself as something infinitely more filled with meaning than any answer, as the word itself of God”. The soul then knows “that the absence of God here is the same thing as the secret presence here below of God who is in the Heavens”.
God always gives Himself: nothing more, since there can be nothing greater than infinite, absolute Love; nothing less, since He cannot offer Himself by halves. Through suffering, we are stripped of our egoism, pride and worldly concerns, which cluttered up our souls. Only then can we create an inner space for God to enter. Eventually, the light will dawn on this dark night of the soul, and we will come to see that God’s presence transforms our experience of suffering fundamentally. Pain is still present, but it has become the means of greater union.
Through Christ’s Passion, affliction takes on further significance, since we can now share in His pain. Christ entered into our suffering to redeem us; He has thereby come into our darkest places, into the most crushing affliction and into death itself so that we should never be alone. Deep calls unto the deep; our deepest suffering calls for Love and makes us capable of God in a new way. The saints have therefore come to love suffering; not because they are masochists, but because suffering unites them to Christ in a unique manner. Of course, we can also experience and be close to God in joy, through beauty and gratitude, and first and foremost through the sacraments, most prominently the Eucharist. Suffering, however, allows us to be transported into the very center of the Eucharist; or rather, affliction permits Christ in the Eucharist to enter into our hearts more fully. With God’s grace, suffering crushes our illusions and idols. Only when we have died to ourselves, can we say that we are coming into our own. Only then do we become like Christ, ecce homo, battered through suffering, yet paradoxically fulfilling our human potential.
When an acquaintance of my family was hit by a stray bullet during the revolutionary upheavals in Germany in the early 1920s, he underwent a radical conversion. In that instant, this atheist suddenly came to experience God’s love and received an infused faith, understanding it deeply as if he had been raised a Catholic. During the next six weeks before his death, he experienced atrocious pain, tearing his bed-sheets with his teeth, yet at the same time radiating joy and speaking of God’s love to all those who were willing to listen. Few are given the grace to experience so vividly God’s love; many go through a dark night of the soul while suffering. St Therese of Lisieux suffered so much during her last illness that she knew from the inside the attraction of suicide, saying that one should never leave medications close to a patient because of the temptation they represent. After a drawn-out and terrible agony, just as she was crossing the threshold to eternity, the bridegroom came. Her face, photographed by her sister shortly after her death, reveals the bliss of seeing Love face to face. We too will be given this grace, at least in the next world if not in this, if we embrace our crosses instead of running from them. It is a shame we try to escape them, for if we looked “affliction in the face”, as Weil wrote, “we would see after some time that it is the face of love”. Then we would realize that God finds us in suffering. For suffering has made us real and purified us, so that we can now encounter Him heart to heart.
Dr Marie Meaney is the author of "Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Classic Greek Texts" (OUP, 2007). Her booklet, "Embracing the Cross of Infertility" has appeared in multiple languages. Apart from publishing in academic journals, she writes popular articles for "The Personalist Project", "The Truth and Charity Forum" and "Crisis Magazine". Before the birth of her daughter she was a teaching fellow at Villanova University. She lives outside of Rome, Italy.