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On Going through Hell

October 12, 2020


Recently, during the summer of rage, my eighth-grade daughter stood gazing at the television news with furrowed brow and a shaking head. When she realized that I had been looking at her, she blushed and confessed, “With everything going wrong in the world, it’s hard not to get down.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There is a clever (but depressing) cartoon showing the spines of books neatly ordered on a shelf. Each volume had a date (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)  indicating that between each book’s covers is the story of that year. When one arrives at 2020, however, there are well over a dozen books grappling with all that 2020 has been. Just think about it: a paralyzing pandemic; a tumultuous economy; riotous racial strife; vulgar, sophomoric behavior from our elected leaders (from both parties); dislocation from family and friends. It is a time of fear and anxiety, uncertainty, and depression.

And yet while each constellation of trials always has its own character, the human grappling with trial is nothing new.

Think about all who have preceded us in suffering and darkness:

Flannery O’Connor, wracked with lupus in her thirties, wrote to her friend, “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.”

Mother Teresa, corresponding with her spiritual director from the intolerable gutters of Kolkata, ached, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.”

St. Paul, describing a cryptic affliction, lamented that “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (1 Cor. 12:7–9)

And Jesus Christ, God himself, agonized in the garden while pleading “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matt. 26:39) And in one of his final utterances from the cross, the Son of God calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) It is a scene of such hellish blackness that G.K. Chesterton quietly wondered if the God on the cross, for an instant, became an atheist.

But how is this comforting?

While there may be some solace in the notion that “misery loves company,” I don’t want to be miserable. None of us do. But in this hobbled world of broken men and women, our suffering is not something that is completely up to us. We will suffer. Some of us in great ways and some of us in small but, rest assured, we will all suffer.

What is heartening, in fact, about the sufferings of Flannery and Teresa, Paul and God himself is not simply that they suffered as well, but that they transcended their suffering. Flannery found meaning in her pains and recognized how they humbled her and made her a better writer. St. Teresa discovered a strength to persevere even though the devil tempted her to quit. Paul lived with his affliction and evangelized the world. And Christ, well, he saved you and he saved me. In a puckish proverb loosely attributed to Winston Churchill during the dark days of the Blitz of London, we get the point: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

It is easy to “get down,” as my daughter says. It is easy to flirt with despair and wonder if things will ever turn aright. But here is what I told my daughter that day.

First, God, in the end, wins. He created us with dignity, loves us through our fallibility, and goes to the ends of the earth to gather us in his embrace. Life is difficult. There will be suffering. But heaven is forever and God reigns supreme.

Next, the world is brimming with saints and heroes. So as the statues fall and the people rage, find those saints and admire those heroes that you know exist. Learn from them. Emulate them. And become one of them.

Finally, God gave you great gifts. Love your corner of the world beginning with your faith, family, and friends and then hear the call of how you are to bring your unique gifts to bear on a world desperate for healing.

French Catholic writer (and no stranger to immense suffering) Georges Bernanos said it well:

Christians are not supermen. Nor are saints, even less so, because they are the most human of human beings. Saints are not sublime, they don’t need the sublime. They are not the heroes in the manner of Plutarch’s heroes.
. . . [But] Christ wished to open to his martyrs the glorious way to a fearless death, but he also wished to precede each one of us in the darkness of anguish unto death. The steady, fearless hand can at the last moment lean on his shoulder, but the hand that trembles is sure to meet his hand.

To be sure, the world has darkness and we will always have our share of suffering. But we are called to hope. With God’s help, we were made to transcend it. If you are going through hell, keep going.