Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts

Sunday, April 3, 2016

4 things to do when suffering

Following are a few suggestions I hope might be helpful to anyone experience suffering life. These are not "solutions" to make suffering go away. Many sufferers have learned there is not a secret formula to make it "stop." Not even prayer. Even in Scripture, Job cried out to God yet still lamented of his "months of emptiness" (Job 7:3), which may have amounted to years. Paul likewise begged for the removal of a thorn (2 Cor. 12:8-9), yet God did not effect Paul's request in the manner Paul requested it. Jesus himself prayed to be spared the cup of blood (Luke 22:42; Matt 26:39), yet he still endured the crucifixion. In this fallen world, we often feel the sting of suffering and of crying out repeatedly for relief.

So the purpose of this post is not to examine the mystery of suffering per se, but things we can do amidst it.

1. Offer your suffering as a gift to God.
Scripture teaches us both that Christ offered himself in suffering and that we suffer with him (e.g. Phil. 3:10, Rom 8:17). Deep down, there is a generosity here bestowed by God, that we might in some sense, by grace, join him in his work. It doesn't matter if we "feel" the value of this, but we are simply called to accept crosses and to share in Christ's suffering. We may never know in this life what God "does" with such gifts from His children. Do not worry about having that answer before being a child offering a father a present.

2. Pray even if your prayers are weak.
Don't worry if your suffering is so dark that you can barely muster a prayer. If you must, simply pray with your action, as in point #1, by accepting a share of the cross. If you've already prayed and prayed and things have never changed, you might find yourself in a dark, frustrated, empty place which razes at your faith and trust. Even if you are in such a condition, perhaps you could still pray something like: Lord, please hear me despite my anger and frustration. Don't let the answer to my prayer depend on the wreck that is my faith, nor the anger and sorrow that spills from my heart. Hear my prayer even if I feel like it is futile.

This can help place the matter more into God's hands than one's own. The petitioner admits his sorrow or anger or exhaustion. This can help the petitioner avoid falling into the deceptive trap of thinking his prayer didn't "work" because he didn't pray "right."

No matter how short or how poor you think the prayer comes out, God can work with it. This is the God who built a church on Peter, who was a flawed man in many ways. This is the God who built a universe literally out of nothing. Even a clumsily crafted prayer could become something great.

3. Recognize in your suffering a glimpse of Christ's suffering.
In today's Gospel for Divine Mercy Sunday, we read in part the story of Thomas who would not believe Christ had risen lest he see Christ's wounds.
John 20:27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." 
Doubting St. Thomas by St. Tito (ca 1576-77)
(detail from photograph by Saliko,
acquired from Wikimedia Commons)
After seeing this, Thomas' awareness comes to life. Remember in #1 above how Scripture teaches we suffer with Christ. This is our window to Christ's suffering even when we are weak and faithless. Just like Thomas we desire to see Christ's wounds. Sometimes we are given that glimpse right in our own hearts.  When we suffer, we thus "see" Christ's suffering and garner our limited understanding of what Christ endured. And since Christ was wholly innocent and accepted this suffering, we know that whatever we suffer as sinful beings, Christ suffered infinitely worse as the innocent one. From this, we see the love Christ had for mankind. Although easier said than done,  we can translate this to our own lives. We say to ourselves:
If Christ willed to accept a suffering even worse than what I suffer now, how much must he have loved us. This is an example for me to follow when I do something loving for someone else. Do I hold my tongue against a family member while arguing, even if it is difficult for me to resist? Do I guard my eyes against sinful temptations even if I desire to look? Am I willing to accept something that is painful to me for the sake of doing something loving for another?
4. Recognize the faith underlying your frustration
Perhaps you find yourself vexed and frustrated, even "angry" at God after you've cried out again and again to be heard. Like Israel, you "cry out" (e.g. Ps. 22:2, Hab. 1:2) and wonder "how long" until you are "heard." Although the pain does not subside, part of the reason you are frustrated is because you recognize in God the power to hear you. There is faith in such a lamentation. In such a case, consider a prayer such as this:
God I wouldn't be so frustrated and crying out to You if I didn't think You had the power to help. Hidden in my rage is knowledge of Your power and divinity.
In a way, a prayer such as this can be a prayer of praise. And previously, perhaps you have found it very difficult to make a prayer of praise as you've endured heartbreak and difficulty day after day.

Only in suffering can the pinnacles of human love be realized. Is it easier to love a spouse when things are going well or difficult. Great love rises even in turmoil. All this can be overwhelming. None of the above suggestions may take away the pain we so desire be removed. With Job, Paul, Jesus, and Israel, we cry out for mercy, to be spared the pains, thorns, and cups of sacrifice. Even if we remain in the darkness and pains this fallen world delivers, it is worth looking to Scripture and Christ's love as an example to follow.

Note: The 4th point and other slight changes were made to this post on April 6, 2016.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Difficult questions modern Catholics face

I spoke at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church in Naperville, IL on Feb. 25, 2014 on the subject of difficult questions modern Catholics face. Topics included suffering, hell, marriage, contraception, abortion.

Right-click here to download an MP3 of the talk. (40:21 minutes)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Suffering & Heroic Christianity

For many Christians, events and circumstances of the world try their resolve and the faith to which they have devoted themselves. In such dark hours, or even dark days or years, a weary child of God may find him or herself wondering how circumstances can burden so long or intensely. They might even be bombarded by others who tell such Christians that they are the cause of their own suffering. Perhaps even another Christian preacher who professes a prosperity gospel tells them their trials are due to some sin or deficiency in their very faith. Perhaps these weary Christians pray for the same things over and over and never see an answer in accord with the petition. They feel a type of emptiness or distance from God. And they ask themselves, does not divine revelation speak of Christians having "hearts that burn within" (Luke 24:32) for Christ? Shouldn't that be always? And does not God say "Ask and you shall receive"? (Matt. 21:22) And so the crosses they bear and the distance they feel from divinity become matters of suffering and can challenge their faith.

As difficult as it sometimes may be, such Christians may consider remembering the totality of divine revelation and the wisdom of the saints.

Consider the Biblical book of Job, perhaps the most famous work in human history regarding the matter of suffering. Job is an icon for a righteous person who suffers in spite of his righteousness. He is a precursor to God incarnate, who humbled Himself and accepted unjust suffering at the hands of His own creatures.

Job is stricken with a variety of physical and financial afflictions and the loss of family. Only after a lengthy period of grief is he renewed, his "losses" recovered multifold (Job 42:10) so to speak, with restored health, family, and treasures. The restoration to this "new life" reminds us of the eternal life anticipated by a Christian that supersedes all previous joys in life. It is the "treasure in heaven" that is the prize on which the Christian sets his eye. (Luke 18:22)

The man Christ, just as many of his suffering Christian followers thereafter, cried out to God to be spared the suffering, bloody "cup" which he endured and to which he was headed. (Matt. 26:39) Yet it seems this petition was not answered in accord with how it was stated. From that point, Christ remained in suffering, and was scourged and crucified, the ultimate innocent man, suffering the ultimate penalty. Christ had added a caveat to his prayer, that ultimately, to let God's will be done. And after all his suffering, the Christian witness testifies to his resurrection and glory.

Thus, in these examples of Job and Christ, the Christian may not necessarily know the mechanics of the value of suffering and how it can be converted into great spiritual treasure, or how we are purged by it into holiness. But the Christian can have reason to believe that value exists because of these accounts, especially in regards to Christ. If Christ was God incarnate and accepted suffering in solidarity with man which lead to glorification, then should not the grieved Christian hope for the vanquishment of the darkness?

There is here, perhaps, an inspiring truth for the suffering Christian. Great is the faith of the one who remains faithful even in darkness. Consider the words of saints:
Blessed Angela of Foligno says that the prayer most acceptable to God is that which we force and constrain ourselves to say. Such is the prayer we turn to not for the pleasure found in it or because of our own inclination but purely to please God." (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life)
As for my outer man, it too, since the spirit does not respond to it, is so besieged that it finds nothing to refresh it on the earth if it follow its human instinct. No comfort is left it save God, who works all this by love and very mercifully in satisfaction of His justice. To perceive this gives my outer man great peace and happiness, but happiness which neither lessens my pain nor weakens the siege. (St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory, chap. 17)
Great power, says St. Francis, is there in a prayer made with pain. St. Catherine speaks of the siege she endures, and even though she is able to recognize the love of God in her suffering, the pains are no less weakened. These are two venerated saints whose words can inspire those in the midst of such suffering. Even if the pain remains, they can take consolation through it, that great is their prayer from the cross, as is their faith, following in the footsteps of Christ whom first showed the obedient way through suffering.

To maintain hold of the cross, following the Lord through the trial is to exhibit heroic Christianity. It is to be like a docile child, trusting of his parent as he is led through an unpleasant situation he cannot understand even with explanation, yet the parent knows it is for his benefit.

A parable comes to mind, the Parable of the Two Sons (discussed previously at TCV), when reflecting on this image of the heroic Christian who faithful through feelings of darkness.
28"What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 29And he answered, `I will not'; but afterward he repented and went. 30And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir,' but did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him. (Matthew 21: 28-32)
In this parable, the good son is the one who originally didn't want to do the father's will. Yet in spite of his instinct to resist, he overcomes his lethargy. He overcomes his obstinance. He conquers his lack of desire. It is this son who resembles the heroic Christian. The heroic Christian does not depend on constant feelings of a burning heart to respond to God. The heroic Christian understands that this earthly pilgrimage is not the final order, and that when he "asks" he can expect to receive, if not in this life, then multifold in the eternal life. He knows this because the master he trusts first showed the way, even if the pain persists as he follows.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wisdom from the Diary of St. Gemma Galgani

It's All Saints Day today. It seems appropriate to post about a saint. Recently I finished reading the Diary of St. Gemma Galgani. A little background on this saint, thanks to Glenn at Born in 1878, she was an Italian mystic, and at the time of her writing, she was 22. She was advised to write this journal at the prompt of her spiritual director. She passed away at age 25. I usually use an ereader now, and below are some of the highlights I made and additional reflections on this modern saint.

[E]yes that have been mortified will see the beauty of Heaven. (p. 10)

St. Gemma recalls numerous encounters she has with apparitions of Christ, saints, and her guardian angel. The previous quotation was told to her by her guardian angel. The eyes are often mentioned in Scripture for both good and bad. Job, feeling the torments of earthly life, cries out:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
There is a certain goal for Job to "behold" God. Divine revelation gives another perspective on the "eyes" in the Gospels. For instance, in shocking language, it is written:
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:9)
And so we are taught by the voice of God through Scripture 2 realities. 1) We must remove our "sinful eye"; and 2) The one who does this, in an ironic twist of sorts, ends up with the ultimate beatific vision in heaven. St. Gemma's angel encapsulates this idea in a tidy sentence.

The days pass and here I am always in the same worldly abyss. (p. 19)

It is not unique to St. Gemma to express grief in a Christian's place in the world. A few years ago, I read St. Padre Pio's letters to his spiritual director, and he often felt terrible weight and pain, particularly when he could not "feel" God's love. As I understand, Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta expressed similar sentiments in her letters. Some interpret this skeptically, as a pock mark of sorts against Catholicism or those who walk in the way of the Church. I see it entirely the opposite. I'm reminded of the words of Christ:
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  (Matt. 5:46)
If we look at these saints, like St. Gemma, feeling the strife of the world in light of Christ's counsel, there is evidence of a phenomenon. These saints retained their faith in Christ even through the darkest hours. There were times when they rejoiced, but they didn't demand the constant feelings of joy in order to keep coming to Christ's table, to keep believing in his promises spoken as the Incarnate Son of God. St. Gemma repeated a paraphrase of this sentiment more than once in the diary. It speaks of a heroism in her resolve against the weight of the worldly pilgrimage. The idea can be inspiring rather than discouraging. Such saints exhibit love for Christ.

Later, she demonstrates exactly the kind of love born of conviction rather than emotion or feelings:

Sunday has arrived. What indifference, what dryness! Still, I do not want to abandon my usual prayers. (p. 24)

This is a similar aspect of love to which married couples are called. They vow to remain faithful "in good times and in bad." Both married and unmarried saints, as members of Christ's bride, the Church, are thus called to love in good times or bad. The inclusion of St. Gemma's heavy sentiments in her diary is rather an inspiration.

That night I suffered a lot because I too wanted to go to heaven, but no one thought to take me. (p. 29)

St. Gemma wrote this after telling of her vision of a Mother Giuseppa who appeared to her and thanked her for praying and offering penance to help Mother Giuseppa attain the heavenly joy. St. Gemma's longing to go to heaven is reminiscent of St. Paul:
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Phil. 1:23-24)
You see how Paul, too, desires to "depart" and be "with Christ" in heaven. The Christian soul feels a sense of detachment to the world, belonging somewhere "else," so to speak. Yet, Paul, and St. Gemma, stayed true to their devotion, work, and prayers in accord with the call they received. There remains a certain importance in toiling in the world during one's life. As one of my professors noted, this is the time, the opportunity for "merit." Recently, I saw Dr. Peter Kreeft speak, and one of the lines he said that remains with me is, "Grace perfects nature." In Catholic theology, the world is not just some fallen place of evil, even if it is a pilgrimage "on the way" to point B. We remember that Christ came incarnate to the world. Mary, giving birth to personified grace himself, delivers grace into the terrestrial realm. As dwellers of this place, we can receive that grace made possible through his solidarity with mankind. Elsewhere St. Gemma wrote:

I find a little peace only in that bit of suffering Jesus sends me, offering it first for sinners, and in particular for me, and then for the souls in Purgatory (p. 23)

As members of "Christ's body, the Church" (eg. Eph. 1:22-23, Col. 1:24), we suffer in union with him. It is because we are "sharing" Christ's suffering that there is merit and power to our toil. You see in the second-to-last quote how St. Gemma, though she had an inward desire to depart this world and go to heaven, plods in this world for the sake of her soul and for others. This is another example of love working through this saint.

[H]e brought me a cup of coffee... (p. 31)

These words, St. Gemma spoke regarding her guardian angel. It got me thinking that I would not complain if my guardian angel did some chores for me, perhaps starting with laundry.

Whoever reads these things, I repeat again, should not believe, because they are all my imagination... (p. 43)

This, St. Gemma wrote after describing an encounter with the Virgin Mary in which the Blessed Mother cradled her. Read in isolation, the statement sounds like an admission that her mystic experiences are an illusion. But such is not the case in the context of the diary, or even the remainder of the sentence which says:

Whoever reads these things, I repeat again, should not believe, because they are all my imagination; nevertheless I agree to describe everything because I am bound by obedience, otherwise I would do differently.

St. Gemma expressed displeasure in her diary at having to write it. But what is revealed here is that her spiritual directors recognized something in her that they wished to preserve. Other times revealed that her visions went beyond something mental, such as when she wrote of attacks by the devil. On one occasion, she wrote that the

devil gave me such a strong shove that I fell off the bed, causing me to bang my head on the floor with such great force that I felt a sharp pain; I fainted and remained on the ground for a long time before regaining consciousness." (p. 31)

Additionally, she would sometimes speak that her "head would take off." I read this book in English, so I am not certain what the original Italian may have said, but she used this phrase in the context of having a vision. So when she wrote that one should not believe her story about the Virgin Mary holding her, she seems to refer to it occurring in her "imagination" as opposed to in some physical encounter. As well, she distinguishes at other times incidents where her "head would take off" with other visions:

When my guardian angel comes, I am awake, and my head does not take off; Jesus, my Mom and sometimes Brother Gabriel make my head take off; but I always stay where I am; I always find myself in the same place, it's just that my head departs. (p. 13)

It is statement such as these that shed light on her description of the Marian vision occurring in her "imagination."

Finally, I wanted to point out two other occasions in which St. Gemma's name has recently come across my path.

The first is in the previous "saint" book I read, Padre Pio: Under Investigation. The book re-prints an April 7, 1913 letter from Padre Pio to Fr. Agostino. After the letter, the author, Castelli, notes that this letter from Padre Pio was "one accused of being the product of plagiarism because of the consonance, of language and theme, with a private apparition to Saint Gemma Galgani." (e-location 875) The author produces the case, however, that Padre Pio's letter was authentic, not plagiarized, and that his experience was only similar to St. Gemma's. It is interesting to note once again, the similarity in the experiences of some saints, not only with suffering, but here with the character of an apparition and inspiration of words.

The second is from another book I reviewed, The Rite. The book opens with a vivid description of an exorcism and the dialogue exchanged between the demon and the priest. During the ordeal, the priest determines that the demon is writhing against the presence of some unseen saints in the room, and at times fought against these unseen figures at which it screamed. One was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One was Bl. John Paul II. And the other was St. Gemma Galgani. The author, Baglio, determined from the possessed victim, that St. Gemma "was dressed in her traditional black, and looked very much as she had in her twenties." (p. 2)

It is what the saints do. They serve as members of Christ's body, members that do spiritual battle on behalf of the Church. All the more sense does Paul's analogy of the Church's "body" with parts of a human body having parts that work together. (cf. 1 Cor. 12) And some saints, it seems, are called to be part of the fighting hands of Christ's body.

Monday, December 12, 2011

If your football team loses, it doesn't mean God doesn't love you

Yesterday, the Chicago Bears, for whom I was fully rooting, lost in overtime to the Denver Broncos whose quarterback is outspoken Christian Tim Tebow. The Broncos were down 10-0 late in the fourth quarter. The Bears went into what is known as the "prevent defense" which makes it easier for the other team to advance the ball, but prevents a "big play" because so many of the defenders are deep. Denver took advantage of the Bears unwise strategy and marched right down the field in medium chunks for a touchdown. Still up 10-7, the Bears got the onside kick and started to run the ball to waste the remaining 2 minutes or so. Unfortunately, Bears running back Marion Barber ran the football out of bounds on one of the plays, which stopped the clock. This ended up leaving more time for Denver to come back the other way after the Bears punted. Without Barber's error, Denver would only have had a few seconds. At any rate, Denver got the last-second field goal to tie the game. And in overtime, they took advantage of a Barber fumble on 3rd down, which would have otherwise lead to a Bears field goal attempt to win the game. Instead, Denver kicked the winning field goal.

Dan Bernstein, radio host of 670 the Score here in Chicago and senior columnist, wrote scathingly about this game in his column today. He was not mad about the Bears prevent defense. He was not mad at Marion Barber.

He was mad at God.

The headline? Tim Tebow’s God Is Mean.

Normally, I might find Bernstein's rant against God to be a bit of sarcasm, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, because the outspoken Christian's team won the game thanks to at least a couple favors the Bears gave them rather than earning the advantages themselves. But Bernstein has been hostile against Tebow on his radio show in the past. I have heard him mock Tebow in a caricature of a voice crediting God for his situation.

Bernstein's column yesterday is no different. The tone is condescending, angry, and anti-Christian. It bears the fury of Dracula in the face of a crucifix. His irrational reaction is not just about Tebow. He includes some standard secular criticisms: "We knew the Old Testament god was kind of a jerk – that’s well established" (lowercase "god" appears as original in Bernstein's article).

To a secularist such as Bernstein (who offered all but zero sports analysis in his sports column), it seems that the "goodness" of God is directly measured by "how often I get what I want." The premise of his article is to mock the goodness of God if Bears fans suffer. God is measured by temporal rewards only.

He shows no concept of the eternal promises of Christianity, verses the suffering that even Christians will endure. To educate those who do not understand the "Biblical God" very well, the Catechism responds and anticipates the difficulties of the human condition in the face of any suffering (even if it's being mad over one's football team).
CCC#272 Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and Resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. Christ crucified is thus "the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." It is in Christ's Resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth "the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe".
Suffering itself is ordered toward the resurrection. Christ leads the way, accepting suffering in perfect innocence, showing us that if we join him, we will be raised to glory. St. Paul writes: "Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Rom. 8:17)

The Christian's view of suffering, or even the afflictions suffered by those in the Old Testament by the permission of the "god" that Bernstein calls a "jerk," is totally alien to the secularist understanding of goodness. After all, if Christ indeed paved the way, and taught us that the way to an eternity of joy is to suffer with Christ, then God isn't a jerk, He's a leader. And He loves you. If a father tells his child the importance of learning math, but the child isn't at a stage yet where he can understand why, the child's perspective doesn't trump the father's.

Whether or not on this side of heaven's gate we come to a full understanding of suffering is not enough to dismiss the example first set by God incarnate. Now, no doubt, many secularists deny that Christ is the God-man. But the fact remains, if Christ is indeed God incarnate, and He implores us to unite to His body to join Him in the heavenly banquet, then the secularist is completely wrong. Only if the man known as Jesus the Christ was the greatest con man in history could rants like Bernstein's be accurate. But unfortunately, he did not have the space, or perhaps not the consideration to articulate to his audience why that might be the case.

So, I can only invite Bernstein and others who believe a "good" God is one who "makes your sports team win," to refrain from shooting poison darts from your tongue, and give matters of the faith a sober analysis. You don't even have to "like" Tebow's open style of evangelism. And I'm sure there are unbelievers who feel they have given the faith due consideration, and yet do not become furious when their football team loses to opponents with Christian players. Approaching any claim with such emotional staccato can hinder an objective analysis. Rather, give pause, do otherwise, and see what the Church has to offer!

See also the March 11, 2011 article Should earthquakes shake faith in God?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pope misquoted by UK Telegraph

I recently came across an April 23, 2011 article in the UK Telegraph. The article reports how the Pope was televised last month answering questions sent in by lay Catholics. The headline from the Telegraph reads: "Pope admits 'no answer to suffering' in TV interview".

A video of the pertinent segment of the show accompanied the article. A seven-year-old girl from Japan asked why children had to suffer in natural disasters. The Pope, speaking Italian, said, "Non abbiamo le risposte, ma sappiamo che Gesù ha sofferto come voi, innocente, che il Dio vero che si mostra in Gesù sta dalla vostra parte." (quoted at Italian version)

The body of the Telegraph article translates the line fairly close: "We don't have the answers, but we know that Jesus suffered as innocent children suffer." The key portion of the translation that they got correct was "We don't have the answers." The Pope's words "Non abbiamo le risposte" means quite literally "We don't have the answers." And following that he explained that we do know that Jesus suffered like children like her, and if we don't have the answers, we can draw comfort in knowing that. He continued, saying, "One day you will even understand why this is so."

The headline of the article is factually wrong. Saying "We don't have the day you will understand" is a very different thought than what the Telegraph's headline says: "Pope admits 'no answer to suffering.'" It is very different to say there "is no answer" and "we don't have the answer at this time."

As well, by saying the Pope "admits," the headline makes it sound like he is granting some kind of reluctant confession. But worse, he absolutely did not say that there is "no answer to suffering" as the headline reads––with quotes around it no less. That is factually inaccurate and begs the question whether or not the Telegraph editor has an ulterior motive for readers to think the Pope believes no answer to suffering exists.

So what could be the motive? Shoddy editing? Shoddy journalism? An attempt to make the Church appear weak or unreliable? An attempt to discredit the notion of the "good God" the Pope represents by making it appear as if he's conceding that human suffering is pointless?

Whether the Telegraph is given the benefit of the doubt on an ulterior motive or not, the headline is unarguably wrong.

Related Catholic Voyager article: Should earthquakes shake faith in God?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Should earthquakes shake faith in God?

First, let me offer sympathy and prayer for those suffering as a result of the recent Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Their trial is severe, unimaginable, and horrific. I do not want my attempt to address a theological issue here to be incorrectly seen as a selfish insensitivity to that reality.

That being said, I want to Scripturally and philosophically address a reaction that invariably is made by skeptics whenever a tragedy dominates the headlines. And I would like to remind any reader that this is not an exhaustive explanation of death and suffering. There are many resources I would encourage anyone to explore such as Padre Pio's Secrets of a Soul, Dr. Peter Kreeft's Making Sense Out of Suffering, C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, or any of Fr. John Corapi's talks on suffering.

Anyway, I read two skeptical posters at the forums make similar comments today. I remember back in the day watching the South Park movie (not a good example for kids by the way!) hearing the same basic line in the face of disaster: "Where is your God when you need him?"

Along with sympathy for the victims of the tragedy, I do have sympathy for the skeptic's reaction. It is no easy thing for a human being to feel at a loss while simultaneously believing God loves him. Even a faithful Christian might feel unsettled by the innocence afflicted by such a disaster.

The reason I think this reaction is common is because in the human mind, there is often an equation of suffering or death with evil. If God permits an innocent person to suffer, He therefore must not love that person.

I think some strains of Christianity, such as those who espouse a "prosperity gospel" have an inadequate response to tragedy and God's love. However, I think Catholic theology can make sense of such suffering.

First, as apologist Jimmy Akin once wrote on his blog:
[God] gives all of us an infinite amount of [the gift of life] because, once we are created, we will endure forever. After the resurrection, we will all--every one of us--have an infinite amount of physical life ahead of us. What we are discussing, therefore, is whether some of us receive an infinite amount of physical life plus a varying amount of finite physical life as well.
When someone dies to the terrestrial, temporal universe, it is by no means the last word. If the Catholic truth that eternal life awaits those who lived faithfully to the divine movements in their hearts, then no amount of measurable, temporal punishment can possibly compare to an eternal reward. The temporal suffering is obliterated by an eternal life with no suffering.

So why is there suffering at all, even if temporal? Catholics understand suffering to have value for the soul as well as humanity itself. Catholics believe that the path fallen man must take to be reunited with God in eternal joy is through Jesus Christ who opened this door for humanity through his suffering on the cross. Thus, if Jesus Christ was truly God incarnate, and if he willingly permitted himself to endure suffering at the hands of his own creatures, then even if we do not fully understand the scope of suffering, we can see a great testament from divinity himself that there is purpose to suffering.

In Catholicism, we believe suffering is a means to be united with Christ's salvific work on the cross. St. Paul teaches about the salvation of mankind with the included caveat: "provided we suffer with him" (Rom. 8:17). Temporal suffering, as Christ experienced on the cross, is a sequential prerequisite to resurrection into eternal life. That would include even infants who must undergo temporal death despite never having committed "actual sin."

As well, in Catholicism, suffering is seen as a mechanism of cleansing a person of the effects of sin, conforming him to the spotless being he shall be in the next life. This takes place as an extension of the singular sacrifice of Christ (see CCC#1473 and preceding). A non-Catholic who does not believe in the temporal consequence of sin will not recognize the value of suffering in this way.

Not to limit this apologetic to Scripture or even exclusively Catholic theology alone, we can in some way grasp the idea that something once perceived valueless can be of the utmost value. As Dr. Peter Kreeft said in his talk Making Sense Out of Suffering a few years ago, if a baby in the womb could rationalize, he would say to himself, for example, why do I have feet? There are no sidewalks here! While the existence of feet in his current domain appears valueless, the next domain beckons their use and feet are of value.

Another example is one that is used as a Christian figure of God's relationship to mankind (although it is evident to anyone): The father-child relationship. Fathers (or mothers) discipline their children. Sometimes it can come in the form of letting a child touch a sharp weed so that the child will learn the danger of the action. The father could lovingly inflict or permit suffering for a variety of reasons including that the child misbehaved or did something detrimental to himself that the father did not want the child to repeat. The discipline is applied to the child for a) reasons the child does not understand, and b) for reasons that result in the improvement of the child's person. If we look at this example categorically, then we must admit not all infliction or permission of suffering equals evil or lack of love even if the recipient does not recognize value in the pain.

If a skeptic recognizes the love of a parent who permits his child to suffer for that child's betterment, then he must acknowledge God could similarly do the same. God's permission of suffering can rationally have an entirely loving motive behind it.

There's an animated science series featuring a "Dr. Quantum" that covers various topics including quantum physics and spatial dimensions. One of the videos is called "Flatland." In the video, Dr. Quantum exists in 3-dimensions just as any terrestrial human being does. He stands over a "flat" universe in which dwells 2-dimensional "Pac-man-looking" people. The 2-dimensional people understand only length and width. Depth is inconceivable to them. Nothing in their existence can be used to depict depth either. Dr. Quantum dips his finger into the 2-dimensional world. A 2-dimensional character only sees an expanding and shrinking circle as Dr. Quantum's finger passes into and out of the 2-dimensional surface. From her perspective, Dr. Quantum is a circle who varies in size. She cannot conceive of the reality beyond her 2-dimensional perspective.

The analogy can help us understand God's perspective. God as an eternal, extra-terrestrial being has a perspective and understanding of reality beyond that of terrestrial man. He may see more of suffering than we see.

In summary, if this world is not the final say, it is specious to measure the value of any divine action or permission based on man's temporal reaction. It is specious even for a skeptic to conclude that if suffering and death occur that God must therefore not love or perhaps not even exist. There are enough signposts in the terrestrial domain that show how suffering can have value.