When we hear of the hundreds who are made homeless or bereaved by natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires or war, or when we witness the suffering of an individual who is afflicted with chronic disease, be it mental or physical, is our reaction to offer a silent prayer of thanksgiving that we have not been similarly afflicted? Or is it perhaps to offer a prayer of supplication that we may faithfully endure suffering if ever it became our lot – but hopefully not yet?
There is no doubt that suffering is abhorrent to our human nature. We dread it, see no value in it, and, for the most part, seek to avoid it, despite the fact that very few of us will actually avoid it in some form or another during the course of our lifetime. But must we continue to dread it quite so much? If we read the works of John of the Cross, we learn that he extols the value of suffering as the means of our redemption.
Why do we suffer? Since God has created us with a will which is capable of love, we are, by that very gift, also made susceptible to suffering. For surely, when we suffer, it is because we feel our love to be wounded by the experienced loss of someone or something which we loved and held in esteem. John explains that “human nature was corrupted and ruined... by means of the forbidden tree in the garden of Paradise.” (1) By means of that corruption of the first humans, our human nature became subject to the knowledge of good and evil. The love which God desired we should love Him with was rejected, and, being created by Him with a will which was free, our nature came to know two loves, love of self and love of God.
Since it is the property of love to unite the lover and the one who is loved and make them equal, the choice of self-love meant that we no longer loved God exclusively, and as a consequence, lost the mystical union of love which we shared with Him. Since that original fall from grace we tend to seek our equality with Him by means of our own selfish love. Because of our pride of life, we have lost the intuitive knowledge of His indwelling presence. It was fitting then, that the One who loved us first should seek to redeem us from our pride by humbly taking our human nature to Himself as the Incarnate Word, and, as man, subject Himself to a death of love under a different tree, thereby redeeming that which was lost under the tree in Paradise and restoring to us again the possibility of attaining to mystical union with Him.
“Thus... beneath the tree of the Cross... the Son of God redeemed human nature and consequently espoused it to Himself and then espoused each soul by giving it, through the Cross, grace and pledges for this espousal. In such a way God manifests the decrees of His wisdom, He knows how to draw good from evil so wisely and beautifully and to ordain to a greater good what was the cause of evil... The espousal made on the Cross... is accomplished immediately when God gives the first grace that is bestowed on each one at baptism.” The restoration of the intuitive knowledge of God’s indwelling presence in mystical union “is not achieved save gradually and by stages.” (2) For though it is all one espousal, there is a difference in that the former is attained at God’s pace and thus immediately, and the latter at the soul’s pace and thus little by little through the mystical union of love.
In my profession as a nurse, I have often been told by those who are suffering that they find in their suffering a strength they never dreamed they could possess, a strength which seems to uphold them and by whose power their minds are made capable of the acceptance of suffering, not as a good in itself, but as a force for the good which it can inspire. This would seem to be in accord with John who has written, “if you are burdened then you live in union with God who is your strength; for God holds the grieving one upright. If you are relieved of the burden you will find your strength in yourself alone, you who are weakness itself, for the strength and fortitude of the soul grows and is confirmed in the patient bearing of trials.” (3) It would seem then, that this strength is given to us in the form of a dark knowledge, the same dark knowledge which John calls faith. An obscure knowledge which is as dark as night to the human intellect and understanding and which is made manifest in us in the surrender of our self-will to suffering.
“Where the will goes, the intellect follows,” says John. In that sense then, the acceptance of suffering purifies our faculties of their inferior, natural, way of knowing and loving and, instead, introduces and accommodates them to a superior, supernatural, way of understanding which is the beginning of wisdom. “When will we fully understand, asks John, how a soul cannot reach the thicket and wisdom of the riches of God... without entering the thicket of many kinds of suffering, finding in this her delight and consolation? ...The gate entering these riches of God is the Cross.. and it is narrow.” (4) And further, according to John, this narrow way leads, “to the sublime, exalted and deep mysteries of God’s wisdom in Christ, the hypostatic union of the human nature with the divine word and in the corresponding union of mankind with God.” The soul can attain this wisdom only if she, “first passes through the straits of exterior and interior suffering to be purified according to the plans of divine wisdom. Even a limited knowledge of these mysteries can be attained in this life only through much suffering.” (5)
We begin to see then, how John equates God’s redemptive wisdom with the intimate connection which exists between the mysteries of Christ’s Incarnation and His death on the Cross. As God, He could not suffer, but as man He did, and by doing so, made this suffering available for us to share with Him as co-redeemers, through the substantial union which exists between our human souls and God as an image of Himself. In our sufferings then, we should seek to imitate Christ in our acceptance of them, and should strive to participate fully in them as so many invitations to enter upon the narrow way of eternal life. For in the subjection of our own will to suffering in union with Christ, our soul is opened to receive divine life, a life which ultimately leads to mystical union with Christ and the beatific vision in glory. “He imposes suffering on us according to the measure of our love, in order that we may bring greater sacrifices and collect more merit.” (6) Serve and mortify everything that should die in you and hinders this interior resurrection.” (7) For, “as it was His purpose to bring a great many of His sons into glory, it was appropriate that God, for whom everything exists, and through whom everything exists should make perfect through suffering the leader who would take them to their salvation. For the one who sanctifies and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock, that is why He openly calls them brothers.” (8)
Let us hope then, that we may come to a different understanding of the place and purpose of suffering in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Instead of considering our trials as something wholly undesirable, perhaps we could begin to regard them as opportunities of gaining a new perspective on our lives, believing with John that, we live more intensely when we are tested than when we are happy. And that the soul obtains from God just as much as it hopes from Him.
Could we begin perhaps to believe that we have found in the darkness and distress of suffering a pearl of great price? For, says John, “It was a sheer grace to be placed in this night that occasioned so much good. The soul would not have succeeded in entering it, because souls are unable alone to empty themselves of all their appetites in order to reach God.” (9) And could we also come to believe that, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (10) For it seems that it is in this very helplessness in the face of trials that we find no longer our own strength, but the strength of God.
Might we come at last to find solace in John’s reassurance that “if individuals resolutely submit to carrying the Cross, if they decidedly want to find and endure trials in all things for God, they will discover in all of them great relief and sweetness?” (11) Or might we come to see a new beauty in the story of our forefather Elijah who, in the confines of the dark dimensions of the cave of his soul, stood firm in the face of his exposure to the terrors of the night of faith? And who, because of his courageous endurance, was given the grace of passing from the darkness of his confinement into the airy, light spaciousness of the presence and still small voice of God?
Canticle, Stanza 23.2