A reflection for the 2017 Fisher House Advent Retreat at Mount St Bernard's Abbey, Leicestershire by Sr Ann Swailes
Almost exactly a year ago, I was sitting, with a group of pilgrims from Fisher House, in the Paul VI audience hall in the Vatican, listening to Pope Francis talking about the season of Advent which we had just entered. The Holy Father spoke movingly about the way in which hope sustains us in the Christian life, not by offering us an escapist fantasy, denying the darkness and terror of our world, but by shining a light on precisely that world, the light that came into the world to be born among us at Christmas. And he underlined insistently the difference between secular optimism and Christian hope: optimism, he said disappoints, hope does not. Hope, on the contrary, makes the desert of our world, the desert of our lives, bloom, revealing beauty and fertility in a landscape we might previously have found arid and lifeless.
A Reflection from the Second Sunday of Advent 2017 by Sr Valery Walker
Stained glass widow from St. Dominic's Priory Church,
London. Photograph by Lawrence Lew o.p.
At the opening of today’s mass we prayed:
'God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him when he comes in glory.'
As usual in Advent, we have had three very beautiful readings, all of which have a purpose; as John the Baptist cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and Isaiah, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert.” We are preparing for Christmas. We are preparing for the celebration of the first coming of our God – though at the same time St. Peter reminds us that we are preparing for his second coming, which will be very different from his first.
In preparing for Christmas we are preparing for the arrival of a baby, a new-born baby, his birthday. He is a baby who asks us, as I suppose all babies do, to take him into the ‘arms’ of our heart and cradle and love him there. But this baby is not just any baby. This baby is a Divine Person who has already, in the mysterious hidden free-will of his Sacred Heart, even in Our Lady’s womb, given himself wholeheartedly to our redemption and to the will of his Heavenly Father. A baby normally draws love to itself; this Baby breathes out love for every individual, he has taken all of us, each one of us, into that Heart. If we could see him in the manger of course we would see a very ordinary baby (if any baby is ever ‘ordinary’!) But this baby has drawn to himself shepherds from nearby and magi from afar; this baby is the one foretold by Isaiah, a shepherd himself, “feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes”.
This is the generous, loving Heart that we are preparing to welcome at Christmas. We want our hearts to be ready, full of love for Him and joy at his coming; but even more we want to recognise Who He is and allow Him into our hearts, filling them with His Love, the Holy Spirit.
By Sr Ann Catherine Swailes
‘It seems that there is no God. For if, of two mutually exclusive things, one were to exist without limit, the other would cease to exist. But, by the word “God” is implied some limitless good. If God did exist, then, nobody would ever encounter evil. But evil is encountered in the world. God, therefore, does not exist.’ [ST I, 2 art 3, first objection]
It would be hard, I think, to find a more succinct, or starker, way in than this to the issue we are here to consider this evening, the issue, that is, of how we can say to those who ask us, and indeed, to ourselves, something coherent about what we as Christians believe about the relationship between God and suffering. Other accounts of the matter may be more colourfully emotive, more shockingly passionate than this. Great literature abounds, of course, with descriptions of what happens when conventional religious faith is confronted by the horrors of human affliction, and, I think it's fair to say conventional religious faith generally comes off the worse. There's the hero of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure for instance, wandering into a church in 19th century Oxford looking for solace in the wake of his little son's suicide and finding two clergyman arguing about liturgical rubrics. There's Dostoevsky writing of Ivan Karamazov's passionate argument with his brother, a novice in an Orthodox monastery, refusing to allow that there is any possible ultimate reconciliation for which the suffering of children, which he describes in graphic detail, could be a price worth paying. There is Elie Wiesel's Night, a short autobiographical work in which he speaks of watching the execution of a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp, asking the rhetorical question "where is God now?" and receiving the answer "He is here, hanging on this gallows".
These are all presented by their authors as powerful challenges to faith, and I could have started with any of them, but I think the very abstract tone in the quotation I chose to begin with, the matter of factness, the lack of rhetorical fireworks, adds to the bleakness, the horribly plausible bleakness, of what seems to be suggested. The very word God, after all, we have been brought up to believe, whether or not we have been brought up to believe in God, simply means the all-powerful, all-loving source of all goodness. And it is sometimes very hard to imagine that the world we actually inhabit has such an all-loving, all-powerful source. The existence of God, of God defined like this, at any rate, as the Christian tradition does define him, seems to be simply incompatible with the existence of evil. We can all give our own content to the idea of encountering evil: the new horrors of war and terrorism we read about seemingly daily; the anguish we undergo when we see chronic pain wear away the personality of those we love, or when relationships disintegrate and projects we've pinned our hopes on collapse; the degradation of human trafficking and the havoc wrecked by natural disasters which so often seem disproportionately to affect the poorest of the poor. The catalogue goes on and on and will be different for each one of us. But encounter evil we all do, and there’s something chilling about being brought up short against the implications of it like this, as though we are being asked to wake from a dream in which we have taken solace, and summoned into the cold light of day. We encounter evil. It seems, therefore, that there is no God, at least no God worth believing in. And that's that. That is the conscientious position of many whom we meet who have rejected the Christian faith; we may all of us, at least from time to time wonder if they are not simply both more courageous and more intellectually consistent than we.
But, before we move on, it's worth stopping to reflect on what light might be shed on the question by the origins of the quotation I began with. As some of you may have recognised, but others will perhaps be surprised to hear, the formulation of the so-called problem of evil that we heard at the beginning does not come from one of our non-Christian contemporaries. These words are not the work of someone self-identifying as a new atheist, but of a rather old theologian, saint and doctor of the Church, the 13th century Dominican St Thomas Aquinas. Now, of course, Aquinas did, in fact, believe that it was possible to reconcile belief in God with our experience of evil, so clearly these lines, in which he claims so eloquently that it is not, have been taken out of context. But what is the context? Aquinas was a scholastic theologian of the high Middle Ages, and contrary to popular stereotype, this does not mean he was either into rote-learning of pious platitudes for the sake of it or obsessed with angels on pinheads. Those are decadent distortions of the scholastic tradition against which reformers some three hundred years after St Thomas, including our own St John Fisher, of course, rightly protested. Aquinas' own preoccupations, and those of his contemporaries, were very different. In his Summa Theologiae, from which this quotation comes, and which is really a textbook for theology lecturers, Thomas sets out to provide a comprehensive syllabus for the study of Christian theology. And his pedagogical technique is to encourage the radical questioning of the intellectual foundation of every aspect of this programme. So the format of each of the hundreds of short sections, or articles, which make up the Summa is that Thomas first presents a series of objections to the position he wants to defend, before making his own substantial case and then going back and answering the specific objections he began with. There could hardly be a more basic question, clearly, in such a programme, than the existence of God, and, as Thomas in company with many of our contemporaries points out, the phenomenon of evil does seem to present a fairly radical objection to be dealt with.
So how does he answer this question that he poses? At first sight, rather disappointingly. That is to say, at first sight he doesn't seem to answer it at all. Remember the objection he poses here to the existence of God: effectively, it doesn't seem possible to hold both that God, conceived as limitless good, and evil exist, but, sadly, we all experience evil on a daily basis, therefore God, or at least such a God, can't exist. Here's St Thomas's reply, and I quote:
As St. Augustine says, Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good. [ST I 2 art 3 ad obj 1]
Thomas seems, in other words, to give with one hand, only to take back with the other. Having posed the dilemma in a way that our secular contemporaries might own, and we ourselves might secretly empathise with in the small hours of the morning, he seems to fall back on, precisely, pious platitudes: it's all OK, God's in his heaven all's right with the word, and we have it on the authority of St Augustine no less, even if we can't hope to understand it.
But I think such a reaction to Aquinas is the result of confusing the problem of evil with the mystery of suffering. As an answer to the problem of evil, although Aquinas does deal with this at length elsewhere, as we’ll see, his answer here doesn't even get off the starting blocks. As an invitation to ponder the mystery of suffering, however, I don't think it could really be bettered.
So, before I go any further, what is this distinction I'm making here?
Originally, this evening’s session was to be entitled The Problem of Evil: Fr Philip still thinks it should be, whereas I’ve insisted on calling it, instead, the Mystery of Suffering. Someone asked me after Mass on Sunday if this difference in terminology was one of those Dominican-Jesuit things, but, much and dearly as I’d like to be able to make that case, and to show why, this being so, of course the OP usage is incalculably superior, I don’t think it is, really. The mystery of suffering and the problem of evil are two different things, not two different ways of thinking about the same thing, and I think the Problem of evil is a perfectly good thing to think about. Indeed, we'll be doing so, fairly briefly, this evening. But I think it has to be set in a context that is broader and deeper, and that broader, deeper context, I'm going to be calling the mystery of suffering, and devoting most of the rest of my talk to that.
First of all, though, we before we worry about the difference between a problem and a mystery, we need to establish the difference between evil and suffering. As a starting point, let's say that evil is simply the opposite of good. We'll come back later, when we look at the problem of evil, to the question of in what sense evil and good are opposed, but, let's begin with this very general definition. I also want at this point to suggest that there is something objective about good and evil. A thing, or a state of affairs can be either good or evil, or, of course, a complex and alternating mixture of the two, but I'm going to be assuming that good and evil are not, so to speak, in the eye of the beholder. If something is good, it remains good, even if I don't happen to like it; if it's evil, it remains evil, even if I happen to be attracted to it. Suffering, on the other hand, is not so much about an inherent quality in anything, but about a subjective reaction, even if that subjective reaction would be shared by every psychologically healthy human being. Cancer, or the death of a friend, might be an evil: living with cancer or being bereaved, in the way I'm using language is suffering. Suffering, as I'm using the word, is about our experience of evil, in other words. (And, incidentally, I say "our" experience, by which I mean human experience, in full knowledge that the question of animal suffering also poses challenges to faith, but I can't pretend I've given them anything like the attention I think they deserve)
So, the problem of evil first. As I've already hinted, I think Aquinas gives one particularly elegant and memorable formulation of the problem, in his suggestion that you can have God as limitless goodness, or you can have evil, but that this universe just isn't big enough for the both of them. Or, in a far older formulation than Thomas's, often attributed to Epicurus, writing in the fourth century BC:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
So that, in a nutshell, is the problem of evil. God, at least as God has traditionally been conceived, that is to say, as all-powerful, all-loving and all-wise, surely would have both the ability and the will to create a world without evil. But the world is far from free of evil, therefore it seems that God, or at least such a God, cannot exist. We could, potentially, go down the route of denying that there is such a thing as evil, in the interests of preserving room for God, but, to most of the Christian tradition this has seemed deeply counter-intuitive. We certainly seem to experience evil on a daily basis, and it seems reasonable to trust that our experience corresponds with what is there to experience. "Solving" the problem of evil, then, from the perspective of faith, if it is not to be a matter of denying the reality of evil, has to be a matter of showing how, first philosophical impressions notwithstanding, it is in fact not inconsistent both to hold that such a God does exist and to acknowledge the reality of evil in the world. But St Thomas, as we have seen, doesn't here even attempt to do this Here he simply says, in effect: we can't deny either that there is evil in the world, or that God exists, so there must be a way of reconciling them, even if it is not available to our limited human understanding. As I say, not in any sense a solution of the problem of evil, but it is an invitation to reflect on the mystery of suffering. We'll come back to that reflection, and why I think it's so important, later.
But, meanwhile - is it, in fact, possible to do anything like solve the problem of evil?
I think it has to be accepted at the outset that certain suggestions that have been advanced over the centuries for doing so are problematic.
Thus, for instance, the notion that evil and suffering in the world are punitive, in the straightforward sense that there is any kind of one to one correlation between guilt and suffering is not only clearly counter to our experience: it's all too apparent that the innocent suffer at least as much as the guilty. It also seems to be contrary to even a fairly cursory reading of scripture. Although there are texts in the Bible that suggest God punishes his people for their infidelity to him, there are others which explcitly deny this kind of easy account of cause and effect (and, incidentally, texts in both categories in each Testament, so there's absolutely no warrant for opposing, as we perhaps too easily tend to, a wrathful, avenging OT God to a nice cuddly NT one). So, for instance, Jesus asks rhetorically whether the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem causing multiple fatalities means that the victims were more wicked than their fellow townsfolk, and he clearly expects the answer no. And in the OT, of course, we have the deeply mysterious book of Job. The hero of the story, at the outset a wealthy farmer, suffers terribly when his livelihood, family and health are all taken from him. In the anguish of material anxiety, physical pain and bereavement he - understandably enough - is tempted to rail against God, who responds to him with a magnificent poem about his own omnipotence, at which point Job takes it all back and repents of having rebelled against the divine majesty. Whatever conclusion we draw from all this, the one that the author makes it quite clear we are not to draw is that Job deserves his fate. He is explicitly called a righteous man, and the villains of the piece are his so-called friends who "comfort" him by trying to jog his memory into acknowledging that there were times when he sinned against God and therefore is only getting what was justly coming to him. The message that the book of Job seems to leave us with is that the affliction of the innocent is somehow within the providence and purposes of God: an invitation to ponder the mystery of suffering, certainly, but scarcely an answer to the problem of evil.
The various versions of a punitive theory of suffering, though, also, I think, fail for another reason. Implicit in the idea of suffering as punishment for wrong doing is the premise that such wrong doing is freely chosen. There would be little point, let alone justice, in punishing someone for something over which they have no control. In this sense, such theories are closely related to what is generally known as the free will defence. On this account, it is better for God to have made a world in which we have free will, most profoundly because this means that we can freely choose to know and love God, than a world in which we are automata, with no control over our actions. But, of course, if we are free, we are free to misuse our freedom, and this is what causes much of the suffering in the world. The existence of at least the evil of suffering caused by human free will, then, is compatible with the existence of a good God, since it is precisely because of his goodness that God chose to make a world with such human free will in it.
But there are serious problems with the free will defence, even where it does not take the form of emphasisng suffering as punishment for wrongdoing. In the first place, of course, whilst much suffering is caused by human abuse of freedom, by no means all of it is. But, secondly, the free will defence rests on a serious misunderstanding of what we mean by free will itself, which in turn is a misunderstanding of the nature of our relationship to God. This might be clearer if we think, by comparison, of how we relate to each other. When we say we act of our own free will, what we mean in everyday parlance is that no one else made us do whatever it was we did. We may not have initiated the action, but we have chosen, freely, chosen, to do it. I'm here giving this talk this evening because I was invited: but I could have said no. I'm doing it of my own free will. On the other hand, if Fr Mark had compelled me to give the talk, by, for instance, threatening to withhold my Sunday G&T if I refused, then it would not be a freely willed act on my part, though it would be on his (unless, of course, Damian had made him do it). But - in this particular way - neither Fr Mark nor any of us are like God. God is not a third party here. It's not as though I'm giving this talk either because Fr Mark made me, or because God made me, or because I freely chose to do so. There are only two options here, not three. Either I chose to give the talk (which is in fact the case) or Fr Mark made me, but in either case God would be equally, and intimately involved God being the source of everything that exists, he is the source of all my actions, both those that are freely chosen and those compelled by another. There is not a single atom of my being that is not upheld in existence by God - and that remains the case whether I'm attending Mass or robbing a little old lady at knifepoint. It's hard, therefore, to see how the free will defence really solves the problem.
What is left as the most promising way forward is dependent on what is generally called the understanding of evil as privation, that is to say as a lack or a deficiency. Strictly speaking on this understanding, much of the language we've been using this evening has been decidedly loose. I've spoken, I know, somewhat carelessly, of God and evil as both "existing", for instance. But, more precisely, on the privative view of evil, evil does not exist. Not - this can't be said too clearly - in the sense that when we think we experience something as evil, when we suffer, we are in fact under an illusion: as I've said, the Christian tradition, at least, fundamentally rules out that option. But what we are experiencing, really experiencing, is precisely a lack, an absence of what should be there. Thus, to give the examples that Herbert McCabe, the great 20th century Dominican commentator on Aquinas uses:
Things really are bad sometimes, and this is because the absence of what is to be expected is jsut as real as a presence. If I have a hole in my sock, the hole is not anything at all, it is just an absence of wool or cotton or whatever, but it is a perfectly real hole in my sock. It would be absurd to say that holes in socks are unreal or illusory just because the hole isn't made of anything and is purely an absence. Nothing in the wrong place can be just as real and just as important as something in the wrong place. If you inadvertently drive your car over a cliff, you will have nothing to aorry about. It is precisely the nothing that you will have to worry about. [God Matters pg ]
Aquinas is not the originator of the privative model of evil, but it is not surprising that it appealed to him, precisely because he was a Dominican. The Dominican Order was founded in response to a movement on the fringes of the 13th century Church which, , motivated in part, I think, itself, by an attempt to solve the problem of evil, claimed that part of the created order, the material creation, was evil. The privative view of evil, by contrast, allows us to maintain that everything that is created is, as the book of Genesis tells us, good and very good, because evil is not a thing that is created, but literally no-thing, a lack, that which is not. This understanding of evil has the advantage of being compatible, then, with the idea of God as the all-good creator, who creates nothing evil, whilst not in any sense trivialising the phenomenon: as McCabe says, just because something is an absence, it doesn't mean it is not real, and it doesn't mean that it can't be devastatingly powerful.
So much then, for now, of the problem of evil: what about the mystery of suffering? Why do I suggest that we have only scratched the surface of our topic tonight unless we think about this?
The word mystery, as used in Catholic theology is not, as the philosophers say, univocal: that is, there are two or three related but distinct meanings, and I think all of them shed light on our question tonight. In the first place, one of the main relevant differences between a problem and a mystery is that whereas talking of a problem suggests that a solution is at least potentially available to the human mind, the word mystery has no such necessary connotation.
Classically, Catholic theology has held that there are truths that are potentially knowable on the basis of human reason, such as the existence of God and his identity as the creator. There are other truths which, however hard we tried, we could never work out for ourselves, including, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is three Persons in One God, or the doctrine of the Incarnation, that Jesus Christ is both fully human and truly divine. It is not that these latter truths are irrational, so much as that they are supra-rational, too conceptually big, as it were, for our minds to comprehend. It's important to see that, precisely because such truths are not irrational, there is still some work for theology to do in connection with them. In the case of the Incarnation, for instance, the Fathers of the Church in the early centuries had the task of showing how the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation differed from the various accounts in pagan mythology of gods and mortal women producing divine-human hybrid offspring, showing how, in fact, precisely because humanity and God are so radically different, it might not be nonsense to talk about Jesus being both 100% human and 100% divine, but I'll leave Fr Aidan Nichols to pick up the pieces of that in a couple of weeks' time when he comes to talk about Christology. The point for now is to see that showing that it's not irrational to believe in the Incarnation is not the same as exhaustively understanding what we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. Now, traditionally, one of the names for a truth of the Christian faith that we believe like this, a truth that is beyond the capacity of our minds to discern or fully comprehend is, precisely a mystery. We cannot claim, then, to understand, to grasp the entirety of any such mystery, but we can rule out various false understandings of what it implies, so that we can stand in awe before it as it truly is.
And perhaps we can say that, by analogy, the work we've been doing this evening on the problem of evil is a similar kind of ground clearing exercise, to enable us to stand, as it were, before the mystery of human suffering. We have succeded, perhaps, in showing that it is at least possible that the notion that one can't simultaneously believe in God and acknowledge the phenomenon of evil rests on some mistaken assumptions. We haven't, however, shown that the two must be compatible, and we certainly haven't come within light years of showing why it is that God permits so much and such suffering in his world. Being able to do that would, perhaps, be more akin to understanding comprehensively what it means to say that Jesus is fully God and fully man.
And I think this is important to acknowledge this because, strangely, that kind of reticence and modesty about the limits of what we can say is, perhaps, more helpful, more illuminating, even, to those who suffer than the most brilliant solution to the problem of evil imaginable. It is important to continue to wrestle with that problem, not least because of the questions we're so insistently asked by those outside the Christian family. .But even if we succeed in showing that it is possible without logical inconsistency to hold both that the evil we encounter in the world is an objective reality, and that God is the all wise, all powerful, all loving Creator of the world, the suffering we experience as a result of that evil is still suffering, and it still hurts, and part of why it still hurts is precisely that we do not fully understand it, we do not understand ourselves in relation to it. And, we do not understand it, even when we have, at least to our own satisfaction, solved the "problem of evil", because it is always bigger than we are, bigger than our minds can comprehend, just as is the mystery of the Incarnation or the Trinity. Acknowledging this, acknowledging the sheer vast proportion of the phenomenon of suffering, as we do when we speak of it as mystery rather than problem, is perhaps also a way, therefore, of acknowledging the dignity of the sufferer, acknowledging that what confronts one who is in pain is not in any sense trivial, an inconvenience to be tidied away, a puzzle to be easily solved.
At the same time, there is a positive as well as a negative dimension to the idea of mystery which is enormously important here, I think. A mystery is not just something utterly incomprehensible because it is sheerly incoherent; a mystery is a truth too big for us to get our heads around, which means that it is, nonetheless, supremely a truth. I do not think that when someone asks in anguish "why?" when confronted with their own suffering or that of those for whom they care, it is appropriate to launch into a discussion of the relative merits of the free will defence and the privative view of evil. But that doesn't mean their question is without content. When people ask "why does it have to be like this" in connection with suffering, they may not simply be asking for a tidily coherent account of how it can be that it is not irrational to say that both God and suffering exist, but it is nevertheless, a question with cognitive content. They - or we - are at least also asking what is the suffering for? What are we supposed to do with our suffering? The task then, is not the somewhat negative one of showing how it can be that suffering does not present a threat to our belief in God, but the rather more positive one of showing that suffering is not absurd, or, rather, that it does not render the sufferer absurd. And in speaking of the mystery of suffering, we are acknowledging this in, I think, a particularly profound and fruitful way.
Because one of the other technical theological meanings of the word mystery, one that we hear almost every time we come to mass, perhaps a bit subliminally, is one that can link our suffering with the saving events at the very heart of our faith. "To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries" the priest says before the confession at the start of the Eucharist. There's another prayer in the current translation of the Mass which talks of our having celebrated "in mystery" the events that bring us redemption. "Mystery" in other words, is a synonym for sacrament. There is also an echo of this sense of the word mystery in the title of the Church that as some of you know I think is the best and most important, the Mystical Body of Christ.
The phrase Mystical Body, in fact, was originally applied not the Church but to the consecrated Eucharistic species, whilst, if an adjective was used to qualify the description of the Church as Christ’s body, in the earliest Christian centuries that adjective would more typically have been not mystical, but true, or real. A switch of vocabulary began in the early Middle Ages, in response to controversy about the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament: it became important to stress that what was on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine was indeed his true, or real body, and not merely a symbol of that body. By the 13th century, when the Eucharistic hymn Ave Verum Corpus, for instance, was written, the reference was unambiguously to the sacrament, just as the scholastic theologians writing at the same time use “mystical body” to refer, so far as I know, exclusively to the Church. This terminological dos-y-dos is fascinating in itself, but what is most important is not, I think, the way that the two terms swap places, but rather the inextricable link that the whole story shows between, on the one hand, the Church, and, on the other, the sacraments. As the great 20th century Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac famously put it, the Church makes the sacraments and the sacraments make the Church: you can't have one without the other.
So the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ because she is his sacramental Body, the Body that we enter through the sacrament of baptism and grow in through receiving the other sacraments, supremely the Eucharist, and thus as members of Christ’s body, there is a real, though admittedly deeply mysterious sense, in which our actions and our experiences can be considered to be Christ’s actions and experiences. If our sufferings are Christ’s sufferings, they are no longer random or pointless, any more than the Passion itself is random or pointless: rather, they enable us to make an infinitesimally small but real contribution to the salvation of the world, to fill up, as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body which is the Church.
Now this is, I think among the Church's best kept secrets, and I think it should be better known, but it does need extraordinarily delicate handling, and we shouldn't claim for it what it cannot deliver. Pain, of course, doesn’t cease to be painful because it has a meaning: the agony of Christ on the Cross was real enough. But, as I've already hinted, we have surely all had either first or second hand experience of pain being intensified by a sense of futility. We have surely all known the experience of what feels like total failure when confronted with someone for whom we are responsible in one way or another asking us, explicitly or implicitly “why does it have to be like this?” at the moment of their deepest affliction. We have, perhaps, asked such questions of ourselves, in the depths of our own suffering or at the sight of a loved one in pain. Often, as again I've suggested, of course, under such circumstances, silence is the best response: we don’t know, entirely, the answer to these questions, and it can be crass or worse to pretend that we do. But an answer is hinted at here. In the mysterious economy of the body of Christ, we can accept our suffering in union with His, for the salvation of the world, and then, strictly speaking, the answer to the question “why does it have to be like this” is the answer the Risen Lord gives on the Road to Emmaus: was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things, and thus enter into his glory?
This, to repeat, needs to be spoken of with tremendous delicacy, avoiding any suggestion that suffering per se is a good, , and doubtless part of the reason it is no longer as fashionable as perhaps once it was to speak of uniting one’s suffering with the Passion, or of offering things up, is an entirely healthy recognition of the fact that it’s possible to use such language to glamorous pain in a way that is truly pathological. The saints, of course, made huge and extravagant acts of mortification: St Catherine of Siena, for instance, spent the last months of her short life dragging herself every day, fever-ridden and exhausted, agonisingly slowly through the streets of Rome to St Peter’s to pray for the well-being of the Mystical Body. The agonisingly slow dragging was indeed itself prayer, and I am sure it was honoured by the Lord, but for us, it definitely comes with a health warning: don’t try this at home, and the same is true of many other episodes in the lives of the saints.
Yet the abuse of a good thing doesn’t mean that it ceases to be good. So, for instance, it can be helpful to think of far smaller offerings we can choose to make, as many of us do in Lent: a devotion like the Stations of the Cross, for instance, in which not only our lips and hearts but our knees and aching backs are co-offered with Christ as we undertake to walk the via dolorosa in miniature. But, more fundamentally, our real, day-to-day sufferings, the things we don’t choose but must endure, can be co-offered too, and whilst this doesn’t rob them of their power over us, it does, I believe, make them easier to endure, especially, and this is the keynote on which I should like to end, if we remember that the Mystical Body into which we are incorporated is the body not only of the suffering, but of the Risen Christ. If we share his death, we will also share his resurrection. Without that emphasis, there would be a danger of sliding into a perverse exaltation of affliction: with it, I think it’s potentially revolutionary, not only for ourselves, but for those who come to ask us why our God permits the suffering we see all around us. To repeat St Thomas's words once again: this is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good. This, I think, is the true mystery of suffering.
By Sr. Ann Catherine Swailes op.
This weekend, we celebrate a feast for rebels. That might sound surprising. Sunday is the great Solemnity of Christ the King, and royalty conjures up images of sumptuous wealth, establishment privilege, and unthinking, maybe fearful, kneejerk obedience to the powers-that-be. All this has often been true of earthly monarchy, of course – but this King is different.
In comparison with much of the Church’s calendar, Christ the King is a recent innovation, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was a turbulent time in international politics, and consequently in the life of the Church, and the new feast spoke to that situation. Christians in some parts of the world – the Mexico of Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory for instance – were doubtless comforted by the thought that Christ, the King who conquered death, would be victorious over the forces that oppressed them. At least as important, with the rise of totalitarian dictatorships of left and right in Europe, was the reminder that we owe absolute allegiance to no one and nothing less than Christ himself. Neither party, nor state, nor nation nor political leader, no matter how charismatic and persuasive, should ever hold absolute sway over the hearts of those made in God’s image. Christ alone should rule there and compel our obedience.
But isn't obedience destructive of human flourishing, whoever asks it of us? Not if it is this King that we serve. The readings the Church gives us for the feast provide some hints here. This Sunday, the gospel tells us that God was not content to Lord it over us in splendid isolation, but, in Christ, became one of us, so much one of us that in our care for our neighbours in their most basic needs for food, drink, shelter and companionship, we are serving him. In other years, we are shown the strange picture of a King whose throne is the cross and whose crown is woven of thorns. Even unspeakable suffering, then, doesn’t have to destroy our God-given dignity, since Christ our King came to share it and triumph over it.
As the old hymn puts it, the one who is Lord of life, earth, sky and sea is also the King of Love on Calvary. And, providing we use only his weapons, the weapons of justice and gentleness, in making this known, that is a cause worth fighting for.