Category Archives: suffering

From where we stand

Today is the anniversary of the execution in 1945 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, who opposed Hitler.

He had the chance to stay in New York City and avoid returning to Nazi Germany. This would have saved his life, but he decided that he needed to be in Germany, especially if he hoped to be part of the rebuilding of Germany after the war.

Where we stand is important. Where we walk and the people we encounter influence the way we look at the world, the way we live our faith.

I believe that that means being with the suffering, the poor, the marginalized – in some way or another. Then I think we will begin to understand the world, history, and ourselves.

As Bonhoeffer once wrote:

We have for once learnt to see the events of history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.

A few days ago, I encountered this quote from Robert McAfee Brown, a US theologian, who was very sympathetic to Latin American liberation theology.

Stand up and speak on behalf of the poor
and those who need your voice in this world.
Remember that:
Where you stand will determine what you see;
Whom you stand with will determine what you hear;
What you see and hear will determine what you say and how you act.

For some, this might seem to be a secular, merely sociological reflection on the human way of understanding things.

But I think it is essential a Christ-centered approach. Jesus is God who became flesh and situated Himself in the midst of the pain, the suffering, the oppression, and the poverty of first century Galilee and Judea.

He thus provides His followers with a key to understand life, to understand history, to help make sense of our world – in the midst of the suffering.

And so meditating on the Passion of Christ should open ourselves to the suffering world. As Thomas Merton wrote in A Vow of Conversation:

 We have to see history as a book that is sealed and opened only by the Passion of Christ. But we prefer to read it from the viewpoint of the Beast. We look at history in terms of hubris and power — in terms of the beast and his values. Christ continues to suffer his passion in the poor, the defenseless, and his Passion destroys the Beast. Those who love power are destroyed together with what they love. Meanwhile, Christ is in agony until the end of time.

This is I think what has happened to so many who commit themselves to the poor. It is certainly what happened to Cardinal Raúl Silva who, as archbishop of Santiago, Chile, defended the poor and the oppressed during the dictatorship of Pinochet. He died fifteen years ago today, on April 9, 1999. In his Spiritual Testament he wrote:

My word is a word of love for the poor. Since I was a child I have loved and admired them. The sorrow and the misery in which so many of my brothers and sisters live in this land have moved me enormously. That misery is neither human nor Christian. I humbly ask that all efforts, possible and impossible, be made to eradicate extreme poverty in Chile. We can do it is a current of solidarity and generosity is promoted in all the inhabitants of this country. The poor have honored me with their loving affection. Only God knows how grateful I am for the affection they have shown me and their adherence to the Church.


The Duty of Delight

On November 8, 1897, Dorothy Day was born.

Her life, her conversion, and her founding with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker have moved many to devote themselves to the poor.

A few nights ago I finished the collection of her diaries, The Duty of Delight, which provide a glimpse of the complexities of this woman.

She was not a plaster saint. In fact, she regrets her impatience and reveals how difficult it was for her to live with some of the Catholic Worker guests – and staff.

She was fairly critical of some of the staff and guests, especially in sexual matters. But this came not from a puritanism but from a deep sense of the marriage act as sacramental – to the surprise of some people.

She was also remarkably open to young people, though not in an uncritical way.

But what comes through in her diaries is her delight.

“Find beauty everywhere,” she wrote on December 29, 1976.

She found it in nature: “Nothing is more beautiful than the soft sound of waves on the beach.” (December 12, 1953)

She rejoiced in music, listening to operas on the radio.

She loved to read. The works of Dostoevsky especially appealed to her.

She loved to pray – especially the Psalms, which nourished her daily life.

She loved to travel – visiting the Catholic Worker houses and speaking across the US. as well as visiting Rome, Cuba, India, and other parts of the world.

And she wrote. The Long Loneliness is a classic, in which she writes of her conversion. (She, however, was rather insistent that it was not an autobiography.) She also wrote a regular column in The Catholic Worker, until the last months of her life.

Hers was not an easy life. But she found a joy in it that opened her to God, and a relation to God that opened her to joy. As she wrote on December 25, 1961,

It is joy that brought me to the faith, joy at the birth of my child 35 years ago, and that joy is constantly renewed as I daily receive our Lord at Mass.

And in a long meditation on June 26, 1971, she reiterated the source of her joy:

If it were not for Scripture on one hand and Communion on the other, I could not bear my daily life, but daily it brings me joy in this sorrow which is part of our human condition, and a real, very real and vital sense of the meaning and the fruitfulness of these sufferings.

She found joy amid suffering, living among the poor. Robert Ellsberg very fittingly chose The Duty of Delight as the title of this compilation. It reflects the spirit and spirituality of Dorothy Day. In fact, she had thought of this phrase from John Ruskin for the title of a sequel to The Long Loneliness.

This duty of delight is indeed a challenge, but a challenge that brings joy. It was a challenge for her, too. Her February 24, 1961, diary entry notes:

I was thinking, how as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.

May we learn to live the duty of delight, the joy of love, the holiness of sharing in the suffering of all God’s people.

St. John of the Cross

Today we celebrate St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Carmelite mystic and doctor of the Church.

St. John suffered much in his efforts to reform the Carmelite order. He was imprisoned twice and treated extremely cruelly during his second imprisonment, from which he escaped. Yet during that imprisonment he wrote many of his beautiful poems that celebrate God’s love.

After he recovered, he went about in the work of reform, only to be the target of ill-will from other members of the reform movement.

His was not a life of outward joy and consolation – but a life lived in the light of the Cross.

But he was faithful. As he wrote in Spiritual Canticle:

Many desire the consoling joy
to which the Cross leads,
But few desire the Cross itself.

Reading these words this morning I recalled a Jesuit priest who led me during a short retreat at the Creighton retreat center in Iowa. I was on a high after a visit to Palestine and Israel. He pointedly asked me:

Are you seeking the God of consolation or the consolation of God?

And yet, when we seek the God of consolation we can deal with the pains and sufferings of life, we can bear the Cross.

I think for people like St. John of the Cross  it may come back to living life with a spirit of thanksgiving, gratitude, and gratuitousness.

In We Drink from Our Own Wells, Gustavo Gutiérrez writes

The experience of gratuitousness is the space of encounter wit the Lord. Unless we understand the meaning of gratuitousness, there will be no contemplative dimension in our lives. Contemplation is not a state of paralysis but of radical self-giving, as we saw in reading passages from John of the Cross. In the final analysis, to believe in God means to live our life as a gift from God and to look upon everything that happens in it as a manifestation of his gift. (p. 110)

That, perhaps is the secret of St. John of the Cross: encountering God’s love even in the midst of prison, living the Cross and being consoled and strengthened by the Cross of Christ who comes and seeks us.

The Cross and Father Guadalupe Carney

Take up the cross, Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Mark 8: 27-35).

Jesus had just told the apostles that he would suffer and be killed. Peter objected. Jesus is harsh in his reply, “Get behind me, Satan.”

But reading Gustavo Gutiérrez’s commentary (in Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year) provides a way to see that this is not really that harsh – though it is not easy.

“Satan” means “the one who hinders.” To “get behind” can mean to follow, to be a disciple. So Jesus may be telling people – and us – to stop hindering God’s ways (which involves the cross) and follow him as a true disciple.

This is not easy – since we often look for an easy Christianity. We are afraid of the cost of discipleship.

It will mean suffering, because it means giving ourselves to God and in service to others. We will fail, at times. But as Gutiérrez notes,

The Lord will forgive our faults along the way, but he continues to call us to total fidelity which must be translated into solidarity with others, especially with the poor and forgotten.

About this date in 1983, Father James “Guadalupe” Carney, who had been a Jesuit missionary in northern Honduras, was killed by being thrown out of a helicopter by Honduran troops.

He had been stripped of his Honduran citizenship for his outspoken criticism of the injustice he saw among the campesinos where he worked in the departments of Colón and Yoro. (Sad to say this zone is still a place where injustice reigns.)

He went to Nicaragua and stayed there for several years. He connected up with a small Honduran guerrilla group and accompanied them as chaplain when they entered Honduras. They were captured and killed. Though I have problems with his connections with a violent group, I can see his point that government soldiers have chaplains and so should those who oppose the government.

But it is not his connection with the armed opposition that inspires me. Rather, his years of living with and serving the poor are an inspiration, a way of taking up the cross and following Christ.

As he once wrote:

To love Christ really is to try to live as He lived. If I love the poor as Christ did, I, too, freely choose  to become one with them, live with them, share their lives, besides trying to use my talents to help and teach them… He freely chose to become one of the masses of poor people of the world, of the eighty percent of the world who ‘have not,’ rejecting the comfortable life of the twenty percent who ‘have’ (even though he loved them too). And he tore into the system and those that held the masses in the bondage of ignorance and poverty….And he was killed for it. To be killed for my following of Christ would be my greatest joy too….

The joy comes not from suffering or being killed, I believe, but from following Christ with the poor. May we all find ways to do this – and rejoice in God’s love and solidarity with the poor, recognizing that faith without works is dead, as James writes in today’s second reading (James 2: 14-18)


Joy in the midst of suffering

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Dominic Guzman, the Spaniard who founded the Order of Friars Preachers, better known as the  Dominicans.

There is much to admire in Dominic. As a student he sold his books and furniture to feed the poor in a time of famine. As a missionary preacher among the Albigensians in southern France, he admonished the warrior Bishop Fulk that the weapons to convert these heretics should be prayer and humility, not the sword and fine clothes. As a preacher among the Albigensians he lived austerely,  traveling on foot, begging for sustenance in contrast to the papal legates who arrived in fine clothes and were aligned with the political powers of the day. As a traveling preacher he had more success with the austere and inspiring Albigensians.

But what struck me as I read about him this morning was his joy in the midst of suffering. As Blessed Jordan of Saxony, one his early followers, wrote:

 Nothing disturbed his equanimity except a lively sympathy with any suffering. A person’s face shows whether he or she is really happy. Dominic was friendly and joyful. You could easily see his inward peace.

This reminded me of a chapter in an inspiring and challenging book by Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls Us Home, that I’m reading.

She writes, reflecting on her life with refugees in Romero House in Toronto. “To discern the presence of Christ we need to look for that mysterious gospel sign of joy in the midst of suffering.”

Reflecting on “The Smiling Christ” in Xavier, in the Basque region of Spain, she notes that the crucifix was fashioned in the midst of the Black Death and church corruption of the fourteenth century, “a time of great suffering and spiritual confusion.”

 And yet. And yet. Christ is smiling in the midst of his own suffering and the suffering of the dark age of Europe. When we can smile like that. we know we are where we are meant to be.

The spiritual life is not joy or suffering. It’s joy in the midst of suffering, allowing the suffering and the joy of the poor and marginalized we meet – Maria, José, Samara, Omin – to touch our hearts and reveal the joy that God has placed deep within us that can be unveiled in the often disconcerting presence of the other person whose suffering we share.

That is the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection – not joy alone, not suffering alone, but joy in the midst of suffering.

And I have been blessed with this grace here in Honduras.

Cheap joy

Though I love to smile, enjoy a good joke, and have an ironic sense of humor,  I am somewhat suspicious about what I might call “cheap joy.”

I occasionally run into people of faith who have a really bouncy approach to their faith and seem to be always on a high. They sometimes make me uncomfortable, especially when they expect me to have the same type of cheerfulness, especially when they expect everybody to clap and shout for joy in meetings.

I sense the need for a different joy.

Today is the anniversary of the death of the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in 1889.

His poetry speaks often of the glory of God in creation:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”

But, he seems to have been a soul that experienced deep desolation:

 I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste:

Yet, as Robert Ellsberg notes in  All Saints, his final words were “I am so happy.”

True to the Ignatian tradition, Hopkins experienced the joy, the consolation, that is deeper than surface happiness, the joy that can be lived in the midst of pain and consolation, the joy of the Cross and Resurrection.

And so today I pray for real joy – but a joy that allows me to be with the suffering – and live within my own suffering – perhaps showing that Joy that comes, not from me, but from a God who doesn’t look at us from afar but has come among us and suffered with us.

That’s not a cheap joy.

From the darkness of prison

Are you the one who is to come
or should we look for another?
Luke 7: 19

 In the darkness of his prison cell John the Baptist must have wondered whether his mission was in vain. So he sends two disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the promised one.

Jesus first continues to heal, to expel demons, and bring good news to the poor. Then he tells John’s disciples to share what they have seen and heard. He is telling them to see what he, the Lord of love and justice, is doing.

In the darkness, there is light.

This does not mean that all will be healed and all will be light.

So often we seek the light, the consolation, the easy life. But as a priest once asked me during a retreat, “Are you seeking the consolation of God or the God of consolation?”

Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite reformer and doctor of the church, who wrote incredible love poems. But he wrote them in the darkness of a prison cell where he was held by non-reformed Carmelites. In the darkness and the suffering – including being flogged – he sought God and found the presence of God.

He would not deny the sufferings of the world. But he wrote,

“If only people would understand how impossible it is to reach God’s riches and wisdom except by passing through the thicket of toil and suffering….

“For the gate to the riches of God’s wisdom is the Cross; many desire the consoling joy to which the Cross leads, but few desire the Cross itself.”

Does this mean we seek to suffer? Hardly. For we have a God who became flesh and healed the sick and suffering.

But it does mean that we cannot deny the suffering present in this world, we cannot seek for ourselves a suffering-free existence. I believe that if we try to make out lives totally free from pain and suffering we will not see the pain and suffering of others and, worse, our actions to live an easy life will bring hardships on others.

And so Jesus did not come to live an easy life but to heal the sick. This eventually brought him to the Cross. But through the Cross we come to be raised up.

Today may we see the suffering of our world and be in solidarity with those who suffer. But may we also see the healing power of God active in our world – and seek to be a part of that love for others, especially those who suffer.

Perhaps we will not see this from prison cells as John the Baptist and John of the Cross did – but we cannot fail to see the pain – and the promise –  if we really seek the God of consolation and not merely the consolation of God.


All Souls Day

Today the Catholic Church sets aside time to remember those who have died, who have “fallen asleep in the Lord.”

Henri Nouwen has two great quotations to help us think about death:

“Why do we think that Christian death is an easy death? Why do we believe that a hope for a life with Christ will make our death a gentle passage? A compassionate life is a life in which the suffering of others is deeply felt, and such a life is a life that may also make one’s death an act of dying with others…”

 In Memoriam

 “The great secret in life is that suffering, which often seems to be so unbearable, can become, through compassion, a source of new life and new hope.
“God has become human so as to be able to live with us, suffer with us, and die with us. We have found in Jesus a fellow human being who is so completely one with us that not a single weakness, pain, or temptation has remained foreign to him.”

Letters to Mark about Jesus

The solidarity in suffering is freeing for the person suffering and the person accompanying. When we “sit together on the mourning bench,” we begin to see how Jesus has come to give us hope, sharing out suffering and also our joys.