Thursday, February 14, 2008

Suffering, Forgiveness, Hope, Part 2

We ended our last post last time by observing that penances undergone during Lent will tend to cause us some discomfort. This will allow us to experience a small amount of suffering under conditions that will make it possible to monitor our responses to discomfort. This is turn, will help prepare us when serious sufferings befall us. We hopefully will be in the habit of turning to God in our needs. This habit will serve us well. As Cardinal Bernadin once said during his final illness (I paraphrase), "Pray while you are healthy because it is very difficult to do so when you are not."

We are frequently taught that we should 'offer up' our sufferings. This is true. This is not, however, always that easy to do. What stands in the way? Before we arrive at 'making up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings', let us meditate on a few obstacles to this excellent act of charity: offering our sufferings for the remission of our sins and the sins of others.

I would group these obstacles under the following headings: 1) We fail to recognize that we are suffering; 2) We fail to recognize that suffering unites us to others and does not divide us from them; and 3) We murmur.

1) I love to tell the story of the young St. Teresa of Avila, in which she and her brother plotted to run away from home to be beheaded by the Moors for the sake of Christ. Many of us look to take on all kinds of heroic trials during Lent: sleeping on boards, wearing a hair shirt, eating only bread once a day, giving up coffee. With regard to this impulse, I generally quote to our men in formation a pair of sentences from Fr. Jordan Aumann's excellent book Spiritual Theology:

"Some persons neglect the duties of their state in life and nevertheless ask permission of their confessors to practice certain penances and mortification of their own choosing. The exact fulfillment of all our duties and obligations according to our state in life is absolutely indispensable for the crucifixion of self."

What St. Teresa found was that simply living the religious life turned out to bring with it all sorts of unsought trials. Another Discalced Carmelite, St. Therese of Lisieux discovered her own pettiness throught the suffering she endured as the sister next to her loudly fingered her rosary beads each day at the Office. Repentance often involves simply rededicating ourselves to the values we professed at baptism. This is not easy. St. Augustine has this to say, "While a change of life are refashioning our spirit, we find it a tough and uphill struggle [En. in Psalmis 6: 5]." St. Gregory of Nyssa, who otherwise often has very different opinions from Augustine, is in agreement on this struggle. He frequently refers to 'the difficult ascent of virtue [see for example, The Life of Moses, 2:34]'.

The truth is that we all suffer a variety of deprivations most days, but we avoid experiencing them head-on or naming them. In the first case, we might ease the wounds inflicted by the sharp edges of those with whom we live by taking up some diversion: eating, surfing the net, listening to music, and so on. This action may have its uses, but the danger is that the wounds have not been dressed, and so they fester away. On the day that a brother, a family member or a coworker reopens the wound and we don't have our emotional crutch available, we might well be seriously injured, often by lashing out at them or sinking into crushing sorrow. It would be better to be honest about our weakness from the start rather than hiding it behind spurious activity. So we might begin by learning to be more silent and still, to listen to ourselves honestly.

We live in a results-driven culture. When we experience suffering, our first impulse is to seek a solution that will reduce or eliminate the suffering. That is to say, we think that something is wrong and we must search out a way to fix it. While this might be the case, the problem with this default response is that we don't first simply experience the pain, large or small, caused by the regular round of daily life. We miss what the factual present is telling us and leap forward into plans for the future, which is uncertain. When we've asked the family to save the leftovers for dinner and someone has come by and eaten them, we are somewhat justified in an initial response of anger. What we do next is the step that interests me. Do we immediately start dreaming up the perfect thing to say to the culprit to shame him into never causing us that inconvenience again? Do we dream up rules and charts and signs that will prevent this particular thorn from lodging in our side? Or are we able to say, simply: "That bothers me. I am suffering because of this situation."

Aside from trying to 'fix' everything in order to minimize pain, we also might pull one of two routines: the victim routine or the strong routine. While annoyances do victimize us in some way, and do require of us strength, again I suggest that we often skip a step here. Instead of saying to ourselves, "That's annoying; I need to be strong and not let it get me," we take the moral high ground. "Not me! I'm above getting worked up about this! I'm strong and wise!" all the while simmering away with plans for revenge. "Poor me! No one knows the things I go through!"

So the first step is simply to enter into a slower and more silent mode of living that allows us to monitor ourselves interiorly. There, we can simply acknowledge the fact that we suffer all kinds of minor irritations each day. Once this is recognized, then we are in a position to own them and make an offering of them. Our Lenten penances can help us to this recognition by removing unnecessary distractions and props from our defenses. Before we go to that step, however, we should move on to another type of obstacle to naming our suffering: failing to recognize the suffering of others. We will take this up next time.

1 comment:

Watcher said...

Thanks for this. I like to say that I'd be OK with nuclear war, but if my shoelace breaks, watch out!

Your post reminds me to acknowledge the reality of my situation, one aspect of which is that I am weak, and am surrounded by others who are weak, despite any illusions I might have of their or my "strength"!


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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