The Mystery of Suffering

The Mystery of Suffering

What does it mean to suffer? Most people I know have experienced some level of suffering, whether it be loss of a loved one, loss specific to ones own being or a sense of suffering while walking with others in their darkness. It is painful, dark and often leaves one feeling abandoned and wounded.

I wrestle with the concept of suffering and its purpose. 

As I have written in previous posts, I love the season of Lent. It is an opportunity to really allow ourselves the opportunity to get down and dirty with God; to really embrace a time of darkness and to allow our own being to prepare for a “death” of sorts. For me, this season of Lent and Holy Week was particularly difficult.

A very close person in my life experienced a level of suffering to which I cannot begin to personally understand, but to which I was a loving companion. For 11 days, this person said the journey was like a state of hell; a limbo in which they felt they were pushing a giant boulder up the hill, only to discover as they neared the top, it had been pushed again to the bottom, crushing them on the way back down. The wounds and deep scars experienced during this time will likely take much time to scab over and heal.  As I suffered and walked this journey too, I kept returning to the question, “Where is God in this?”.

In my work as a chaplain, I walk with others through more suffering than joy. Typically, people don’t ask to see a chaplain unless they are in a spiritual crisis of sorts. In part, this is why I love this work. People tend to put aside all the pretense and platitudes when faced with a crisis, be it physical or spiritual. The “realness” is very raw and childlike but also full of a sincerity not typically shared with others. As I chaplain, suffering allows me to be with people in a very sacred space, and often, people find a place of surrender which brings comfort and peace, but why does it take deep suffering and pain to bring us to this surrender?

I have an annual ritual during Lent: attending the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday at the Basilica of St Mary in Minneapolis. I have done this for years, often with one of my children and/or a friend. This year, the service held special meaning for me as my nineteen year old son joined me. To listen to the meditations of the Stations of the Cross in the company of my son was an opportunity to feel, as a mother, what perhaps Mary experienced as she watched her son Jesus journey toward death. She was unable to influence or control the experience but could only be present and demonstrate her love, as a mother—to her son. In the end, she was powerless to prevent his crucifixion and death.

And yet, without the crucifixion, in our Christian tradition, there would be no resurrection. Countless times, I have experienced people move from deep desolation to a peacefulness; a resting with deep suffering, in the arms of God.

I am reading the book by Fr. Richard Rohr, “Job and the Mystery of Suffering” and I have only finished the first 3 chapters but I find comfort in this book. He writes, “We can’t observe the question of suffering from a distance…There’s a certain way the gospel is heard when one’s stomach is empty. And a very different way it is heard when a people is satisfied.” (p. 13&15). It is through and in the suffering that we are able to enter “more deeply into the heart of God—to feel what it means to be empty, abandoned, uncared for…This change of position is what we mean by ‘conversion.’” (p. 15).

I wish we, all of us, were able to move toward God without suffering but honestly, I think most of us revel in pride and self sufficiency when all is well—unless we have been through some depth of suffering which brings us toward gratitude; knowing that suffering is a constant companion on our spiritual journey.

In and through my suffering, I am more willing to go to God and to enter into God more deeply. I confess that in the suffering, I am emptier and am able to return to God for comfort. There is rawness as I weep and wrestle to feel comfort.

I cannot say that I am grateful for the suffering in my life but I know it is through these dark experiences that my faith is more deeply formed. It is a conversion of sorts; moving from a place of control to a surrender. To allow myself to totally trust God and believe that yes, God has a plan, even for the darkest hour. 

The greater question is, do I have the faith to let go and simply rest, sometimes weeping, in the arms of God? This is very hard in our culture where we are taught to take control and manage ourselves well. Yet I know in this place of pain, through it all, I am not alone and we are not alone.

Some of you know that I love hawks--and as I was editing this post, a beautiful Coopers Hawk landed outside my window, on our deck and turned to look at me.  In times of suffering, I often see a hawk--and for me, this is a sign of hope.  Praise God for signs of hope in the suffering.

May God grant us the grace to deeply know and experience the presence of God’s spirit and comfort in the midst of our suffering. After all, I truly believe there can be no resurrection with the suffering.

2 comments (Add your own)

1. Natalie wrote:
Thank you, Susan. This is beautiful, timely and exactly what I need to hear and reflect on right now. The movement toward surrender is so difficult and you name so well the temptations for self sufficiency in this culture and the challenge and gifts in acceptance of suffering. Thank you!!!

Thu, May 5, 2011 @ 11:45

2. Renee wrote:
Beautifully said, Susan. In the last 5 days, we've had 3 major family events that have involved significant suffering - one of these is incredibly difficult and will likely continue for some time. It's hard to see God in all of it, but I know he is here and I will "worship in this storm". Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Thu, May 5, 2011 @ 11:45

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def. Bliss: -noun Supreme Happiness, Utter Joy/Contentment; the Joy of Paradise!