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Suffering in Theory, Suffering in Practice

September 11, 2019


I don’t know the first thing about suffering.

Oh, I’ve read about it. I’ve cared for patients enduring it. I’ve written about it. But I don’t truly know suffering.

Recently, a family medical illness has leveled me. It was midafternoon when I received an urgent call from a physician. My lovely and aging mother, who has had no shortage of medical, social, and emotional trials in her life, required emergency surgery. Within an hour, my sisters and I were racing to a hospital two hours away to be by her side. While hopeful respecting the surgery’s outcome, I was forced to consider what suffering (my mother’s and ours) really means, not in theory but in practice.

There is so much written about suffering. Library shelves groan under the collective theological explanations, philosophical theories, and social studies trying to answer why and how we suffer. Innumerable wise men and woman have coolly, rationally approached this topic in well-lit, warmly furnished lectures halls and have found satisfaction in polite applause and book sales.

But what do they really know about suffering?

Here is something I found out this weekend.

Suffering is visceral. It aches to your core. Words can approach it, but never fully apprehend it. Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic novelist who suffered the ravages of lupus, observed, “[People] think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

Suffering doesn’t care about theories or appearances. It abandons all pretense and simply wants relief, succor, solace. Often, it involves a fundamental breakdown to who we truly are and what we truly need. In the Gospels, it is striking how often you see people who are suffering break conventions, upset the social order, and simply plead for relief. A Roman Centurion humbly approaches a Jewish rabbi (a superior approaching a subordinate subject) to implore (almost beg) him to heal a beloved servant. A blind beggar howls, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” to the embarrassment of the crowds around him. An august authority of the law, Nicodemus, asks elementary (even stupid) questions of Jesus simply to better understand the Truth he feels has eluded him. A woman suffering from years of hemorrhage clutches Christ’s cloak in a last desperate, but risky, attempt at cure. Suffering scrambles for help.

Suffering forgets everything else, but opens up a conversation with God and loved ones that comfort and normalcy doesn’t allow or even consider. In the Psalms of David, this king—this favored one of God—suffers so much that he cannot even find the words. He groans. Psalms 5, 6, 32, 38, 102, and many more describe the indescribable. David gropes for something to say, but comes up profoundly short. No matter. God understands what he is saying. The French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos recognized, “The wish to pray is a prayer in itself. God can ask no more than that of us.”

Suffering isn’t satisfied with pat answers and cool reassurances. It wants relief. It wants hope. It wants the grace of God. To be honest, in considering all the sufferings my mom has endured throughout her life, I couldn’t help but wonder in agitation, “Why has she had to go through all of this? What’s the point? Is God truly a distant watchmaker who wound up creation and stepped back aloof as he allows it to tick? Is the devil issuing these lacerations which God tolerates in the name of our deeper spiritual formation? Are we to simply be quiet and trust?” Intellectually, I know the answers people will give me. But I don’t want the intellectual answers right now.

In the last thirty-six hours, I have choked up countless times and wept a few. I have had loving conversations with my mom. I have had deeply honest exchanges with my sisters and loving talks with my wife. Friends have sent me thoughtful texts and promised prayers for my mother. My daughters have crushed me with hugs upon my return home. I have thought about what I have done wrong in my relationship with my mom (and others) and what I can do better. And I have forever in my mind the image of my mother looking at me the morning after surgery with assurance, raising her index finger and saying with broken speech, “Tod, I am blessed.” All of these moments—these mysterious, unanticipated, ineffable moments—were moments of grace. Difficult and wonderful. Flannery O’Connor was right when she said, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I think I understand suffering in theory. I think. But I am only beginning to understand it in practice. In practice, I just want grace—the sweetest grace—for my mom, my sisters, my wife, and daughters. And for me. At the end of Georges Bernanos’ masterpiece on suffering, The Diary of a Country Priest, the young priest lays dying and you begin to see that, as he endured incomprehensible suffering, he has been an agent of tremendous grace for others. And as this young priest lapses into death, he gazes at his friend who, with lined face, worries that his dying friend may not live long enough to receive last rites. “He put his hand over mine,” his friend recalled, “and his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him. He then uttered these words almost in my ear . . . ‘Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.’”

It is.