This past December I had the experience of having my right knee replaced. I suggested to Richard that we take on the topic of “Suffering.” The topic came to my mind very quickly and I wasn’t quite sure why, but if I had to summarize my year (2014) in one word, most likely I would choose the word “suffering.” My suffering was partly physical, as my knee was barely working, and I was denying the pain I was experiencing. In addition to the physical pain, I began the year with personal loss as a result of the passing of a very close friend of thirteen years, who happened to also be my boss at the time of her passing. In April I then lost my feline friend, who was my constant companion for the past 24 years. In short, it was a very tough beginning of the year. Then I left my position, which lead to the tedious job searching process, so, the year was riddled with multiple job applications, interviews, and rejections. I tried to remain faithful to prayer, and taking care of myself, but my personal life continued to kind of crumble around me. I found out that a few individuals who I thought were my friends had a hard time allowing me to emote, and distanced themselves. Suffering seems to be a good word to summarize my experience of the year, and yet, I am uncertain what I truly mean on a spiritual level by this phenomenon.
On the personal level (meaning for my self-care and for my spiritual life) I still have a bit more praying and reflecting to attend to, but right now, at this moment, I simply need to feel… I don’t know what makes suffering stop… but I know shutting down my feelings doesn’t help. I also don’t know when suffering ends, and the words that use to help don’t any more. But I have found an “older” practice, that I never understood, now has some meaning for me. I used to hear older Catholics say, “Offer it up,” and they were referring to suffering. I really never understood what it meant to “offer it up.”
During my days at rehab, I was praying, not for myself, but for my BFF, who was once again diagnosed with cancer (her 5th re-occurrence in 20 years), and for her stomach, the location of her most recent tumor. On this particular day I was suffering with a good deal of pain, and all I could think about was my friend who was going again for chemo and her first treatment. We had spent the day before together, each trying to care for one another. So, as I was trying to bend my new knee, and the pain meds were not working, I prayed for my friend JB. I offered up my suffering so hers would be less. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I was praying for her suffering as I managed through mine. I called her later that day and found out after her chemo she went out with her husband and was feeling just fine. So, I did this again for her next treatment, and it was the same result… so I shared with her what I was doing. In her beautiful way, she said, “Keep it up, its working!”
What I know from this personal experience is that someone else’s suffering is always worse. At least I think cancer is worse than a bum knee. If I enter into prayer and still feel my own suffering but think or “offer it” for another, and take the focus off of myself, both of us seem the better for it. The suffering doesn’t end. My friend still has cancer, and I am still suffering with my knee pain, etc… but it lessens the burden, and helps the process.
I do think of suffering as a burden. It is individual. Each person suffers, and most of the time individuals cannot change their suffering. Each of us suffers with different things and with or for different reasons. Some suffering is self-inflicted; other suffering is inflicted upon us. I do believe it is a part of the human condition. The healing or the mending from suffering is part of the process of living. The process transforms us, if we let it. If I am able to befriend or embrace my suffering, I am then able to reach out (or offer it up) and in the process I not only help others, but I in turn help myself. I come to know the truth that I am connected, that I am not alone… that I cannot handle things on my own, or by my own ability… that I need others. By befriending suffering, I believe I am or can be transformed… to acceptance, to know that I am loved and am loving a loving person…. transformed into being a better person, a person more gentle and kind, or transformed into the likeness of the being that God intended me to be. So maybe, just maybe… does suffering, or can suffering, be the vehicle to transform our world?
Western religious tradition is filled with notions of the redemptive quality of suffering. Our master narratives consistently move from suffering to redemption, from bondage to freedom, from passion to resurrection. The power of this paradigm can be seen in the way it resonated within the African-American tradition, which, from the period of enslavement in the New World and through the Civil Rights Movement, relied on images of the Exodus from Egypt to overcome the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. As a Jew, I am often reminded how the redemptive quality of the rebirth of Israel was a sequel to the tortures of the Holocaust.
Yet, I understand this binary image—suffering and redemption—to be one aspect of a broader binary paradigm that seems to be built into the human psyche. The suffering/redemption pattern seems related to the good/evil bifurcation, which itself seems related to the chaos/order dichotomy. In the Bible, the primordial cosmos is said to consist of water characterized in Hebrew as tohu va-vohu, usually translated something like “unformed and void.” These words are in fact, nonsense words, perhaps onomatopoetic, which I like to translate as “gobbledygook.” In the beginning, the earth was a chaotic, watery gobbledygook. God had to apply structure, order to this chaotic gobbledygook, and this order is consistent characterized as good.
Ancient mythology is filled with images of a watery chaos, filled with evil broodings, that has to be overcome and defeated before cosmic order can emerge. In the Babylonian account of creation, Enuma Elish, the goddess Tiamat, the common Babylonian word for “sea,” seeks to destroy the second generation of gods, and must be defeated by the storm-god Marduk, the chief god of the city of Babylon, before cosmic and world order can be achieved.
Yet, it is noteworthy how this image of the battle of storm and sea crops up in the Bible in the so-called “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15, the victory hymn sung by the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea. The images of storm and sea in this ancient Hebrew poem could have been virtually lifted from Enuma Elish. By using the image of storm and sea, this song attaches the idea of redemption from the suffering of bondage to a movement from chaos to order. This is more than freedom from bondage. It is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, order and chaos.
If we consider some of our great literature and even our popular movies and TV dramas, we see this same dichotomy. It seems that we need a crisis of some kind—chaos, conflict, despair, suffering—that must be resolved in the course of the narrative. If there is no crisis, there is no resolution of the crisis, and there’s virtually no story, no narrative. We crave the bliss of narrative redemption, but it seems that if there is no suffering, there can be no redemption. Redemption cannot exist without suffering.
This paradigm continues to hold sway in western religious tradition through biblical apocalyptic images that seem to have become extremely popular over the last 40 or 50 years. These biblical images arise from passages like the war of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38-39, in addition to numerous passages such as Daniel 7-12, Matthew 24 and its parallels, and the Book of Revelation. These passages insist that the final redemption must be preceded by what have come to be called “the tribulations,” in other words, horrendous death, destruction and suffering. In order to achieve absolute cosmic goodness and order, we must first undergo a return to absolute chaos and evil.
I actually find this quite worrisome. While we may look at the events like the Holocaust, the Passion of Christ, the bondage in Egypt as redemptive, it seems to me that this is a sort of retrospective view. The redemptive quality of suffering is understood from the perspective of the redeemed. When we begin to anticipate suffering as a prerequisite to redemption in any real sense apart from its dramatic depiction in art and literature, I fear that we run the risk of facilitating suffering, or excusing and justifying suffering in order to expedite the anticipated redemption. It seems that this model is what is now driving the conflicts in the Middle Ease, with all parties convinced that cataclysmic war is a good thing, since they will emerge victorious—redeemed.
Suffering can be redemptive so long as we understand that our duty as members of a sacred community committed to bringing the influence of a loving and merciful God to bear in our world is primarily to alleviate suffering. We may, in the final analysis, be able to see our suffering in the light of a subsequent redemption, or we may be provided with hope for redemption from within our suffering, but I would insist that suffering is not a good thing. We should be able to bring goodness, order and well-being into the world without requiring suffering. At least we should try!
Richard’s Response to Sister Sharon
Once again, Sr. Sharon and I seem to come to much the same conclusion, though from very different directions. I’m far too cerebral and have to look to the heart of a religious Sister to remind me about an aspect of suffering that also suffuses our religious traditions and that must not be ignored or devalued. Our suffering is crucial to our ability to feel sympathy and empathy with any suffering of our fellow creatures. The Torah teaches, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). It says further,
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
The observance of Passover is meant to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt, that quintessential experience of redemption from the suffering of slavery. What do Jews do to prepare? We go into a form of bondage. The Torah tells us to remove all vestiges of leavening from our homes as a way to remind us that our ancestors only had time to bake unleavened bread. Yet, the real upshot of this practice is to force us into a form of servitude, engaging in a routine of house cleaning unlike any other.
We begin the Passover recital with the words, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” and for anyone who has prepared a home for Passover, it indeed feels like servitude. The recital also insists, “In every generation, each person is to look upon him/herself as though he/she personally left Egypt.”
Like every effective ritual, the Passover is not simply a recitation, a memory of something that happened to our ancestors long ago. It is a re-experiencing of that moment. The entire ritual is designed to move us from depression to uplift. We end with songs of praise for God’s redemptive power and activity, but we can only move to that moment from a sense of humility and empathy, not only for the suffering slaves, but for the slain Egyptians as well.
So Sr. Sharon is correct. Suffering is not something to be sought, but it is also not something to be spiritually wasted. It is, in a certain respect, also one of God’s gifts of grace that gives us the power of empathy to emulate the divine as “the healer of shattered hearts.”
Sr. Sharon’s Response to Richard
One of my favorite images of the divine is water. John Duns Scotus refers to God as “the eternal fountain of fullness.” I must admit that I truly giggled when I read Richard’s description of the primordial cosmos- “to consist of water characterized in Hebrew as tohu va-vohu, usually translated something like ‘unformed and void.’” These words used to describe suffering are perfect!!
Suffering, when you are in the midst of it does in fact feel like a bunch of “gobbledygook,” as Richard stated. The earth, much like our own selves, needs structure in order to get through the state of chaos that one is thrown into with suffering. Don’t we often say to an individual who just lost someone, “it will be good to go back to your routine. It may be hard, but it will be good.” The problem with suffering from grief is that the body may be willing but the soul is fully immersed in the “gobbledygook,” and can get stuck. The soul seems to be involved in its own battle of good and evil, so wonderfully described by Richard.
But water as the divine, has movement and fluidity. Water is often soothing; it is an element we typically go to for cleansing, or refreshing one’s thirst. Richard made me wonder if suffering, is a way back to the chaos of the beginning…the void of form, the need for water, the need to drink in the divine. If I can enter into the chaos, and allow God or the divine to take hold, then I can move out of the suffering, and redemption is the waiting grace. It becomes an internal action of trust and faith. For me it has been one of waiting—waiting in faith, knowing my pain will pass with time, and I will once again taste the sweet refreshing water of my God.
Thank you Richard also for the reminder, I cannot do it alone. Moving from suffering to redemption requires a faith community. I must reach out and allow my heart to know that I am loved by others, and that a community of others, holds me in the process of healing and redemption. The entire action requires an act of faith for the individual and for the community.