FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

The Meaning of Suffering 27 November 2008

Sounds a bit portentous, that title: it’s a bit like saying ‘the meaning of life’. Indeed, if you were able to understand the ‘meaning of suffering’, then you probably would be a long way down the road to discovering the meaning of life.

It’s a natural reaction to natural or man-made disasters – like yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India – to wonder and even despair at a supposedly loving God who could permit such things to happen; indeed, who could allow them to be perpetrated in his name. Why didn’t he and his angels step in to thwart the plans of the bombers and hi-jackers? Why didn’t he prevent there from being so many innocent people in the murderers’ firing line?

Might as well ask Christ to step down from his cross. As an all-powerful and all-loving God, you’d think he would be capable of doing so; but he chooses not to. Why?

Well, the beginning of an answer is indeed to be found in the Cross of Christ. God doesn’t just hang around while his human children suffer; he hangs there with them – on the cross – and suffers in their place. This is not an abstract concept: our suffering is Christ’s suffering. When we suffer, we are not sharing in Christ’s suffering and cross in a ‘merely’ symbolic and sacrificial sense (in that we might choose to offer up our suffering as a sharing in Christ’s suffering for the remission of humanity’s sins); but Christ truly suffers in us: our life, our suffering, our death are one. God therefore allows suffering to happen in that he suffers it – in both senses.

Why? Because he loves those who cause the suffering. Ultimately, that means all of us, as – through our sins – we bring suffering into the world both directly (by hurting others) and indirectly: through the tear in the sacred, living fabric of the created order of which our sins partake, like the tear in the veil of the temple at the time of Christ’s death. But, in a special way, Christ’s love appears concentrated upon those who least ‘deserve’ it from our all-too human perspective that mixes justice with revenge. Christ in the people mown down and blown up in Mumbai passionately loved those who were doing it, and offered the suffering and death of the victims for the forgiveness of the murderers’ sins even as they were committing them.

Why? Because only such an unfathomable, endless love has the chance to stir the hearts of the gravest sinners when at the appointed hour they might realise that God did not love the sin but loves the sinner, and allowed the sin to happen because he wanted to give the sinner that very chance to sense the love of God and turn in repentance towards it. Otherwise, the sinner – the beloved of God – might well be lost for ever, and not just in this life.

But what of the victims? Who could ever doubt that those beloved-of-God, and sharers in his passion, are not alive in him for ever more: their sins remitted? It is we who mourn them who must suffer; and we do so – if we do so in Christ – for those who caused us that pain. And in Christ, that suffering will be made good – for all.


Orientation 4 November 2008

I used to think I must be missing some vital part of a normal psychological make-up that would enable me to connect with people at both a deeper emotional level and at the day-to-day level of trivial social interchange. And maybe I do lack this faculty and facility to this day. At a profound level, I remain something of a loner, often preferring to be alone with myself and with God than to enjoy easy companionship and superficial conversation with my fellow men and women.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy company, fellowship and lively conversation, and that I wouldn’t find living on my own quite hard at times, if in fact I did so. However, if I think of my future life, and I imagine my current relationship at an end, the images are of myself alone somewhere – maybe England, where I live; Paris, which I love; or Brazil, which I dream about – living a quiet, contemplative life – or at least, returning to solitude from whatever vicissitudes and busi-ness life were to throw me into. Maybe I was born to be a hermit or a contemplative monk in an era when the path to such a life is strewn with obstacles and does not run straight.

Where did it come from, this yen for solitude? And in that solitude, what do I find? I link it back to the experiences of my childhood, when I retreated into my room in a converted loft at the top of our large house – finding solitary solace from an unhappy household: divorced, depressed mum; jealous and occasionally violent elder brother; sister too young and too different to share my woes and reflections.

From that time on, I found greater meaning and comfort in my own thoughts and fancies and company; whereas the world of relationships and family togetherness that should have moulded me seemed harsh, unrewarding and distant. I grew up not gaining my happiness from shared family triumphs and from feeling cherished in a warm, nurturing environment; but from the private ordering of my universe, and my skill and passion for things I couldn’t so easily share with those around me – such as learning numerous foreign languages, for which I indeed had a God-given talent but which also manifested my alienation from a common language of emotion shared with family.

Later on, my experiences of mystery and of the divine also had this character of being intensely personal, and difficult to share and relate to the level of interpersonal relationships and social responsibilities. During my adolescence, I underwent a period of intense openness to the beauty and mystery of the physical world, both man-made and natural. The sheer being and shape of things seemed strange, wonderful and astonishingly beautiful; although at times the objectification of the external world, from which I seemed to abstract all acquired personal and conventional meanings in the attempt to see them as they are in themselves, was in danger of alienating me from any stable sense of self-identity.

Until I encountered God, these experiences stayed with me as shining examples of the highest form of contemplative joy it was possible to attain. But then Christ had to go and top it with his ineffable love and the joy of his presence. And now my solitude is never really isolation and my contemplation finds its true object beyond the objects of my senses. Now I seek solitude not just as a refuge from a world that often seems reluctant to yield up its meaning and its purpose but to seek the company of the One I love.

But is this still an unhealthy flight from a reality with which I should if anything engage with greater determination and sense of purpose now that I’m armed with faith and the mission to bear witness? Am I not still being sollipsistic and even delusional in the joy that my quiet, unspoken dialogues with the Lord bring me?

Who knows? And what purpose may such strengthening, meaningful concourse yet bring me for the fights to come? All I know is that He has helped me, in every sense, to find my orientation, just as he provides direction for my faltering steps.

And where he leads, there will I follow.