I’ve learned a great truth: stress will either be a clamp or a wedge in our relationships. It’s true in marriages, in relating with our children and other family members, at work or with our friends. And it’s especially true in our relationship with God.
Let’s look more closely. Long time Catholics crash into their first wall of life-threatening illness and all the light goes out of their eyes. They pack their missals when they go to the hospital but they do not pray once they are there. They watch television instead, cruising channels for something to busy their minds. They cannot pray. When they try, it seems as if their prayers get no farther than the ceiling. One of them says he is afraid to pray now. He prayed before and look what happened. Now all he wants to do is to lie low and try not to catch God’s attention.
Many times the wedge comes not from our own suffering, but from the suffering of others. How many times have we seen a mother become estranged from God and the Church because of a serious illness to her child? Or imagine an emergency room nurse whose faith is wavering; what does she see?
- Two 19-year-old coeds who were killed in a car wreck over spring break,
- A young single mother who has been beaten almost to death by her meth-addicted live in boyfriend,
- A young man with AIDS whose parents won’t take him back home with them and he’ll have to find a new place to live.
After a shift like this the nurse wants to break something. She says she’s tired of cleaning up God’s messes, and the breech gets wider.
I’ve experienced similar sensations. I know what it’s like to sit for hours in a hospital waiting room, waiting to hear the results of a family member’s emergency and life threatening surgery, knowing that the prayers seem futile, even with the help of sacramentals like the rosary. In my heart of hearts I’ve felt broken and alone and tired and depressed, thinking “enough God, enough.”
I’ve also had days as a priest in the hospital tending one catastrophe after another and finding myself being more than a little angry at God, asking the question: “Why did you allow this to happen?” I know the pressure of the wedge. It’s there. It’s been traumatic.
How many people do you know who have just stopped coming to Mass because of some great grief in their lives? How many are experiencing a shriveled soul, a dried up spirit? I suspect quite a few. Many become angry and rail at God, many more just stop believing and a great void fills their hearts.
But we must not succumb to the wedge. Perhaps the most powerful statement I’ve read about refusing to allow suffering to be a wedge was written some 80 years ago by a Scots Presbyterian Minister named A.J. Gossip. He and his wife were deeply devoted and she died suddenly; initially he knew no consolation from the grief, but then he rallied. This is from the first sermon he wrote after her death.
I do not understand this life of ours. But still less can I comprehend how people in trouble and loss and bereavement can fling away peevishly from the Christian faith. In God’s name fling to what? Have we not lost enough without that too?
If Christ is right—if, as He says, there are somehow, hidden away from our eyes, as yet, still there, wisdom and planning and kindness and love in these dark dispensations—then we can see them through. But if Christ is wrong, and all that is not so; if God set his foot on my home crudely, heedlessly, blunderingly, blindly, as I unawares might tread upon some insect in my path, have I not the right to be angry and sore? If Christ was right, and…the dear hopes of which He speaks do lie a little way ahead, we can manage to make our way to them. But if it is not so, if it all over, if there is nothing more, how dark the darkness grows!
You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.
This is a call for stress to be a clamp. The power of stress and suffering can be profoundly strong in binding folks together, and cementing one’s relationship with God. One of the things that suffering does is that it strips away pretense. People tend not to play games when they are really hurting. And almost nothing binds folks together more closely than to share hardships. That’s the purpose of boot camp in the military; ask any combat veteran how he feels about comrades in arms, especially those who have endured enemy fire with him.
And there is a redemptive, even holy, component to suffering. Back in 1984 Pope St. John Paul II wrote an Apostolic letter entitled Salvific Doloris, “On the Christian Meaning of Suffering.” St. John Paul was no stranger to personal suffering; he lost his mother, his father and his brother before he was ordained priest. He had endured both the German and Soviet occupations of Poland, he survived an assassin’s bullet, and at the end of his life he bore the cross of Parkinson’s disease. The Holy Father knew personal suffering.
And although some of this suffering occurred after he wrote Salvific Dolores, the work is very insightful. After a rather lengthy introduction describing various aspects of suffering, St. John Paul looks to the Book of Job. If you remember, the narrative of that book opens with a statement that Job was a good and righteous man. Then the narrative switches to the heavenly court. God is presiding and courtiers are all about. Among them is Satan. Remember that the word Satan means “Accuser,” or as I like to translate it, prosecuting attorney. And that’s how he was functioning in the heavenly court that day. He was there to accuse Job of having a shaky faith. God says not so and Satan in essence says: “I can break him.” God says: “I don’t think so.” And Satan says: “Yes I can” and God says that he can do anything he wants to Job except kill him.
And Satan unloads. Here we have a just and righteous and innocent man who loses everything; first his assets, and then his children, and then he is afflicted with excruciating boils from head to foot. He is broken. His friends visit him and tell him he must have sinned, he must have done something wrong. Yet Job steadfastly protests, he has been faithful, he has done nothing wrong, he committed no sin which caused this suffering. It’s horribly stressful and it’s a mystery.
St. John Paul points out that often our suffering is a result of sin and sin deserves punishment; it’s a matter of justice. If we do something wrong, we need to pay for it or at least make amends. Often that causes suffering—you rob a bank, you go to jail and you and your loved ones suffer.
But much of suffering seems so unfair. St. John Paul notes that as the book of Job ends, there is God asking Job if he can possibly understand the great mysteries that God alone knows. Finally Job is humbled by the inscrutability of suffering and acquiesces to God’s sovereignty.
St. John Paul then skips forward several hundred years to the time and the person of Jesus. He has us look to the full revelation of God’s love in his incarnate Son. For love is critical if we are to withstand suffering, especially if suffering is to be a clamp in our relationship with God and with others. A key to this is found in Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (3:16) Jesus was given to us to save us from the ultimate manifestation of suffering which is Hell, eternal separation from God.
It’s the big picture. Christ’s atoning death, his suffering, is the means by which we can have an epoxied clamp with God. In our Epistle lesson from 1 Peter we read: …Christ… suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
And then St. Peter makes a direct reference to the suffering servant motif found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed…
The clamp is strongest when we can offer our suffering along with that of Christ. And when we do that, then our suffering is redemptive and we have an eternal hope, a tightly fastened hope, a clamped hope based on love and grace and peace.
In closing I return again to that homily given by A.J. Gossip after the loss of his wife. He speaks of crossing the River Jordan:
I don’t think you need to be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail; and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely. But we have a wonderful God. And as Paul puts it, what can separate us from his love? Not death, he says immediately, pushing that aside at once, as the most obvious of all impossibilities. No, not death. For standing in the roaring of the Jordan, cold to the heart with its dreadful chill, and very conscious of the terror of its rushing, I…can call back to you who one day in your turn will have to cross it, “Be of good cheer… for I feel the bottom and it is sound.”